A soldier's struggle

Veteran Mike Pehlivanian survived a bomb blast in Afghanistan and now resides in a centre for mental health and addictions

The police described it as "a death declaration."

It was written on a small piece of paper that Mike Pehlivanian had in his pocket when a Vancouver police emergency response team arrested him in July at his father's house near East 54th and Main.

article continues below

Pehlivanian made it clear in his declaration that he wanted his assets turned over to Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, a combat battalion he served with in Afghanistan.

Pehlivanian's plan that day was to kill himself.

Court documents reveal how the 37-year-old Winston Churchill secondary graduate set six separate fires in the house and punched holes in the walls and ceiling. He told his aunt, who lives in the basement and confronted him after smelling smoke, that he wanted to die and told her to call police.

For six hours, police negotiated with Pehlivanian before he surrendered peacefully. Police found a 10-inch kitchen knife on a dresser in Pehlivanian's bedroom.

His father, Krikor, and brother, Ara, were outside on the street during the ordeal. Krikor was driving cab at the time and Ara, a Vancouver police officer, happened to be on shift but did not participate in the arrest.

"It was difficult for everybody," said Krikor from the living room of his house, which still has the faint smell of smoke. "I could have taken my son from his room easily, without a problem, but the police didn't let me do it."

The stand-off was the climax of a culmination of incidents in which Pehlivanian's mental health deteriorated since returning to Vancouver in 2009 from Afghanistan.

Two days prior to the stand-off, he got into a heated dispute with his father after he smashed holes in his bedroom walls and set fire to his mattress.

Police weren't notified.

Last year, Pehlivanian jumped from the third floor of a downtown hotel and suffered serious injuries. He has talked to his father and aunt numerous times about committing suicide.

So what happened to Mike Pehlivanian?

He was, as his father described, a "normal person" before he went overseas. He had a steady job at a government liquor store and played hockey with friends.

Now he is in a treatment centre in Burnaby which caters to people suffering from mental illness and addictions. Through his lawyer Patti Stark, Pehlivanian wrote in an email that he voluntarily moved in to the centre because there are no military hospitals and he wanted long-term care.

"I want to feel healthy and I am working on it each day," he wrote this week. "I have the scars that forever remind me of my suicidal path. I have memories of pride, memories of death and memories of how it was before my injuries. It's hard on me. Almost every day, I break down in tears."

MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS

Pehlivanian learned last week that he won't be going to jail for the incident at his father's house because Crown counsel decided it wasn't in the public interest to prosecute him.

Pehlivanian's troubles began after a roadside bomb exploded under his armoured vehicle while on a security patrol in the Panjwaii district in Kandahar province.

The blast on Sept. 7, 2008 killed his sergeant, Prescott Shipway, and left Pehlivanian with a serious brain injury that his father believes set off his erratic behaviour and drug addiction.

He has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and carries extreme guilt about the loss of Shipway, whom he idolized.

Research suggests Pehlivanian is not alone in his struggle: A 2011 Parliamentary report noted an estimated 4,000 veterans were enrolled in rehabilitation programs, with half suffering from a service-related psychiatric disability and more than 70 per cent with mental health needs.

The same report said up to 35,000 soldiers were expected to be discharged over the next five years and that an estimated 2,750 will suffer from a severe form of PTSD.

Another 6,500 will be diagnosed with a mental health problem, according to the report which warned how the increase in mental health cases will test services for veterans.

"Despite the considerable efforts made over the past 10 years, in particular the establishment of a network of specialized external clinics, as well as a group of affiliated professionals to whom veterans can be referred to as required, the department is having trouble meeting the demand," the report said.

"Under the most optimistic scenarios, these needs will double over the next five years. Furthermore, because health services are involved, coordination with provincial resources will be crucial to prepare health professionals to deal with this specific problem. Veterans Affairs' capacity to meet the growing demand for services over the coming years will be a major challenge for the Government of Canada."

What Pehlivanian's father has learned is that government isn't equipped to deal with his son, whom he has refused to visit in the treatment centre.

He is worried that, as a father, he will break down and agree to have his son move back in the house. It's better, he said, that they stay apart for the time being.

"Everybody wants to blame government for this," Krikor said. "But I don't think government knows how to deal with my son. I don't think anybody knows."

REMORSE AND HALLUCINATIONS        

The failure of government to treat Pehlivanian when he returned from Afghanistan was acknowledged by his case worker at Veterans Affairs Canada.

After the stand-off, Helen Benes met with police to provide background about Pehlivanian's mental state. Benes told police he was "extremely violent" when he returned to Canada "as he did not receive adequate resources."

In court documents, police summarized the information provided by Benes, who outlined how Pehlivanian transformed from that normal person his father once knew.

She noted the PTSD diagnosis along with "major depressive disorders, adjustment disorder and he commonly suffers from psychosis."

She also provided these details:

  • He has auditory and visual hallucinations which are managed through medications, although he does not consistently take his medications.
  • He is unpredictable and cannot control his impulses.
  • He has a history of drug use which includes cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin.
  • His hallucinations are exacerbated by his use of illegal drugs.
  • He tried to quit drugs with Veterans Affairs placing him in a rehabilitation program several times on the Sunshine Coast.
  • He has remorse about surviving the bomb blast and tried to kill himself several times since the attack.

The documents indicate that at one point Pehlivanian "started to stabilize with several setbacks along the way." Veterans Affairs helped Pehlivanian relocate to Powell River, where he lived last year.

But he became unhappy and his father agreed to let him move in his house in January. Six months later, the stand-off with police occurred — an incident Pehlivanian discussed in his email to the Courier.

"There were no active fires," he said. "I asked my aunt to phone the police for help but they treated me as a threat because of being an ex-soldier. Instead, they cordoned off the area and came in with rifles. It became so unreal to the way it should have played out. I tried to be as cooperative as I could to not get shot."

The day he was injured in Afghanistan, Pehlivanian was riding in the back of an armoured vehicle commonly referred to as a LAV3. He was thinking about the end of his tour. Suddenly, the vehicle launched 30 feet in the air, returned to the ground upside down and rolled several times.

"It was shocking. I am still in shock today. My helmet was on but it took a hard hit upside down on the metal floor. And the concussion was big. The hole in the road was huge — like 150 metres. There were gunshots. I lost my rifle. I lost my sergeant. Seven of us were crawling out a small hole."

Pehlivanian took shrapnel to the face through his gums. He broke his nose, suffered a head injury. He could not smile for months upon his return to Canada.

"BAND-AID EFFORTS"

His rehabilitation began at the Integrated Personnel Support Centre at the Jericho garrison in Vancouver, one of several across the country for Canadian Forces personnel.

Pehlivanian said staff at the centre was "supposed to find my problem" and then return him to Shilo, Man. to rejoin the 2nd Battalion of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

"They did not meet their mandate," he said. "I got worse and worse. All they really did was Band-Aid efforts like paying for blackout blinds to help me sleep. I was so sleep deprived because of the trauma."

He resided in a place where an improvised explosive device cannon was "going off every night and I thought it was the Taliban." He said he was prescribed six medications, which impaired his judgment. To this day, he is "triggered" all the time.

"In the infantry, we are drilled and yelled at while we eat, walk, march, jog, run, in a classroom — everywhere — to make the perfect soldier for Afghanistan. We are trained to hear and see what normal people don't. They forever imprinted these memories."

Pehlivanian said he experienced fighting almost every day of his tour, which began in January 2008 and ended nine months later when the bomb exploded.

Life lost meaning to him after he was injured.

"The pride of being a good soldier and going into war for my country starts to slowly go away with each day, month and year that passes from when I left my battalion. Our friends and family go away."

Before he joined the military, Pehlivanian worked at Canada Post and numerous government liquor stores in Vancouver, including branches on Main Street, Cambie Street and at Kingsgate Mall.

Outside of work, he played hockey and helped his father maintain his house.

But he wanted more out of life. He joined the military in 2005 "to fight for Canada and the human race in Afghanistan" and fulfill a desire to be more physically and mentally challenged.

He was posted to the 2nd battalion of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and was trained in seven specialities. In Afghanistan, he was a LAV3 driver, communications specialist, machine gunner, rocket launcher, rifleman and was used in "many vital roles in Afghanistan for our country."

PTSD AND SUICIDES

When he returned to Vancouver, one of the medical professionals he relied on to understand his situation was Dr. Greg Passey, a psychiatrist and former soldier. Pehlivanian described him as "a good man" who advocates for veterans.

Passey works out of the B.C. Operational Stress Injury Clinic on Broadway. The clinic is one of 10 across Canada funded by Veterans Affairs to offer assessment and treatment services to serving Canadian Forces members and veterans, as well as RCMP officers past and present.

Passey served 22 years as a medical officer in Canada, Norway, the United States and Rwanda. He has a patient list of 80 people at the clinic, including Pehlivanian and other Afghanistan veterans.

He wouldn't discuss Pehlivanian's case for privacy reasons.

While counselling and treatment are available for veterans suffering from a mental health issue, Passey said there is a lack of resources devoted to overseeing a soldier's transition from the battlefield.

He's blunt in his assessment of Veterans Affairs' commitment to ensuring veterans of peacekeeping missions and combat zones are being trained to re-integrate into Canadian society.

"How much time has our government spent on training them to be civilians again?" he said from his office. He held up his right hand and cupped it to make a small circle. "Zero. There isn't a program that does that, and that's a problem."

The New Veterans Charter, which was introduced in 2006, aimed to provide veterans "with the help they need, for as long as they need it," according to information posted on the website of Veterans Affairs.

The charter promised rehabilitation programs to "stabilize physical and psychiatric conditions." Those who are most injured get the most help, the charter added.

Passey's reading of the charter is that it is used to determine whether a soldier has a medical diagnosis related to military service that entitles that soldier to financial compensation, treatment or education.

"That's all the charter is about," he said, adding that long-term help for veterans suffering from severe mental health issues is not consistent across the country. "It depends on where the veteran wishes to settle as to whether or not they have access to programs. A lot of the veterans with mental health issues, particularly PTSD, don't want to be in the big cities. They typically will go off into either small towns or even isolate out in the bush and farmland. So it's difficult for them to obtain consistent, long-term treatment."

Pehlivanian's father agreed with Passey's assessment of the charter, saying the money his son received from Veterans Affairs went to drug dealers. Pehlivanian said himself that Veterans Affairs "is set up mostly to financially reimburse us."

Passey pointed to the Veterans Transition Program at the University of B.C. as providing "some pieces" to the puzzle of re-integrating soldiers to civilian life.

"But the reality is, if you've got severe PTSD or some sort of other condition, then they typically won't put you through the program," Passey said. "So it's got its limitations."

Passey recently testified at the coroner's inquest into the death of veteran Greg Matters, who served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and was diagnosed with PTSD.

RCMP shot and killed Matters at a rural farm near Prince George in September 2012. Police responded to the farm over allegations that Matters assaulted his brother.

Passey said Veterans Affairs didn't begin to provide services for Matters until Passey diagnosed the veteran with PTSD after a jail visit in early 2012 related to allegedly uttering threats.

His research has shown that allowing mental health issues for veterans to fester only makes life more difficult for the person and those trying to help.

"Unfortunately, the longer you wait, the harder it is to treat and the more negative effect it has on your life. Often, individuals can lose their job, they can lose their friends, their family, their marriage."

The chances of a veteran with PTSD committing suicide is also greater than a veteran without the diagnosis, said Passey, pointing to research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that showed 19 per cent of veterans in the United States with PTSD had killed themselves.

Veterans Affairs Canada doesn't track suicides.

Passey said it would be a helpful statistic to give context to the type of suffering veterans endure when they return from duty. He spoke to a peacekeeper who served in Sarajevo who knew of 12 soldiers from his tour who committed suicide.

"So that's just him and he's aware of 12," he said. "There's 12 people who probably died as a result of their military service and there's no recognition at all for those people. They're what I like to call the unknown fallen."

The Courier made repeated requests over five days with Veterans Affairs to speak with a representative to answer questions related to this story. The agency failed to respond.

"I ACCEPT IT LIKE A MISSION"

Monday is Remembrance Day.

Pehlivanian spent at least one Nov. 11 with his father since he was injured in Afghanistan.

His father recalls visiting a Legion on Main Street, where Pehlivanian was dressed in his military uniform and spoke with veterans.

For Remembrance Day in 2009, Pehlivanian travelled  to Saskatchewan to be with the parents of his fallen sergeant, Prescott Shipway.

"It was nice because you don't want your son forgotten," said Susan Shipway by telephone from Saskatoon, recalling the visit by Pehlivanian and a fellow soldier. "I think he idolized my son, the way he talked about him. He has a lot of guilt, saying he should have died instead of Prescott."

Shipway said she knew during the visit that Pehlivanian wasn't well, often lost in his thoughts. She was saddened to hear of his struggles.

"I hope that he can get fixed because he's a nice boy and I hope it works out for him," she said.

Prescott Shipway and Terry Street, another member of the 2nd Battalion killed in Afghanistan, will be on Pehlivanian's mind this Remembrance Day.

So will the rest of his platoon.

"In addition," he said, "all the soldiers, their families and friends that suffer from their traumatic experiences in theatres like Afghanistan. You need a big heart for this. I accept it like a mission."

And to his father, who will watch Remembrance Day services on television from the house they once shared, Pehlivanian has this to say: "Thanks for fighting for me. I could have been another unknown soldier. But, most importantly, I'm sorry for the way it turned out. However, be happy that I am alive. I could have died in Afghanistan many times, almost every day."

mhowell@vancourier.com

twitter.com/Howellings

Read Related Topics

Comments

NOTE: To post a comment you must have an account with at least one of the following services: Disqus, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ You may then login using your account credentials for that service. If you do not already have an account you may register a new profile with Disqus by first clicking the "Post as" button and then the link: "Don't have one? Register a new profile".

The Vancouver Courier welcomes your opinions and comments. We do not allow personal attacks, offensive language or unsubstantiated allegations. We reserve the right to edit comments for length, style, legality and taste and reproduce them in print, electronic or otherwise. For further information, please contact the editor or publisher, or see our Terms and Conditions.

comments powered by Disqus

Popular Vancouver Courier

Sign Up For Our e-Newsletter!
Find the Vancouver Courier Newspaper