Some Veterans experience traumas beyond the battlefield. One of these can be called, “sanctuary trauma”. A concept developed by Dr. Steven Silver, sanctuary trauma “occurs when an individual who suffered a severe stressor next encounters what was expected to be a supportive and protective environment’ and discovers only more trauma.” Some veterans who face mental or physical injuries from service are finding themselves in a second battle with the bureaucracy upon return.
The much-anticipated Report of the Auditor General of Canada reviewed mental health services for veterans and determined that although there are several mental health supports put in place, there is still a significant delay in access to disability benefits and clinical care. Of course there are procedures in place to ensure public funds are responsibly distributed and not used on illegitimate claims, but these processes can lead to a secondary traumatization in individuals whose mental health conditions are only exacerbated by stacks of paperwork, a seemingly endless wait, and perhaps even a wrongful denial on initial applications. But instead of restating these are fairly obvious points, my purpose here is to specifically describe how this can produce “sanctuary trauma,” and how this is deeply rooted in a veteran’s sense of a ‘sacred obligation’.
The concept of ‘sacred obligation’ has gained frequent use in the media among Canadian Veterans Advocates. The Liberal Party also released a video on their commitment to a “sacred obligation” the same day the Auditor General report was released – keep in mind both parties are to blame for problems in the New Veterans Charter. Politics aside, what is this concept actually referring to? And why is it important to injured veterans who feel uncared for?
Covenants, Not Contracts
As stated in my previous post on Canada’s ‘sacred obligation’ to veterans, the sacred obligation goes beyond a legal contract; it is a covenant made by a society to care for those who served in an unlimited capacity. The major difference between a covenant and a contract is this level of liability. Contracts only hold parties liable to a degree limited by the terms and conditions of the contract, whereas covenants hold parties liable to an unlimited degree. Christopher Coker, in The Warrior Ethos, describes the covenant as distinguished from the contract in three ways: “First, they are not limited to specific conditions and circumstances; secondly, they tend to be open-ended and long-lasting; and, thirdly, they rarely involve individual advantage.” What he is describing is the warriors covenant.
In the Canadian Armed Forces, the warrior’s covenant is characterized by “unlimited liability” – as described in Duty With Honour. This means that, “members accept and understand that they are subject to being lawfully ordered into harm’s way under conditions that could lead to the loss of their lives.” Accepting unlimited liability, serving members enter into a sacred covenant based in an altruistic commitment to self-sacrifice if required by the mission. The etymology of the word ‘sacrifice’ is linked to the word ‘sacred’ because the two are anthropologically connected to forms of moral solidarity in traditional societies before the modern legal contract replaced these heartfelt bonds based in blood with rationalized bureaucratic state management.
The issue with state management of Veterans care services goes deeper than wait times. At it’s root, the issue is that the sizable minority of Veterans who experience a difficult transition to civilian life (25%) are coming from a period of their life were they lived the sacred obligation through the warrior ethos of mission before self. Having held up their covenant to accept unlimited liability, they confront a system that is not able to hold up its end of the covenant. Individuals who suffer traumas in service expect to be taken care of upon return, but some instead find themselves engaged in a battle with a bureaucracy. Sanctuary trauma compounds the issues of war traumas, exacerbating feelings of isolation and hopelessness. For many embittered veterans, this is a feeling of institutional betrayal.
Sanctuary trauma is unique because it is caused by institutions that are initially expected to provide care. Although Veteran Affairs provides a great deal of care and now has increased funding for OSI clinics, Veterans who fall through the cracks may experience this form of trauma resulting from a society that falls short of the sacred standard of unlimited liability. Legitimately injured Veterans don’t want a hand out; they want a sense of security knowing the society they served is committed to serving them as well.
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