Review — The War

A New Brunswick schoolgirl was so anxious over her father’s deployment to Afghanistan she felt like vomiting every time the phone rang. Another recalled a sibling who “had nightmares that my dad blew up and he had no face.” A third remembers being reprimanded for weeping in class: “My teacher told me to stop crying because there was no reason to cry, and that it was stupid for me to cry over something like that. I got mad at her because my dad just left to go to war for six months, and I’m pretty sure that’s a valid reason to be upset.”

These are the stories in Armyville: Canada’s Military Families During the Afghanistan Mission. The research is fresh, the narrative compelling. Poet Raymond Souster, a WWII volunteer, said once that every patriot who would send Canadians to war should first walk through the ward in a veterans’ hospital. They should also read Armyville.

The public has largely forgotten our 12 years in Afghanistan. A 2014 Department of Defence survey found 31 percent of people were unaware Canada’s war had ended. Yet the conflict was indelible for the families of 40,000 Canadians who served, and the 2,229 injured, and the 138 killed in action.

Professors Deborah Harrison of the University of New Brunswick and Patrizia Albanese of Ryerson University arranged interviews with sons and daughters of Afghan veterans in Oromocto, N.B. Sociologists know little “about the unique ways in which deployments” affect military families, notes Armyville. In the absence of research Canadians were left with snapshots of Support Our Troops rallies, and unsettling accounts of a four-fold increase in rates of family violence at Petawawa, Ont. after the troops came home.

“This monograph has provided a glimpse into the lives of Canadian military adolescents during a historically unique time,” authors write. Seen through the eyes of teenagers, Armyville is warm and heartfelt, disturbing and human.

One child recalls attending a government resource centre program intended to cheer up the kids: “It’s annoying and it’s boring, and they don’t do anything. I went to this one thing – it was like a military thing. And we pretty much did this obstacle course. It was a military obstacle course. We had to jump over and under stuff, and monkey bars, and go around. And then we had to run, and I was like: ‘Oh my God!’ Like, ‘We’re not military. Why are we doing this? This isn’t fun!’”

The war repelled and attracted. Some veterans’ families were driven apart – “Mom pretty much told us right off the bat, ‘Don’t ask him about Afghanistan’,” said one boy – and others grew closer. “I see him as more of a man,” a teenager said of his father. “I try to be more like him. I suck everything up. I don’t complain.”

Another boy recalls a haunting incident the time his father was working alone in the basement when his brother returned from school and dropped his book bag on the floor with a loud bang. “When he looked up, my dad was there with a baseball bat. He put it down right away and he was like, ‘I’m going to go for the mail’; “My brother had scared him. He put it down right away as if it was nothing, and then he tried to cover it up by saying he was going to go for the mail.”

Armyville confirms statistically the children of veterans are no more likely to have trouble in school, or skip class, or suffer mental health issues than other Canadian kids. Yet most shared a sense they’d had a profound experience known only to those who lived it. “The majority believed that only adolescents from Canadian Armed Forces families could be sufficiently understanding,” note authors.

Armyville helps.

By Holly Doan

Growing Up in Armyville: Canada’s Military Families during the Afghanistan Mission, by Deborah Harrison and Patrizia Albanese; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 262 pages; ISBN 9781-77112-2344; $38.99

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