Meet David B.
Story Written by Emma Dering
“My life is in really, really good shape. And the rescue hoist that plucked me out of the water was the VTN.”
From: Vancouver, BC
RCAF, Search and Rescue (SAR) Pilot
David created death for a living. As a special effects co-ordinator, David was working on big name movie and TV projects like Final Destination, and Freddy vs. Jason. One of his specialties was what is known in the industry as “splatter and gore”; he knew how to make death look real. On a movie set, these effects are calculated to produce a reaction in an audience. But in his years as a Search and Rescue Pilot, David dealt with these situations for real, and unlike in the movies, they had lasting effects.
Not in Hollywood
As a Search and Rescue Pilot with the Canadian Forces, David dealt with many traumatic and deeply disturbing deaths; he saw his first fatality at only twenty-two years of age. After only a few years, thoughts of death started to feel overwhelming; and what others would register as a fleeting notion took over every part of his brain, erasing logical thought. David describes this process as being maladjusted to death. “Everybody struggles with their own mortality—it affects people and it’s profound. But when I get intrusive thoughts about death, often they can get out of control with regards to brain chemistry and emotions. I will experience those emotions: grief, horror, anger, loneliness, despair, hopelessness…, about my own mortality—at the most intense level that a human being can experience an emotion, all at once. I’m quite aware of what’s going on, I just can’t stop it.”
A mind and body on overdrive
Whenever David thought about death, his mind would overload, and his body would take over. It looked like a surge of anger; punching holes in drywall and breaking furniture became commonplace. It was particularly bad at night; in an instant he could go from what seemed like a complete, peaceful, unmoving sleep, to wide awake, flipping furniture and screaming. It felt like his mind was the one flying the plane and he was just sitting in the back, unable to do anything about it.
Just add alcohol
Faced with these outbursts as a daily reality, David started looking for ways to regain control of his emotions. He quickly found that alcohol did just that; if he drank twelve ounces of vodka before bed, he could get a full night’s rest before going to work in the morning. For a while, that was good enough. His young family and bourgeoning career were good distractors from the thoughts that plagued him, at least during the day. But as his kids grew up and his wife was busier, David found himself alone more often. This isolation, combined with the increasing demands of his job, made him turn to alcohol during the day as well, as he struggled to overcome the things that were happening to him.
It came to a head in the spring of 2014, when he was only 24 hours away from dying himself. Once the show he was working on wrapped for the season, there was nothing left to distract him from the trauma he had spent decades avoiding, and alcohol was all he had left. After devoting his life to saving others, now it was David who needed a rescue.
That others may live
When he first went into Search and Rescue, David was captivated by the possibility of saving lives, and making a real difference in the world. He completed his first rescue when he was just eighteen, while awaiting flight training. He hopped on a helicopter at the request of the Search and Rescue Technicians (SAR Techs) to help save a woman and her two children who had fallen off the West Coast Trail. The save was successful, and he’d never felt anything better in his life. It only took one save for David to realize that he had found his calling.
The conditions those in Search and Rescue face are extremely dangerous; the aircrew who do it are risking their own lives to save others. In fact, the motto of the command is ‘That others may live’. Due to the nature of the job, Search and Rescue personnel can overcome restrictions that would generally ground other aircrews, such as extreme weather or broken equipment. David describes it as “flying as if we were at war.” But even though the crew members are personally under threat, the job still has to be done, and done immediately. Sometimes, this leads to very rewarding rescues, like the first one David participated in. But they don’t all end quite so happily.
Not always happy endings
“I dealt with a guy who was still conscious and whose flesh was falling off his leg,” David recalls. “He was so burnt, there’s meat coming off his bones, and I’m smelling the smoke coming from one of the fatalities of the crash. The pilot’s body is still burning ten feet away, and I’m breathing that smoke.” He saw countless trauma deaths including drowned bodies, suicides, badly decomposed bodies, and even a neighbour and fellow pilot he knew, “blown into a million pieces, with birds eating the pieces of his body.” These images stayed in David’s mind for years. His job was to save these people, but sometimes there was just nothing that could be done.
When there’s an enemy attack on the battlefield, help can often arrive within half an hour. But David was the help, coming to save other people. The nature of his job meant he could be flying a dying man to a hospital that was three or four hours away in life-threatening weather. Faced with these types of tasks, the high that accompanied a successful save began to detach itself from the work at hand, leaving David with only the extreme stress of his job. The only thing David could do was his job, and sometimes, it wasn’t good enough.
“You couldn’t weep if a guy was crying for his mother and was dying.”
“A lot of combat guys won’t get PTSD when they are in a firefight,” David explains. “They start to take rounds, and they get to shoot back. They’re very often fine, and the reason is they got to respond appropriately to the dangerous situation they were in. But for the situations we were in, we weren’t allowed to respond appropriately. You had to force yourself to remain emotionally and physically calm, supress the fear and horror if you were going to be able to carry on with the mission. You couldn’t react emotionally and weep if a guy was crying for his mother and was dying. You couldn’t do fuck all.”
This feeling of powerlessness began to wear on him, and David finally left the military in 1991. “They wanted me to stay and I chose not to,” he explains. “I’d had enough of the work that I was doing. I’d been scared enough times; the baby rescues were not outweighing the issues of the other part of the job, and the rewards of the job had disappeared.”
He was ready for a change of pace, and for a while things actually seemed to be going pretty well. “I met a woman in ’93, had babies with her in ’95 and ’97,” David explains. “From ’93 to about 2000, it was great: little kids, wife, sex. Life was grand.” He began what would become his lifelong career; by 1998, he had established himself in the production industry. In this chapter, the constant busyness and newness of life kept his mind occupied, enough to keep intrusive thoughts at bay. But as the years passed, he found himself alone more often, and he turned to alcohol to control the outbursts that were happening more and more.
Bad to worse
“I would have drank myself to death in the summer of 2014,” he declares. “I almost did. What happened was I started getting more and more paralyzed. I thought it was nerve damage from the drinking, but what had happened was that I was not taking in any calories except for booze, not eating anything, and at some point I got a bacterial blood infection through a wound. So I was actually getting paralyzed from a bacterial blood infection.”
At this point, his son and a friend convinced him it was time to check into rehab at the Sunshine Coast Health Centre, and David agreed. His son bundled him up and drove him there. But when he arrived, the doctor took one look at him and called the ambulance. The doctors told him afterwards that if he had come in 24 hours later, he wouldn’t have made it.
Thankfully, hospital care was able to stabilize him, and he recovered. After his recovery, he was able to go through the detox program on the Sunshine Coast, and committed to being dry. But the detox didn’t solve everything. He had his health back, and he was no longer at the mercy of alcohol, but his life didn’t seem to have any meaning, now that the drinking he had struggled with for thirty years was gone. He had some happiness back, but he was really just existing. There was nothing in his life making him jump out of bed in the morning; he was still searching for something that could give significance to the things he had experienced in the military.
“I found another wounded me.”
No longer alone
Then, in the spring of 2015, David came across the VTN’s programs. Search and Rescue is a very specialized profession, one that not many people would have experience with, but when David arrived at the VTN, fate intervened on his behalf. “When we first got together, I immediately looked at another guy across the room, and I felt a bit of a connection with him,” David explained. “Soon afterwards, I found out his trade was Search and Rescue Technician. As soon as I described that I was flying SAR missions without SAR Techs, he and I almost started weeping.”
In the VTP, participants and clinicians work together to re-enact scenes that were meaningful in the development of the veterans’ trauma. Since David’s trauma came from a collection of memories rather than a specific incident, he came into the program searching for the happiness that almost thirty years of struggling with PTSD and alcoholism had robbed him of. “I was a really happy person, prior to these death experiences,” he says. “So we did a re-enactment, where I went back and got my happy self from my early 20’s and brought it forward into now.” David asserts, “The VTN grabbing my younger self and bringing it forward, and celebrating who that guy was and getting my head around the fact that that guy is still with me, really was the motivator that allowed me to at least start pedalling the fucking bike. Now, I’m riding the Tour de France.”
Suddenly, David felt like he was in control again.
Suddenly, David felt like he was in control again, and it was apparent in every aspect of his life. A few months after going through the VTP, he had to put his dog down, which was a heartbreaking experience. But this time, he took the things he learned at the VTN about controlling his emotions, and took the chance to respond appropriately. On the way to the vet with his wife, he wept openly with his dog in his arms. Later, he posted on Facebook about it, letting his friends and family into the grieving process. “In my past, I never would have done that,” David says. “But you know what? That’s a really fucking healthy thing to do. It works great when you respond appropriately.”
The clinicians at the VTN also worked with him to develop practical knowledge, so that he could receive support from other avenues, such as Veterans’ Affairs Canada. He got connected with a psychiatrist who diagnosed his symptoms as PTSD, and has been working with David to get him the medication he needs. He also meets with a life coach and psychologist on a regular basis, and is ready and willing to take on all sorts of new challenges. He recently started riding motorcycles with a group of other veterans; he has taken to hopping out of bed every morning and checking the weather, to see if he can ride.
In the wind
“You will find a great deal of vets with PTSD ride,” David explains. “It forces you to be absolutely present in the moment; intrusive thoughts are very hard to get into your head. You’ll notice things like temperature changes, smells, mountains, sunshine – it allows you to smell the roses, as it were. You take joy in small things, so it’s really quite healthy for people with PTSD.”
Ultimately, David says it was the VTN that gave him his life back. After so many years living with death at the centre of his mind, now, his focus is on the life he has ahead of him. “The VTN just gave me a big shot of vitality,” he says, “like a rescue.”
Only a year and a half after nearly losing his life, David can say, “my life is in really, really good shape. And the rescue hoist that plucked me out of the water was the VTN.”
For David, the Veterans Transition Program means…
Through Therapeutic Enactment, David was able to bring his happy self from his early 20’s forward into now.
When his dog passed away, David was able to respond appropriately and let his friends and family into the grieving process.
Through his new found hobby of riding motorcycles, David now takes joy in the small things.
You can change lives for people like David