News from The Force

Royal Canadian Legion addressing homelessness among military and police veterans


From the Regina Leader Post: (click on the video to view it)

Chris Siddons is cheery, articulate and personable. But he points out that he habitually sits with his back to a wall.

There are no surprises that way.

Chris Siddons, an operational stress injury co-ordinator with veteran assist service dog, Sierra at the Royal Canadian Legion Provincial Command’s office in Regina on February 17, 2016. DON HEALY / REGINA LEADER-POST
Chris Siddons, an operational stress injury co-ordinator with veteran assist service dog, Sierra at the Royal Canadian Legion Provincial Command’s office in Regina on February 17, 2016. DON HEALY / REGINA LEADER-POST

He has a “360-degree view” of who’s coming in and out of the room.

He picked up this habit in a military service that took him around the world and into situations very stressful indeed.

It’s hard to believe this amiable Briton was homeless. But he was — once.

Now, he’s working to help other veterans and first responders deal with the psychological injuries they acquired in their service.

Formally, he is the operational stress injury/post-traumatic stress disorder co-ordinator for the Canadian Mental Health Association (dubbed OSI-CAN). But he’s working these days out of the Saskatchewan Command office of the Royal Canadian Legion in Regina as the Legion moves into new territory: an initiative to address homelessness among those with military or RCMP service.

As command executive director Chad Wagner points out, military or police service is more stressful than many outsiders think. “They’ve seen some traumatic things, and when they come back it’s very hard for them to roll back into civilian life.”

Wagner says the Legion’s national headquarters became aware of a problem among a new generation of veterans emerging from peacekeeping and combat duty. In 2012, it began a program with the evocative name of Leaving The Streets Behind to address homelessness or near-homelessness among veterans.

Locally, the Legion’s Saskatchewan Command has joined Regina’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy, which last year started to count who’s homeless in Regina — and found eight per cent had military or RCMP service.

“The thing about veterans is that because they have a proud ‘mantra’ behind them, they’re not self-identifying as homeless,” Wagner says. “We feel eight per cent is actually lower than what’s out there.”

As he points out, the Legion doesn’t run its own shelters. But through its staff members’ detailed knowledge, it can put together veterans with shelters, counsellors and helpers like the CMHA-Saskatchewan, which employs Siddons.

Siddons, whose service in the British Army included time in Iraq and two tours keeping enemies apart in Northern Ireland 25 years ago, is a rich source of insight on operational stress injury.

He makes the point that what happens to veterans can happen to any of us. It’s just that veterans have particular reasons and triggers “as anybody else does — that’s why we find ourselves on the street.”

One trigger for him is the sound of a helicopter. Hear it and Sierra, his ever-present service dog, “steps in and brings me back to reality.”

The typical person with operational stress injury is hypervigilant and waiting for something bad to happen.

By night, there’s sleeplessness, nightmares and anxiety. Big crowds are frightening, as they can conceal hostile people.

The biggest thing to remember is that people facing operational stress injury aren’t looking for pity, a pat on the back, or a medal.

“I’m just looking for assistance, just like the person beside me on the street,” said Siddons. “Our needs are exactly the same. We’re homeless and we need some assistance to move forward.”

Chad Wagner, executive director with the Royal Canadian Legion Provincial Command speaks to Legion’s new program to address homelessness among former military and RCMP personnel in Regina on February 17, 2016. DON HEALY / REGINA LEADER-POST
Chad Wagner, executive director with the Royal Canadian Legion Provincial Command speaks to Legion’s new program to address homelessness among former military and RCMP personnel in Regina on February 17, 2016. DON HEALY / REGINA LEADER-POST