Meet Bob S.

Story Written by Emma Dering

Bob S at Canadian Legion
Bob S at Canadian Legion


“I wish I could have gone through this program when I was 23 or 24,” he says. “I think my life could have been a lot different.”

From: Coquitlam, BC
Canadian Army, PPCLI

His friend didn’t want to go alone

Eight years ago, Bob Sutherland didn’t even want to go on the Veteran’s Transition Program. He had only come along at the request of another veteran who was nervous about going through the program. His friend didn’t want to go alone, so he asked Bob to come along and support him. “I thought, yeah, I’ll help you, but I’m not here for myself,” Bob explained. “At the time, I thought I was okay.”

But that wasn’t exactly true. By this time, Bob had already been out of military service for over thirty-five years and was about to retire from his job at BC Hydro. Married for more than three decades, he had a family that he loved. Even still, his anger could overpower all of that goodness, and erase everything else.

Hands on Steering wheel

“At the time, I thought I was okay.”

If a guy cut him off in traffic, the blood would pound in his ears until he couldn’t feel anything else. Bob would follow the other driver, drag him out of his car and give him a good beating, then get back into his own car and drive away.

If someone at work startled him from behind, he’d instantly whip around and pin them to the ground—without ever having a conscious thought about it. His anger had blinded him to the reality of the situation. He had lost control, and he hadn’t figured out how to get it back.

“If someone started pushing, the monster came out,” he said, “and I was scared of that monster.”

“If someone started pushing, the monster came out,” he said, “and I was scared of that monster.”

Looking for something meaningful to do

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Bob had moved to Coquitlam as a teenager. At eighteen, he was looking for something to do with his life. He wanted to do something meaningful, something that would make a difference in the world, so he joined the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He explained that what he saw at the time as a lack of prospects for his life made him join up. “In those days, you needed connections to get anywhere,” he explained. “And since my family didn’t have any real connections, I thought this was just something I could do.”

So in 1969, still only eighteen, Bob was deployed as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus. Nothing in Bob’s life experience could have taught him what to expect once he got there. When asked what a day in Cyprus was like, Bob provides a description.

“It was awfully hot. You’re there with five other guys, living in a tin building. Rations, like food and water, were sent up every second day. Flies were all over the place—in our food, and if you were working at night, they’d go up your nose. Most of us had dysentery, probably from the flies.”

That was bad enough, but the intense isolation that came with the job quickly made everything worse. “You’d be in the outpost for maybe a week, without seeing anyone else— except maybe the truck driver,” he explained. “I’ve always been a reader, so I could pick up a book. But basically, you work, you eat, you read, you sleep.”

Military life wasn’t turning out anything like Bob had imagined. “It wasn’t a lot of fun,” he shrugs. “A soldier’s horizons, particularly in the line, are limited. You can’t communicate with a lot of people, and the only time you talk to other soldiers is when you buddy up with them. But up in the outposts, it was pretty isolated.”

But Bob was also struggling with a growing tension between wanting to be around more people, and wanting to get away from them. The stories he’d heard of camaraderie with fellow soldiers seemed completely false; in fact, he ended up really disliking the soldiers he spent time with. After months of constantly being with the same five guys—and seeing them at their worst—sometimes the isolation of the outposts was preferable to their company.

UN Cyprus 1960s Canadian Soldier Marching

Disillusioned

Meanwhile, Bob’s visions of doing some good for the people of Cyprus were beginning to crumble. His battalion didn’t often deal with combat directly, but when they did, the return fire orders were such that you couldn’t shoot until someone had already been hit.

This made Bob feel unsafe, especially when “everywhere you went there were people pointing guns at you.” He could see that PR was more important to leadership than the safety of their soldiers, and that politicians in Ottawa were more concerned with avoiding scandal than doing any real good. On top of all this, the hands-off style of leadership and cruel methods of discipline that Bob witnessed on this mission provided the final straw that shattered his visions of what life overseas would be like. He was demoralized and disillusioned, and wondering what he could do next.

After six months in Cyprus, the opportunity arose to become part of the brand new Airborne Regiment that was being formed in Edmonton, and Bob jumped at the chance. “The Airborne regiment was a lot more enjoyable,” Bob said. “Morale was up, because there was a lot of competition with other companies, and the sergeants were tough guys. We only got a 24 hour notice for any deployment, and we could potentially have to go anywhere in the world, so that was exciting.” They spent their days in specialized jump courses and in training for unarmed combat, with the goal of becoming one of Canada’s most highly trained and specialized battalions.

But even with the intense new environment and the challenges it presented, after just eight months, Bob already knew this wasn’t going to be the rewarding experience he was looking for. He decided he didn’t want to make a career of the military, and he didn’t feel like he had anything to prove anymore. When a job offer came from BC Hydro after eight months in Edmonton, he returned to BC.

UN Cyprus 1960s car

Life didn’t go back to normal

But everything didn’t quite go back to normal when he got out. Overseas, he’d been searching for a purpose, one that he never found—a search that continued after returning to Canada. Meanwhile, he was still trying to process the things he’d seen and done. Once he got home, he was still trying to deal with his profound disappointment. His experiences in the military hadn’t lived up to his expectations.

“I was young and single,” he said, “and I lived like it. I drank a lot and I’m amazed that I didn’t get into serious trouble. The potential was really there. I think if I’d gotten more heavily into drinking, or if—God forbid—I’d gotten into drugs, I could have been on death row right now.”

However, as his life started to change, he changed as well. Shortly after he got home, Bob met his wife. From then on, he made an effort to curtail the drinking in order to spare her hard times. He also started to enjoy his work and the stability it provided him. He worked in the oil and gas section of BC Hydro as a first responder for emergencies, on call for hazardous situations, such as chemical spills.

“The military training stood me well there,” Bob said. “I could prioritize where the danger was, and it taught me how to deal with dangerous situations.” Finally, Bob felt like his skills were being put to good use. It was a rewarding career, and he enjoyed it.

Over the next few decades he built a life for himself and his family, and things were looking up. Bob had a job he liked and a loving family to take care of. He thought his life was going pretty well, even though he knew he had some issues.

It seemed to Bob that his anger was a part of him, and something he would live with forever, so there wasn’t much point in trying to escape it.

“People get very comfortable in their own skin,” he explained. “I knew I was different than other people—that the anger was there, the violent tendencies— but I thought I was coping pretty well.”

It seemed to Bob that his anger was a part of him, and something he would live with forever, so there wasn’t much point in trying to escape it. So, when Bob arrived at his VTP in 2008, he didn’t think he would have much to work on. What could possibly be done to change the way he was?

At the beginning, he was skeptical about the effectiveness of the program. “A lot of things seemed hokey at first,” he admitted. “You think, how could a re-enactment work?” Marv and David, the founders of the program, sensed his hesitation, and asked him how he felt about being there. Bob said, “I know where the door is. If you think I’m going to get naked and stand there in a circle holding hands and singing Kumbaya, that’s not going to happen.”

Luckily, Marv and David assured him that wouldn’t be part of the program. But by the time the first day was over, Bob’s opinion of the program had already started to change. “The things they were saying were starting to make sense,” he said. “I was questioning the psychologist’s sanity, and my own, but after I finished that first day, I thought the sky was pink.”

Bob S shakes hands with VTN Director Oliver Thorne

Bob says the most crucial thing he learned at the VTP was communication. “I became comfortable disclosing events in my life that weren’t positive. Pretty soon, the people there noticed I had something to say, and I could see their ears perk up. They didn’t pressure me, but sort of drew it out of me. It turned out to be the biggie, the most damaging aspect of my military career. I think in the military we have a sort of survival psyche, and we tend to rely on black humour. So this traumatic event, I wrote it off as a joke, but it was very disturbing. So the re-enactment we did really helped. It was a burden lifted off my shoulders. Now, the pressure is not on my shoulders anymore. Instead, it’s on the left hand side on a shelf, and when I look there I can see it, but it’s not an oppressive weight on me now. It will always be there, but it’s in a compartment, off to the side.”

By the end of the program, Bob felt like a new man. All those years of anger and the other impacts of the trauma he’d experienced began to recede, and he was amazed by how much this change impacted his life.

“So the re-enactment we did really helped. It was a burden lifted off my shoulders.”

A whole new outlook on life

Today, Bob has control over his emotions. If someone cuts him off in traffic, he can say, ‘Oh, it’s just another asshole,’ and move on. A trigger still produces a reaction, but now he has control over where that reaction takes him. “I wish I could have gone through this program when I was 23 or 24,” he says. “I think my life could have been a lot different.”

Today, Bob is retired, but he is still very active with the VTP. Each year, he works on at least one or two sessions as a paraprofessional, going through the program with new veterans. He’s still meeting up with young vets regularly, hearing their stories, and encouraging them to go on a VTP. “The Veteran’s Transition Network is very important for me,” he revealed. “It gives me a purpose, beyond my family. I value the service of others, and I don’t want people to go through the years of danger, frustration, and anger that I did, because there are always alternatives… if they want them.”

“Can I tell you a story?” Bob asked. “I have a grandson named Duncan. He’s a really neat kid. A thinker, you know? He’s about eleven now, but one day when he was in kindergarten, he called to talk to me on the phone, and he says, ‘Grandpa, I learned a song about Remembrance Day in school. Can I sing it for you?’

“Of course I said ‘sure,’ and he sings it, and it’s just this really sweet song. When he was finished, I said, ‘You know Duncan, I think you’re old enough to know now that your grandpa was a soldier.’ So the first thing he asks is, ‘How many guys did you kill?’ So then I told him, ‘You know, thankfully, I didn’t have to kill anyone. I was a peacekeeper. My job was stopping guys from killing each other, and sometimes getting between people who wanted to hurt each other.’

Bob S at Remembrance Day Ceremony holding grandson

“He seemed to accept that and we started talking about something else. But for Remembrance Day, I invited him to sell poppies with me. People were lining up to get poppies from him, especially the ladies, because he’s so darn cute, you know? This older couple walked by and Duncan said, ‘Would you like to contribute to this year’s poppy fund?’ which was what I had told him to say. They agreed, so now the woman is digging in her purse for money, and the guy is looking through his pockets for change, when suddenly Duncan pipes up and says, ‘Did you know my grandpa was a soldier?’ ‘Oh really?’ they said, and he continued, ‘Yeah, but he didn’t have to kill anyone. He was a peacekeeper, so he got in the way so that other people wouldn’t get killed.’

“Then he stopped and said, ‘I’m sure glad my grandpa wasn’t killed doing that.’ The thing is, I hadn’t told him that. He interpreted the possibility of danger for himself. He’s a real smart kid.

“So yeah. I’ve got a good life. Better than I ever thought I’d have… back when I was 18 or 20. So, if I’ve got a message for young guys, it’s that you can do it. There’s a life out there for you.”

For Bob, the Veterans Transition Program means…

Communication
Bob became comfortable talking about traumatic events in his life.

Purpose
Bob is still very active with the VTP, and says that it gives him purpose outside of his family.

Control
Bob now has control over his emotions.

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