Meet Tony Z.

Story Written by Emma Dering

Tony Z in Afghanistan
Tony Z in Afghanistan


“This is not magic, but it’s close.”

Before going to Afghanistan, Tony knew what it meant to serve. Tony had already been serving Vancouver as a police officer for 28 years when in 2011, he signed up to go Afghanistan as a NATO Civilian Police Officer.

From: Vancouver
NATO Civilian Police Officer

Listen to your body

He had been a first-responder for three decades. He was always looking for new ways in which he could help the people of his community, and he loved his job. But once he returned home from Afghanistan in 2012, something was different. He hadn’t taken a sick day in 28 years, but he could tell that there was something wrong. He could feel it physically. He wasn’t sleeping. He had high blood pressure and he couldn’t control his emotions. He couldn’t concentrate, and would spend hours outside on his deck, lost in thoughts that just kept coming.

Overseas, getting four hours of sleep was a luxury, but even in the relative quiet of Canada, sleep still evaded him. And when sleep did come, it was filled with nightmarish dreams, a nightly reliving of the things he’d experienced. Control over his moods was slipping away. Keeping himself in check was becoming more and more difficult. It was these physical symptoms that tipped him off that something wasn’t right.

Tony Z Police Officer on Granville Street

Walking a beat

It hadn’t always been this way. As a young man, Tony was eager to find a job in which he would excel, and which he could be excited about. At age 21, he studied philosophy and criminology, before going into civil engineering. “The first bridge I built fell down,” says Tony, “so I switched to policing.” He signed up for the Police Academy in Point Grey, Vancouver, and by 23 was working as a police officer.

When he first found out he had been hired by the Vancouver Police Department, he felt like he’d won the lottery. “I never looked back after the day I joined,” he says. “I looked forward to going to work every day, except for the last three. I loved my job. It was a great career.” He kept busy learning his beat around Vancouver and doing the street level police work, breaking up trouble and keeping watch for drug trafficking and other crime. It taught him to think on his feet. “It’s an exciting job,” Tony explains. “It’s a job that gives you a little bit of adrenaline. No day was ever the same.”

“I believe in communities,” Tony says. “I’d been a policeman for 28 years at that time and I’d served my community here, but I wanted to serve my country as well

Ready for a change

Yet, in the years leading up to 2011, police work had started to take a toll, and his personal life began to crumble around him as well. “I went through a very painful divorce and a bunch of things happened in a series,” he says. In addition to his wife leaving, Tony’s father passed away, his dog died, all while his work was becoming increasingly stressful in the chaotic days leading up to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. So when the opportunity arose to be a part of a NATO mission to Afghanistan through the international branch of the RCMP, Tony applied, and was selected for the job. After years of service to his city, Tony was ready for a different kind of contribution. “I believe in communities,” Tony says. “I’d been a policeman for 28 years at that time and I’d served my community here, but I wanted to serve my country as well. It fit those parameters. It fit service to my country. It fit giving back at an international level.”

Tony Z at Suicide Alley

“It’s everything. It’s the sight. The smells. Our mission patch said, ‘Mission experiences may vary.’”

Tony was brought in to Afghanistan as an advisor, training coalition forces in personal protection techniques. But to meet an increased need, the group of advisors in which Tony was included were being sent out as force protection, on mission after mission. “Until you’re actually there, it is indescribable,” Tony explains. “It’s everything. It’s the sight. The smells. Our mission patch said, ‘Mission experiences may vary.’” And for Tony, that certainly proved to be the case. He completed over 212 missions in the course of a year. “To sum it up, I had a very eclectic kind of job pattern when I was over there, so I worked with a ton of different people and outside of the wire most of the time.”

Innocent victims

But for Tony, it was more than that. After all he had done in Afghanistan and at home, there was the lingering feeling of responsibility for those he couldn’t save. As Tony says, it wasn’t the violence he had dealt out or received that really affected him. Instead, it was the things he saw happen to innocent people, and which he could do nothing about.

“One thing that did happen in Afghanistan, and I don’t say this was the issue, I say this was the one that brings to light and compounds previous experiences. I lived off the main camp and I had to walk through the green zone to get to my workplace. In that area there’s all these little kids and they’re between six and 12, and they’re selling survivor bracelets and they sell pashmina scarves or whatever trinkets. They can all say, ‘Hello do you want to buy something?’ or ‘How are you today?’ in all the coalition languages. And they’re just sweet little kids.”

Tony Z with children in Afghanistan

Innocence lost

“That day I’m walking up and I am probably 100 yards away. And I am very lucky because it was a T-intersection. A suicide bomber on a bicycle rides up. The explosion went off just around the corner of the T-intersection and there are eight of the kids and four adults. I’d seen lots of gruesome scenes as a policeman, but nothing like that. The way the Afghans deal with it is entirely different too. The first thing after the explosion you’re expecting a secondary attack. You are at an incredible level of awareness. So with that, you’re watching the ambulance and it’s a green pick-up truck, and they’re throwing in bodies: dead, alive, or pieces. It goes in the back of the pickup or in the trunk of a car and then off they go.”

This image stayed the forefront of his mind, along with that failed sense of responsibility, and the protection he couldn’t provide. Even later that day, when his boss asked, “Hey, how you doing?” all he could reply was, “Yeah, not my worst day ever.”

Now what?

“Whether Afghanistan or 30 years of policing, there are some horrible things in that background and those were the ones that impacted me more,” Tony says. “Not so much seeing things after the fact, as much as being part of it as well.”

He tried to be proactive, hitting the gym and avoiding alcohol, attempting to ward off his physical and mental distress. But nothing was bringing him back to himself.

Once he returned home, the things Tony had seen and been part of began to surface in new ways. “For two and a half months I was trying to deal with it myself,” he explains. “There was stuff starting to happen that had been episodic previously over my life, but was now becoming more of a pattern.”

He tried to be proactive, hitting the gym and avoiding alcohol, attempting to ward off his physical and mental distress. But nothing was bringing him back to himself.

Eventually, Tony was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with compounding concussion syndrome. Unlike the common conception of PTSD, though, for Tony the cause couldn’t be pinned down to a single incident. It was the buildup of three decades of police work and two tours of duty that finally began to wear on him, in his thirty-one years of being a first-responder.

“As far as PTSD, It’s a series of compounding factors; I don’t say Afghanistan is where I picked it up, it isn’t a cold or flu…”

Current estimates are that 15-30% of deployed Veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home.

The stigma of PTSD

No matter how it developed, Tony quickly discovered how negative reactions to PTSD could be. “If you say to someone that you have PTSD, an average guy is going to look at you and go, ‘Oh, you are broken. You’re a broken toy.’ Or they think you are going to snap, which is the furthest from the truth.”

The stigma Tony describes regarding PTSD is a common one, and can be very damaging for those returning from combat. Current estimates are that 15-30% of deployed Veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home. Despite this high degree of prevalence, Tony suggests that most people don’t understand what PTSD really means. “They don’t get it,” he says. “They think it’s like a cold or a flu that will go away.”

What they don’t understand, he says, is what it really feels like. Sometimes, it can feel like a blanket of confusion, and other times, like huge bursts of aggressive energy, flaming up to tackle a seemingly small problem. “Everything was always in here,” he says, pointing to his chest. “It was always just a ball of fire. I just thought, ‘Isn’t everybody like that?’”

Fire

Making the call

After months of struggling on his own, Tony contacted us at the Veteran’s Transition Network. When asked what prompted him to make the call, Tony says, “I realized that I want the rest of my life to be healthy. That this was a little bit bigger than me.”

A key goal of our program is to create opportunities for Veterans to confront and begin processing pivotal moments in their past. One strategy employed by our clinicians is to use enactments, a technique in which the veterans relive and resolve memories which have been haunting them. In speaking about his own enactment, Tony says, “It was probably the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was on one knee. And I relived what was happening in a way that you can see in me right now and hear in my voice.”

Although very successful, it wasn’t a one-stop solution. As Tony explains, “Subsequent to doing it was the most impactful part, because these are things you’ve lived with for a long time and you think you’ve dealt with it. You think they are away and they’ve been looked at. Weighed, measured and put away. And then all of a sudden you know they’re not. And all of a sudden you know, wow. There is something going on.”

Tony Z Police Officer standing on stage

After his enactment, memories Tony had packed away over the years became even more real. “It was like having a dream, but while awake: there was a rolodex basically, in my head, of just pictures of dead people. People, things, events, instances that I’d forgotten about. That I wouldn’t have remembered unless you’d shown me a report or someone brought it up in conversation. The scariest part was that this wasn’t in my control. This was my mind doing this.”

But it didn’t end that way. Realizing how shaken he was feeling, Tony sought out one of his program’s facilitators, and told him what was going on. The clinician listened to Tony, took the next half hour to process his thoughts and reactions together, and continued to check in over the next few days. For Tony, it was our team’s willingness to work with him in a way that felt natural to him that really made the difference, and that cemented the positive foundations that the program had begun to establish.

In the two years since his program, the increase in Tony’s quality of life has continued to last. “It gave me a sense of worth,” he explains. “That I had been tested. That I had been tried and that I passed.” Though he still struggles, things have gotten easier. The pain he was fighting all the time is gone, and his physical symptoms have lessened. Best of all, he can sleep again.

“If one person goes in and has some of that pain alleviated, then it is worth it.”

Tony Z Police Officer

Though Tony knows his life will always be different because of the things he experienced, he says the VTP made him realize that good things are still possible, “The program made my future life better—no question. I needed a catalyst to open up my brain and my emotions to sort things out. And it provided me that. They provided the support and expertise to do it. And I provided the effort.”

“It’s not like on the last day of the VTP you walk out and the sun’s shining and the birds are whistling,” he explains. “I don’t look at PTSD like something you get over or you cure. It’s not a cold. That’s why I say this is not something that goes away. It will always be part of you.”

Now, Tony knows what can be accomplished with the expertise of experienced counsellors and veterans who care about his well-being. “I think this program is powerful enough to save lives, and make those lives worth living,” he says. “If one person goes in and has some of that pain alleviated, then it is worth it.”

“This is not magic, but it’s close.”

For Tony, the Veterans Transition Program means…

Direction
Tony found a sense of worth again. He was able to make sense of his experiences and use them to grow.

Quality of Life
Tony no longer feels like there’s a ball of fire in his chest, and he’s finally able to sleep at night.

Support
Tony found the catalyst he needed to open up his brain and emotions, and sort things out.

You can change lives for people like Tony