Veteran honoured for his outreach work

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Corporal (Ret) Fred Smith brought an important message to Ottawa—troubled soldiers can find the help they need, but they have to ask for it.

Cpl Smith was recently honoured by the National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman with the 2015 Liz Hoffman Memorial Commendation, named after a highly-regarded investigator with the Ombudsman’s office. The award is given to individuals bringing about positive and lasting change to the Defence Team.

After overcoming his own struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction, Cpl Smith founded Veterans Helping Veterans, through which he engages directly with homeless veterans on the streets of the Hamilton, Ont. area.

When it all began

Cpl Smith left the Army in 1981, following a traumatic posting to the Golan Heights, where Canadian troops monitored a ceasefire between Israel and Syria under the UN banner from 1974 until 2006. The experience left him with PTSD that would go untreated for two decades.

“A lot of people were falling through the cracks. I was one of those people,” said the former Royal Canadian Regiment member. “Now I am clean, and sober. I carry a message of purpose and hope, if a soldier reaches out he will get it – but he has to reach out.”

Speaking after the ceremony, Cpl Smith said he avoids describing his Golan Heights experience in detail to avoid triggering difficult memories.

“I was there 1979-80. In Damascus it was ugly. There were events I saw that really messed me up completely, and I don’t go there. I start smelling it and feeling it and I have to remind myself that I’m not there anymore. That’s one of the tools we use to stay out of it.”

Ending up on the streets

Describing himself as a proud soldier, Cpl Smith said it was just one year after being re-posted to Canada in 1980 that he decided to leave the military. Just a few months later, Cpl Smith was only intermittently employed and frequently homeless.

“One minute I would be on the street; the next minute I’d be couch-surfing; the next minute I’d be in a new place, in a treatment centre for alcoholism. There in the food lines and shelters; and then I would get back into work,” he said. “Not only was I sick mentally, I was drinking. And the drinking wasn’t working. So I ended up picking up drugs, and the drugs weren’t working either in the end. I tried to kill myself in 1994 from a heroin overdose.”

Coming out of the darkness

It was the death of his 21-year-old son a decade later that would set Cpl Smith on a path out of the darkness.

“He put a rope around his neck and hanged himself. That day I was in Burlington on the way to the Skyway Bridge to kill myself. There was a hospital on the way. I went into that hospital and talked to a psychiatrist,” he said.

Cpl Smith began Veterans Helping Veterans in 2005 and continues to assist active military members, as well as veterans in accessing assistance programs available through the Royal Canadian Legion and Veterans Affairs Canada.

“Once I finally started getting help, I said, ‘How about all the other guys out there? Soldiers still serving and veterans. How many other guys fell through the cracks?,” he said.

“I found all kinds. So I went out with one little poster, a uniform and I set up shop.”

Cpl Smith said he would like Veterans Helping Veterans to become a national program, and is seeking other veterans and active military personnel to reach out to their comrades in need.

“What I’m doing is pretty easy. Have some compassion and be honest with somebody. When I’m talking to a drug-addicted veteran I can say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there.’”

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