Who is driving the truck?
It happened like a lightning strike. At least that’s how James Topp described it. I can’t disagree with him.
This past Thursday, a man I loved like a brother took his own life. I was just speaking with him hours before it happened. There was no sign of distress. Cops were dicking him around, regular life stuff. Nothing to suggest what was about to happen.
CBC Interview with Sgt Tyson Bowen, 2019
Many people will never and can never understand what happened.
But I do.
Tyson and I were close friends for nearly 20 years. We shared the same laughs and fears in the same dirty and dangerous places around the world. We were from the same county. I remember his wedding like it was yesterday. He promised me that he would take care of my family if anything should happen to me. To say that the loss of this irreplaceable person is painful would not do the emotion justice.
In the Veteran community, when this happens we say it’s like losing a brother. We share the same cold dirty spots to sleep on the ground, we live in tents on top of each other like animals, we eat together like a family around a dinner table - except your dinner table is an ammunition crate.
We share the same fears and ambitions, and we share the pain of loss together. Not just the losses of our numbers, but the losses of pieces of ourselves we can never recover. To go to war and experience deadly combat is no small experience. For better or worse, it will change you and shape you for the rest of your life.
Only our brothers understand this road less taken. They are the few that walk it beside us.
Any doctor or head-shrinker can give you their perspective on it. It’s all very interesting. Lots of books and research published. Very little of it from actual warriors, though. I would recommend a rarity, Lt-Col Dave Grossman’s book On Combat for anyone interested in the psychological and physical effects on the mind and body in war or traumatic, life and death situations.
All I can offer you as an uneducated layman is my perspective which is based on my experience as a man living in this world for a long time, the conversations and lessons learned from talking candidly with the fellas (and sisters).
Topp, who is no stranger to combat himself having deployed to Afghanistan several times as well as the battle of Medak pocket, described it as a lightning strike. I’ve previously described it as a sudden storm, like a tsunami or hurricane no one warned you was coming.
Or maybe it’s like being set on fire.
I don’t know the genesis of this problem or where it comes from. Is it from the mefloquine poisoning the Gov’t of Canada is criminally responsible for? Is some kind of chemical imbalance caused by something in service? Is the very air you breathe in a land of so much death, anxiety, treachery and tragedy poisoning your very soul?
None of us can say for certain, except that it exists.
It is a phenomenon that after years of living in this community, seems to afflict a much greater number of soldiers and retired veterans than anyone wants to admit or address.
It will sneak up on you very carefully, slowly at first and be upon you with little to no warning. Like a violent home invasion, one minute you can be showering and thinking about your day - the next you can be wrestling for your life on the floor with a man that has a gun.
Except that man is you.
It can happen very quickly, almost in an instant. What I like to call, “From Fine to FUCK IT in 60 seconds”.
Whatever the reason, stressful triggers can set a soldier off like a rocket. Their thoughts will shift from ordering a pizza, to an upsetting text message or phone call, to thirty minutes of intense pain culminating in a short walk to the gun cabinet. I’ve unfortunately witnessed this story play out numerous times, often with tragic results.
To the ordinary, outside observer it appears like an extreme reaction to a relatively moderate or less so, stressful situation.
There’s more to the story.
The things that are required of warriors in combat do not get left at the airport luggage check when they return. Everyone knows this cliché.
But how much thought do they really put into this person’s shoes? I’m not talking about the obvious shocks of seeing bodies torn apart, innocent people and children being maimed and burned, crushed. I don’t mean how one would feel in the moments leading up to, during and after taking the life of another person.
I mean, what happens after. The path of their entire lives is forever changed, as they’ve now become a different person that went from not experiencing those things, to one that has. They make different choices. They see the world differently. Lingering effects of the events of their careers an leave difficult to answer questions. Like if any of us really understood what we were doing, and what was it all for ?
Couple this with a society that pays very little real respect to this caste of society outside of an ever shrinking minority of people that show up for an hour or two on November 11th. Oh, and Veterans Affairs Canada will suggest maybe you should just kill yourself. But don’t worry, as we are paying terrorists millions of dollars for being imprisoned after killing allied soldiers - the Prime Minister will tell you that you’re asking for more than he’s willing to give.
The attitudes of leadership permeate from the top down, and the attitude towards our veterans by this leadership caste in many western nations is one of complacency, ignorance, disrespect and in some cases outright disdain.
You would be remiss to believe this doesn’t have an extremely negative effect, and I will explain the reason why.
Soldiers don’t fight for money
It’s nice to have and nobody is going to turn down a pay raise, let’s not kid ourselves. But to step forward, raise your hand and volunteer your mind, body and soul itself for service that you are fully aware may likely result in your dismemberment, paralyzation, blindness, an array of very serious health issues and death itself requires something else.
To proudly declare “ Here am I, send me” suggests something else.
Deep down in all of us is a desire to protect the herd, hunt the wolves stand guard so our children can sleep safely. They do it because they believe in it. To be a warrior for ones people is a noble profession.
But what happens when it’s perceived that the people you sacrificed for, seem to regard you as little more than a burden? The “what have you done for me, lately” attitude is everywhere. Look no further than the treatment of James Topp and Veterans 4 Freedom. All of those years, all of those deployments, all of those missed family days, divorces, broken families - all of the trauma, pain and loss endured and our kind isn’t even permitted a voice of protest in the society our brothers died to protect without being chastised, disparaged and openly hated.
Which would suggest then, that after all of that - we really did only do it for money, because the love and respect of our people was not returned.
There is a common feeling of being discarded by society among combat Veterans. Ask them. They form these groups, motorcycle clubs, associations and fraternities to stay among their own. Much of the rest of society is not welcoming. It isn’t honorable, just or play by the same code that we do. They feel isolated by a world that doesn’t understand them and sometimes openly expresses a fear of them.
They don’t see Tyson Bowen, husband and father of 2, Pictou County boy that gave many years of his life in service of his community and nation for peanuts. They see an “army guy” that has PTSD, owns firearms, loses his temper sometimes and frightens them.
We see what they say about us.
In late 2021, Tyson was physically assaulted by employees of Adventure Motors in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. He was dragged to the ground in a headlock. Tyson had a serious neck injury from his time in the Army. His crime, according to the New Glasgow Police, was that he refused to wear a mask. Therefor he initiated the confrontation, and he should have just put the mask on!
He deserved to be assaulted.
Tyson was in the process of bringing this establishment to a civil lawsuit, and this was the commentary by Police. He offered to help me pay for my legal fees when he wins, (which he will, it’s on video). I told him no, that I could handle it.
He insisted he help me because “You are my brother, and I love you”.
This was the last conversation I ever had with Tyson. He would be dead hours later.
It’s impossible to say what, if any effect this had on his mental state. The point is, this level of disrespect and dismissive attitude to Veterans is commonplace. We get to continually observe the slow motion destruction in Canada of everything we grew up loving and fighting to protect.
Sometimes we get beat up in the streets and told to suck it up by Police.
Many Veterans withdraw from society and keep to themselves. The story has been the same since at least the Vietnam days, but unlike then, we are all volunteers. We stepped forward and raised a hand.
It’s difficult to empathize or connect with a population that is trained to worship celebrity tik tok videos and considers being mis-gendered some sort of grievous attack on humanity.
If these “micro aggressions” are what passes for trauma now, we should all consider what that says about us collectively as a people when the ones we send to war are in practice, a simultaneously discarded afterthought.
I can’t speak to Tyson’s specific motivations, but I can speak to the lightning strike that claimed his life. I’ve suffered them as he had in the past, we spoke about it. I’ve also spoken with dozens of other Veterans now that describe the same experience.
The toll these careers can take on the mind, soul, physical health, relationships and your ability to navigate the world can make every day of your life a challenging one. Sometimes it really does only take a straw to break a camel’s back.
Warriors are strong people, the strongest we have. The burdens they can carry are immense and intimidating.
But everyone has a limit.
I can describe it like being suddenly set on fire. As you could imagine, being on fire is not a comfortable place to be. All of your priorities stop in mid air, as your one and only focus is no longer being on fire. There is an overwhelming sense of anxiety, sadness, anger and desperation at once. It can be physically painful as it is mentally crippling. You can’t think straight, you won’t think of your children or your family.
All at once, every significant interaction you’ve ever had will come rushing back like a nightmare zombie army of thoughts and feelings you’d thought were long dead and buried, rushing the walls of your defenses. And when you run, they pursue you.
Your past mistakes, relationships, insecurities form a demented tag team with your current stressors, problems and obstacles. They join together in an unholy chorus that drowns out all rational thought.
To take your own life not only suddenly becomes a reasonable option, it can quickly climb to the top of the list while eliminating all others.
It can succeed in becoming the only option.
The following is not just for soldiers, but anyone that suffers this affliction.
This is when you need to remember my words.
Beat the clock.
Like any kind of intense fighting whether it be infantry companies engaged in close combat in the grape-rows of Kandahar, five minutes in a cage with another man who wants to add your face to his trophy wall or an existential battle for the fate of your life inside your own mind - it will end.
You don’t have to win. You just have to not lose. For hours, it can feel hopeless. Agonizing hopelessness and an intense desire to end this profound mental suffering at any cost.
You are now engaged in battle, with It.
You to have faith in yourself. No matter what It tells you,
You are being bombarded with everything It can throw at you. It may even try to convince you that your own family, friends and children don’t care for you and would be better off without you.
Beat the clock.
As time wears on and this mental struggle continues, every moment you hang on brings you closer to victory. Soon, the feelings will subside and It will begin to tire. Some positive thought can return, you can remember you can fight back. You will start to recover your senses. Being defeated yet again It will retreat to whatever hellish dimension it sprang from. A banished, uninvited intruder.
To me, that’s what It is. I try to treat It like every soldier does when confronted with an adversary who aims to harm him.
When it comes for you - grit and gnash your teeth, spit in It’s eye and put it on it’s ass with a generous helping of strong side elbows to the mouth
If I knew of a cure, I could be a very wealthy man. To point out that no such cure exists should point to the difficulty that exists in solving this problem. What I can say though, is that like every other difficult experience in life - they all come to a conclusion. Nothing lasts forever, not even it. Though it will do everything it can to fool you into believing it.
Run down the clock. Talk to a friend on the phone, be with someone. Being alone with it is not a place you want to be. Stay alive in the concrete knowledge that you will feel better soon. When you do, you can ponder what can be done to to mitigate your problems and put yourself in a better position - but you can’t do any of that if you’re not here with us tomorrow. Play the long game.
It could return in a few hours. Days, weeks, months.. or even years later.
”Ah, we meet again you ugly son of a bitch!”
The difficulty is, this dance could last the rest of your life and It only has to win once. This is no small adversary, and may even be the Devil himself. Treat it accordingly with the appropriate respect.
Venturing onto a battlefield not understanding and underestimating your enemy has claimed countless lives.
It’s my hope that someone reading this will be fore-armed with a strategy, succeed in staying alive in the future when they remember that it gets tired and wants to go home too.
I choose to face this kind of fight my own way, as we all must do. Framing it in a spiritual, existential sense - a fight - is something I can understand. I suggest that you have the power to control your own mind, master who gets to talk inside your head and most importantly, who sits upon the throne.
Like too many others before, I know if Tyson could take it back, he would. I can nearly hear his jovial, silly voice in my head saying “Well, I really fucked up that situation!”
He was a great friend, a great soldier and a great man. We should all recoil in horror that someone so genuine and wonderful, charitable and strong - someone who gave so much for everyone around him could be living with a pain so intense it killed him.
What kind of society are we anymore? Where are we, that this kind of thing has become commonplace? Accepted?
I refuse to accept this.
I must accept that Tyson is gone, but I will not accept that living like this is “okay”, “acceptable” or something to just be quietly endured while the best of us perish in silence, alone.
It will forever be a painful scar that as I advocate for Veterans, I was unable to keep one of the guys I love most from ‘getting on the truck’.
It’s still surreal to see his face on a memorial.
It will, however, be an honor and a privilege to begin trying to live up to the high standard of being a good man that he set for us all. The memory of Tyson and so many others is fuel to continue fighting harder than ever, and living our lives to the fullest extent of exploitation on their behalf.
He would have done the same for me.
For any of us.
I’ll say Goodbye to him now, but when the music stops and my personal circus comes to an end one day, I know he’ll be there to quip with a smile “What took you so fucking long?!”
Rest easy, Brother. I’ll see you on the beach.
Until then, we step it out and pick up the pace.
No one get’s on the truck.
The Devil drives it, and it is a liar.
“IT” does feel like being lit on fire. Everything hurts. Struggling to breathe. They say a cold shower helps. Something to shock the sense and ground you. Appreciate this blog. We can all fight IT together. \\\
A true friend is a very rare commodity in this world; we are so very sorry for your loss. Let’s hope that your eloquent illustration of interpretation and understanding goes a long way to help others waging similar battles. Keep up the good fight: as you encourage us, we will continue to encourage you. \\\