Published on September 08, 2014
© Heather Killen
Leah Greene, a 36-year-old private, couldn't find the support she needed from the military and has turned to Barry Westholm, a national veteran's advocate.
Former sergeant major speaks out about poor process
By Heather Killen
A national veteran's advocate, working on behalf of Torbrook woman, is urging the government to start putting people over process.
Leah Greene, a 36-year-old private who was stationed at 14 Wing Greenwood, says she was lost in the shuffle and couldn't find the support she needed after a spinal cord injury ended her military career and left her in chronic pain.
She says the military abandoned her at a time when she needed it the most.
Desperate, Pte. Greene contacted Barry Westholm, a well-known Ontario-based veteran's advocate last fall, to help her pull her life back together.
Westholm made headlines last year after his resignation from the Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU) and more recently his break with the Conservative party, openly criticizing the government for its poor treatment of ill and injured military personnel.
The JPSU is a military branch created to help ill and injured military members, but with so many veterans now returning from tours of duty with injuries and emotional crisis, Westholm says the department is often too overwhelmed and understaffed to be much help.
Injured In 2009
Pte. Greene, a cook, was injured in 2009 during a ball hockey game, an activity she was required to do as part of her physical training. Before the injury, her life was moving in the direction of her dreams, but she says the accident has left her in limbo.
She was playing the game for the first time when she accidently twisted her back. She pulled back to take a shot that was blocked by another player. The force of the blocked motion wrenched her lower back and severely impacted the vertebrae.
"I was the only female playing, but I loved it," she said. "I knew I was hurt real bad, but I kept on playing. I didn't want to admit I was injured. Later at work, I was trying to cook the asparagus and I couldn't hold myself up."
Greene said she went to the emergency room that night and was treated for a strain. She knew something was seriously wrong, as she would temporarily lose sensation and control of her lower body. She would sit down and then find she couldn't stand, she would lie down and be unable to get up.
Toughed It Out
She says she tried to tough it out, but after a series of visits to the emergency room and a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with cauda equina syndrome, an extreme pressure and swelling of the nerves at the end of the spinal cord.
"They told me if you have this surgery, you'll be up dancing in six weeks," she said.
So she underwent the prescribed surgery, but experienced further complications that have left her permanently disabled and emotionally scarred.
Doctors prescribed various pain medications. She was taking as many as 16 different prescriptions to control the pain. Her life began to spiral out of control and eventually she lost her family, her home, and her independence, she said.
Unable to climb the stairs to access her bed and bathroom, she slept on her living room sofa and used a makeshift commode that was set up in the entryway of her front door.
For years no one from the military came to see her. She added that while she was still being paid by the military, her disability kept her from active duty and she was no longer part of anything.
It's the ugly machine of government. When you look at her military record before the injury, it was stellar. When I met her, she was a rambling wreck. The government puts process over people. When you see what happened here, you can see we are in big trouble as a country. Barry Westholm
As her physical independence deteriorated, her mental health also declined. She spiraled into depression, anxiety, and eventually thoughts of suicide. Trying to get the support she needed, she continued to reach out to the military for help.
Her behavior was viewed as erratic and she was institutionalized twice. She added that her situation finally degraded to the point where she was stationed to a room in Juno Towers in Halifax, her family was separated, and the military process that was intended to help her, was slowly erasing her life.
"At that point I took a leap of faith and reached out to Barry," she said. After hundreds of hours spent in meetings, writing letters, making phone calls and teleconferences on Pte. Greene's behalf, Barry Westholm says he's hopeful she will soon have what she needs for the road to recovery.
Her two-storey home has been modified to allow her to live on the main floor and Westholm has been able to provide her the moral support she needed to rebuild her confidence and independence.
He says Pte. Greene's case is an example of how cases can be mishandled and can subsequently spiral into a complete breakdown of the person's emotional, mental, and family life.
"It's the ugly machine of government," he said. "When you look at her military record before the injury, it was stellar. When I met her, she was a rambling wreck. The government puts process over people. When you see what happened here, you can see we are in big trouble as a country."
He added that many of the people he encountered during his time with JPSU expressed a similar sense of betrayal. In the early stages of military training, the individual is broken down to become part of a team.
But, once an injury separates a member from active duty, it's as though the team abandons the member. Feeling betrayed and isolated, all too often the condition spirals to a complete emotional breakdown, he said.
"From day one, they tell you that you are part of a team, but the minute you are injured, you realize you are on your own and you feel like you've been conned," he said. "She put her heart into her career, her military record was stellar. But after she was injured, no one came to see her for two years."
These cases are complicated and require many hours of intervention to resolve, he said. People need lots of support throughout the process in order to rebuild their lives.
"The work we were doing at first was good, but people kept coming and we were not staffed to handle the number of cases that were coming at us," he said. "We lost three people to suicide, I began hearing other stories."
Westholm says that complexity of these cases require countless hours of personal intervention that the government process doesn't include.
"These are complicated lives with complicated stories," he added. "There are just not enough people to help them."
The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.