Meet Todd M.
Story Written by Kevin Kokoska
“The world will give you what you need, if you allow it to,” he said, “My life shifted wholly and completely.”
From: Victoria, BC
Canadian Army, Medic
A Shot in the Dark
You have to understand the system before you can make it work for you.
After two years of college in Victoria, BC, Todd M. knew that he didn’t fit into the traditional post-secondary education system. His family’s long lineage of military service had halted at his parents and was never a part of the conversation growing up. But when Todd decided to drop out of college, his adventurous spirit and raw athleticism prompted him to take a ‘shot in the dark’ in the truest sense of the term; he took aim at something that he’d always known was there, but had never seen for himself.
Todd joined the military and flew across the country, landing in Nova Scotia and entering a military milieu that was a full 180 degree shift from his west coast world. With no particular expectations, he kept an open mind that allowed him to adapt easily into the new structure. He learned the system quickly and, while he didn’t always agree with it, he found his place within. This deep understanding enabled Todd to see where the system was malleable, where the holes were, and how he could best be of service. Somewhere within this understanding, he also found a way to be true to himself while participating in something much larger. He was well-respected, strong, and confident. He didn’t just fit the role, he was the role. Todd’s shot in the dark had landed.
“I enjoy seeing someone who is able to bring smoothness to the chaos.”
He and his young colleagues were shown a series of videos detailing the different jobs within the military. Everyone picked their top three job choices and waited for opportunity to strike. Medic was Todd’s top pick and, soon enough, he found himself in training full-time having no prior medical background. It was intensive and immersive; everything his college experience was not.
“I enjoy seeing someone who is able to bring smoothness to the chaos,” Todd said, reflecting on the leadership style he modeled his career around. As a medic, Todd was able to personify this style. Colleagues frequently called on him in moments of chaos, looking for answers that they knew only one member of the team would have.
Todd consistently had the answers, and he rose through the ranks at a rapid pace while remaining true to himself and never, as he described it, “at the mercy of the system.” Todd served for nearly twenty-four years and reached Chief Warrant Officer status, a rank that must be appointed by the Prime Minister of Canada
Out On His Feet
His role, his commitment to that role, and his first-to-arrive, last-to-leave work ethic, kept Todd constantly in the midst of the action. He experienced upwards of 75 traumatic incidents over the course of his career. Nine years prior to his retirement, the unprocessed tower of trauma memories reached a tipping point. Todd received a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis after meeting with a psychologist to discuss a series of incidents that occurred in fairly quick succession: the first Gulf War, Croatia and Bosnia, a sudden death in Bagot Ville, and tours in Kuwait and Iraq. Todd had been so busy that the memories and multiple accident scenes associated with those places didn’t sink in until the pace of his work slowed enough to allow it.
And therein lies the paradox of PTSD, particularly as it pertains to military populations— hard, immersive work is, ironically, a reprieve from the underlying emotional pain.
Todd had been too busy for the PTSD diagnosis, too. He resisted it, raged against it, and kept it to himself. He couldn’t afford to have anything holding him back. And therein lies the paradox of PTSD, particularly as it pertains to military populations— hard, immersive work is, ironically, a reprieve from the underlying emotional pain. An extremely distressed soldier often presents as an extremely hard-working, efficient, super-soldier. A soldier that colleagues would never think to second-guess. And, if anyone ever did inquire, a soldier that would be most unlikely to acknowledge any disconnect between their military persona and the person underneath.
Todd went back to work, and slowly but surely he found himself gradually feeling detached, separating himself from the military personality that was once his. But he could still play the part. “After twenty years I’d gotten pretty good at it,” he said, “I knew what was expected of me and how to do it, so that’s what I did. But I put everything into it and sacrificed other things.”
The energy and authenticity expended by playing a role in this way takes a toll, and there was little hope of rejuvenation. Nightmares stole the majority of Todd’s military nights before bleeding into his daylight hours. He estimates he slept an average of four hours per night for a fifteen-year span. “I was successful—if you could call it that—at pushing them away.” The cumulative trauma that Todd had experienced had first exhausted his emotions and his mind, before moving to his body. He ended up using pain pills to manage the physical symptoms, but he was running out of places to push the pain. Total exhaustion had become his new normal.
By repeatedly telling himself that he was fine, that he didn’t need help, Todd was, in essence, attempting to call himself cured while skipping the whole healing process.
His status as a medic was his last line of defense, allowing him to protect himself to a degree that others in his position may not have been able to. It kept him in control. By repeatedly telling himself that he was fine, that he didn’t need help, Todd was, in essence, attempting to call himself cured while skipping the whole healing process. Another shot in the dark, but this one would ultimately miss the mark. Todd was ‘out on his feet,’ stumbling around aimlessly like a boxer in his final hazy moments before inevitably hitting the mat with the next blow.
In 2007, after returning from a tour in Turkey and while preparing to return to Afghanistan, Todd requested a leave of absence—knowing he was performing at a level nowhere near that which had earned him his rank. He took an operational breather and returned to Victoria where he took a job as a reservist. He took on far less responsibility, and went from someone who could barely get any sleep to someone who couldn’t get enough. He’d hit the mat and was down for the count… with no more lines of defense. Todd was finally alone with that which was haunting him.
Less work, more sleep, and a weakened physical state meant that the nightmares were free to return, this time unobstructed. Slowing down seemed to exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD: tormented nights, dysfunctional days, inability to focus, fear of entering public spaces, hyper-vigilance, coupled with a hyper-awareness of his own ‘weirdness.’ A military man returned to a ‘normal’ city, feeling far from normal himself.
His wife wasn’t able to see the ‘normal’ Todd, either. She felt like she was living with a different person. And, after encouraging him to face the issues she could see so clearly, she left to live with someone else, and their marriage ended. “Everyone can take a certain number of blows to the head,” Todd said, “but at some point you’re going to go down. I’m not even sure how I got through as many of those nights as I did.”
Those nights consisted primarily of sitting in his Victoria basement with a bottle of scotch. If he left the house, it was only to get his most basic needs met. Trips to the grocery store were taken intoxicated, minutes before the store closed, in order to interact with as few people as possible. Some nights he would put on a movie, but just stare blankly at the screen, seeing a series of flashing lights rather than any coherent narrative. On other nights, a loaded gun lay next to the empty scotch bottle.
By now, Todd was barely making it to his military desk job on time. And what arrived every morning was only a small part of him. He was hardly accomplishing a thing, and feeling like a fraction of the man known to routinely arrive 90 minutes early for his commitments. Simple tasks, like replying to a few emails seemed daunting. Again, he just stared at a screen. He has a memory gap of several months, a period for which he has almost no recollection.
The attempt to ‘portray a different person’ took everything out of him. A colleague encouraged him to take a one-month release, to meet with a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist. In the therapy room, however, his act had continued. Todd kept his rigid military swagger intact as he spoke, blocking any authentic connection, and leaving the therapist assuming he’d never be back. The mental health system operated differently than the military, and Todd didn’t understand how to make it work for him.
But this was chaos of another kind. The traumatic memories were cycling out of control and Todd had no solution for it.
The cycle continued. Todd had been skilled enough to maintain a high level of control throughout his career. He’d figured out how to smooth out a certain kind of chaos. But this was chaos of another kind. The traumatic memories were cycling out of control and Todd had no solution for it. Even though he was keenly aware of how poorly he was functioning, he resisted a return to therapy and continued to avoid at all cost. He was fighting an internal battle of suppression that he was incrementally losing and avoidance had become the theme of his life.
“If you step out [of service] for PTSD are we gonna call you a pussy? I’ll be the first person to call you a pussy,” Todd said before clarifying in the present something he may have benefited from in the past: PTSD-related ribbing is a professional attack, not a personal one—it has more to do with a breach of service than a breach of character. “There is work to be done and you are supposed to be here doing it. So, if you’re not, we’re going to cut you down for it, but, if you return, there will be no malevolence. It’s back to work.”
Todd returned to therapy, and this time he did the work—hard work—of a very different kind. His therapist slowly but surely taught him ‘the system,’ told him what the therapeutic process would be and what Todd’s role in it would consist of.
Todd would have to fully commit. He would have to take a leave from work and consider this his new full-time job. The title of his new assignment—Making Myself Better. He would have to write out and work through each of the traumatic incidents that were haunting him. He was told that this process would not move at a military pace, that it would move slowly. However, he would not be alone with it anymore. “We’re not doing magic here, we’re working,” Todd’s therapist told him.
“Demons have to be faced and you can’t face them dishonestly.”
Todd listened. He wrote. He spoke. He was challenged. He confided. He would be exhausted for days after some of the sessions. He kept coming back. He wore civilian clothes. He himself said, “Demons have to be faced and you can’t face them dishonestly.”
The nightmares began to calm, and with them, the idea of returning to war. Gradually, Todd was coming back to life, and experiencing an expansion of self-awareness within a new system.
Letting Life Hit Him
I’ve done this for almost 27 years now, I want a different life, Todd thought. But if I’m not a soldier, what am I?
This was the question Todd was looking for clarity on as he entered the VTN program. Todd joined the familiar team environment and was “stunningly impressed” by the ability of the group leaders to control the room. Handling difficult conversations while allowing everyone the space to speak, and to smooth out feelings that had become chaotic. There were people from a wide range of military backgrounds, but “everyone was speaking the same language.” In the VTN, Todd had found a hybrid of both the military and therapeutic systems. Thanks to his one-on-one therapy work, he felt well-positioned to take full advantage, and to regain more control.
Now that his traumatic memories had eased their pursuit, Todd was able to work with the VTN leaders to better define what he was chasing: hope that there was something better for him out there, faith that he could get to that better place and be supported there, and a new beginning. As it turned out, the call to his new beginning would come before the completion of the program.
Todd always had a special attachment to Rome. He wasn’t raised Catholic, but he had fond memories of the city, of running a marathon through the historic streets with a close friend. Through the processing of his trauma, good memories such as these now had room to breathe again, and Todd couldn’t wait to fill his body with fresh air.
He was supposed to fly home to Victoria on the Sunday evening after the final VTN group concluded. On that weekend the world news was focused on the impending conclave and change in Pope. All roads lead to Rome, Todd thought, Hope, faith, and a new beginning. Where better in the world to find a lot of people searching for the very same things.
First, Todd would have to find his passport. He looked everywhere, even sending out a search party and finally decided that he’d lost it. Deflated, he returned to packing up his room at the VTN retreat, accepting that his next flight would be home to Victoria after all, and not Rome. He stuffed belongings into his bag with frustration. It was then that a solitary item inexplicably fell out of the bag and slapped onto the floor. Todd knelt down and picked up the item… his missing passport. He walked with it to the nearest computer and searched for a change in flights. He found one last seat left on the last plane that would make it to Rome in time for conclave.
“The program helped me cement what I’d been doing for the 18 months before that [in individual therapy] and I knew I needed to cement what the program had given me. I’m going to let life hit me instead of doing what I’ve always done.”
“The program helped me cement what I’d been doing for the 18 months before that [in individual therapy] and I knew I needed to cement what the program had given me. I’m going to let life hit me instead of doing what I’ve always done.” Todd explained this to the VTN group and was met, not with detraction or judgment, but with gifts and tokens from multiple VTN group members, including a hand-sewn crest, a medicine bag that the man had received from an elder as a child, and a cancer recovery coin with the word ‘Hope’ inscribed.
In St. Peters Square, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, Todd looked on as Cardinals were marshaled into the Sistine Chapel for sequential voting until the black smoke emitted turned white, signaling that a new Pope had been chosen. Change was in the air, and every bell in the city rang.
For what felt like the first time in his life, Todd was listening to the world rather than imposing himself on it. “The world will give you what you need, if you allow it to,” he said, “My life shifted wholly and completely.”
Todd left the military and returned home to Victoria, only to find that his definition of ‘home’ had changed. He rented out his home and traveled down the west coast. The road felt right to him, he was “rolling with life,” he hasn’t been ‘home’ since.
Saying the names of those who laid down their lives is a small ‘thank you’ for the “exceptional sense of freedom” he feels now.
Life for Todd now consists of Mexico in the winter and bike tours through Europe in the summer, leading Wounded Warriors Canada Battlefield Bike Rides through Canadian cemetery sites.
Sometimes, when a cemetery tour is over, Todd will stay back. He will take off his bike shoes and walk alone through the rows of graves, reading the names on the stones aloud. Freedom is something Todd would have given his life for, on any tour. Saying the names of those who laid down their lives is a small ‘thank you’ for the “exceptional sense of freedom” he feels now.
For Todd, the Veterans Transition Program means…
Life outside of the Military
Todd was able to work with the VTN leaders to define what he was chasing: hope, faith, and a new beginning.
The VTP helped Todd cement what he’d worked on in individual therapy, consolidating his last 18 months of making himself better.
A sense of freedom
For the first time, Todd was able to listen to the world rather than imposing himself on it.
You can change lives for people like Todd