85 this year, The Legion is ready to shape Canada’s future

The horrific memories from the ravages of war resonate in the minds of those who served in the cause of peace. Trauma-related stress is real. This ailment must be sensitively treated, not only for the individual but also for loved ones. The Veterans Transition Program (VTP) is specifically designed to care for these invisible wounds. This is the only program if its kind in Canada, developed by Dr. Marv Westwood, University of British Columbia, in partnership with BC/Yukon Command of The Royal Canadian Legion and offered free of charge to veterans returning from overseas operations.

“…Every day Canadian Force members are fighting through the fog of war to protect families in foreign lands. When they come home, some have to fight through another fog of war to protect their own. You are not alone….and the Veterans Transition Program will serve you well, just as you have served us well…”
David Sinclair, President, BC/Yukon Command, The Royal Canadian Legion

Today the Veterans Transition Program (VTP) is having significant impact in assisting the modern day soldier with their re-entry back to Canada following deployments overseas. ‘Soldiers helping Soldiers’ is the focus of the VTP designed to help soldiers to both ‘drop the baggage’ (psychological injuries due to war related traumas) and to help them make a successful transition back home. Statistically, upwards of 30% of returning veterans of the current wars experience serious such injuries, and without specialized programs that support and help our veterans heal from these traumas, the likelihood of a successful re-entry to work, family and social life is highly unlikely. The costs to these individuals, their spouses, children, world of work and Canadian society are high. Without sufficient psychological support, the damage due to combat trauma is irreparable and places the veteran soldier’s well being at risk resulting in, self medicating through substance abuse addictions, and for some suicide.


“…In 2004 I started having difficulties as a result of my service. Having been out for eight years at that time, I approached Veterans Affairs and was given seven sessions with a local psychiatrist which did not provide me with the health care I really needed and gave me no help what-so-ever. A friend suggested I contact Dr. Westwood through the Legion and participate in the Veterans Transition Program. Only these group sessions and the follow-up treatments have been effective for me and I can speak for numerous other veterans I have personally seen go through the program. I believe the key success is Dr. Westwood’s team go through Dr. Westwood’s sessions. I believe the key to his success is his team’s collective experience and the remainder of the group being ex-military plus excellent re-enactments. The sessions are a combination of intense therapy involving all, interspersed with light-hearted discussion and reasoning. I was relieved personally of a lot of guilt baggage, was able to understand what happened and was taught coping mechanisms which hold me in good stead to this day. I highly recommend that this program be used as a model throughout the Canadian Forces for returning soldiers and let’s not forget their families…”

The origin of the VTP began over 15 years ago, with Dr. Marv Westwood’s development of a Veterans Life Review (VLR) project for those who had served in the Korean and Second World War. This small “group based program” was designed to help 80-90 year old men and women integrate their war experiences into their present lives using a guided autobiographical approach of story telling. The VLR consisted of members first writing a brief descriptive story across a number of major life themes (e.g. Family, Career, Branching Points), including a major life theme on how their military experience shaped their lives and contributed to who they are today. Each participant then reads their story into the group and others on hearing the story are invited to respond in respect to how the speaker’s story was similar or different to their life experiences.

Research studies show that group based approaches such as this one facilitates psychological integration, greater self confidence added meaning in one’s life and overall promoting long term mental health benefits.

As Dr. Westwood states, “In addition to the specific benefits just mentioned many chose to leave their written stories as a legacy for their families as so often returning vets did not want talk to their families about their experiences overseas.” At the completion of the VLR program, many indicated this experience would have been more helpful if it had occurred 50 years, i.e. shortly after returning home from duty. Upon completion of this program they realized that they had carried so much of the negative psychological baggage from their own combat war experience of the Second World War which was never dealt with in a healthy manner and they had suffered unnecessarily as a result in terms of personal and social losses. Based on the outcome study on this program and the call from the participants to initiate this earlier, the VTP is a reality today!

The current Veterans Transition Program (VTP) is about ‘soldiers helping soldiers’ and as one member summarizes: “It is about a group of men getting together, building trust and tell each other about their stories and experiences in a way they can support and assist one another in a manner not possible in civilian groups” The program provides practical trauma and stress disorder information, and life skills acquisition to participants who are attempting to better understand their military experience and its impact on their lives. Specifically, the VTP, operates in a group based supportive environment, and addresses multiple levels of veterans’ post traumatic stress reactions, self-regulation processes, interpersonal communication competencies, and civilian life re-integration skills through a team and skills building approach. It provides participants with the opportunity to engage in an action-based method of dealing with disturbing and traumatic events from their lives, both in or out of the military enabling. them to “drop the baggage” so they can get on with their lives more successfully. The VTP also includes a group and individual component for the spouses or partners of veterans. Veterans who have completed the VTP have stated that this specific program is necessary to helping our veterans effectively go forward towards leading successful lives as citizens in our communities.

The VTP is meant to complement existing transition assistance services offered by the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada. Since it was initiated in 1998, the VTP Program has made a significant difference in the lives of over 180 former military personnel and their families who have been diagnosed with various levels of PTSD and related psychological and behavioural symptoms. Ongoing research has identified significant benefits related with the program such as: (1) improved personal adjustment (behavioural and psychological), (2) increased effectiveness in coping with trauma-related stress injuries (3) the acquisition of skills and strategies for making a successful adjustment to civilian life, and (4) stronger interpersonal support connections and relationships between veterans and their families.

The VTP was developed at the University of British Columbia and delivered by the program’s co-founders Dr.s Marv Westwood and David Kuhl of the Faculty of Medicine via the support of BC/Yukon Command of The Royal Canadian Legion, and is entirely free to veteran soldier participants. The VTP is offered as a full day residential program in three sessions (4 days, 2 days, & 3 days). The group consists of 7 – 10 participants, two or more professional facilitators and two peer trained workers — former soldiers who have taken the program themselves.

This program not only serves the vets for whom is was designed but contributes to the preparation of future professionals as UBC graduates-in-training are involved both as learners and researchers in the program. The soldiers in the group are our teachers as what they require to make a successful transition. Clearly the senior veterans modelled strong leadership through a vision, a requirement and a felt sense of responsibility to help their younger peers by mentoring the development of the current Veterans Transition Program.

Duty with honour is the foundation of the Canadian Forces, serving to protect our nation’s values, interests and sovereignty at home and abroad. With 62,000 Regular Force Members and 25,000 Reserve Forces including 4,000 Canadian Rangers, Canada’s respected international standing as committed humanitarians, is attributable to those who serve in the cause of peace.

The Royal Canadian Legion’s longstanding tradition of caring for veterans and their families continues with steadfast determination, as current serving members of the Canadian Forces are as equally deserving. The Legion within BC/Yukon Command designs and supports specialized, acclaimed health and social programs to support members of the Canadian Forces and their families.

For more information, contact British Columbia/Yukon Command, The Royal Canadian Legion
152-5489 Byrne Road, Burnaby, BC V35J 3J1

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Jess Wiberg