Living in fear for his life each day became normal for Sergeant (retired) Mike Newcombe. During his 25 years of service in the Canadian military, Mike was witness to horrors no one should have to endure.
Throughout his tour in the Gulf War, he had to check under his military vehicle for bombs every time he stopped. Although it was a necessary task, it heightened his anxiety. “The anticipation of something happening was worse than something actually happening,” he recalls. His deployment to the former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War was worse. “…that was fear. From the day I got there until the day I left. We were there as peacekeepers, to bring aid to the people. But every day, all day, we were getting hammered with mortars. I truly believed none of us were going to come home.”
Among the worst memories Mike relives each night are the graves of children on the side of the road and the sight and smell of dead bodies. “I remember one incident, where rockets hit an area where kids were out playing. The damage was unbelievable. Soon after, I met a young, local girl when we were guarding an airport where supplies were being brought in. She was maybe 9-years-old. She gave me a drink of water and a flower. We only spent five minutes together, but I think about her every day. I wonder if she survived, if her family survived and where she is now.”
While feeling afraid during deployment may be what every Canadian soldier expects, they may not expect the fear to follow them home. Mike joined the Royal Canadian Regiment when he was just 19-years-old. When he returned home from his service overseas, he found it hard to reconnect with his family. He continued to be part of the military reserves.
In 2004, he had severe chest pain at work. A friend brought him to the hospital, where he was revived after three heart attacks. The doctors who treated him suggested he seek support for stress and anxiety. For some time, people had been telling Mike he had issues; he knew it deep down, but just hadn’t gone for help. “Alcohol was for me the drug of choice and that’s how I tried to bury it,” says Mike. “When I got out of the military everybody wanted to know what happened and I didn’t want to talk about it. I found myself getting easily emotional when I did talk about it. I was hiding… behind this wall, behind the alcohol.”
After his heart attacks, Mike found help at the Operational Stress Injury Clinic (OSI Clinic) at Parkwood Institute, part of St. Joseph’s Health Care London (St. Joseph’s). He was officially diagnosed with operational stress injuries (OSIs), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. OSIs are mental illnesses that occur as a result of military service.
“I can say without a doubt the OSI Clinic saved me and helped me get my life back,” says Mike. Through the therapy and services offered at St. Joseph’s OSI Clinic, Mike was able to quit drinking and reduce the symptoms of his PTSD. Two years after he began treatment, Mike had progressed so well he was offered a position as a peer support coordinator for the Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS) program at St. Joseph’s.
OSISS is a partnership program, funded jointly by the Department of National Defense and Veterans Affairs Canada. Peer support coordinators provide mentorship to patients of the OSI Clinic through their recovery journey and help them re-establish social connections. “I’ve been so fortunate in my 10 years with OSISS to give back to the clinic and help other veterans. Knowing they are talking to someone who has been through what they have been through helps. It makes them feel like they are not alone. There is a lot of hope. I am here today.”