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The sacred ground

Doug Allen

I was raised by a career police officer and surrounded by generations of military and first responders in my Family. Any other way of being was unknown to me. Service was the unit of measure that determined one’s worth. To serve was to earn your place in your Family, your community, and even your country.  It was this sacred ground I was born into but had yet to understand.

I remember as a child being confused by my dad. I loved him and thought that he was the ultimate man. He was the best, but I could not understand him. My young mind could not comprehend his thought processes. My worldview seemed much different than his. Despite admiring him and feeling his desire to connect with me, there was always something that prevented us from truly connecting.

I remember asking my mom, “Why does Dad seem different?” and she explained, “When people see a rose in full bloom, they lean over to smell its sweet scent. When your father sees the rose, he looks for the bee lurking inside waiting to strike.”

I didn’t fully understand, but got it enough to know there was more to the story than what my young eyes could see. Regardless, I felt safe at least knowing I had a place in my pack.

That sense of knowing where I belonged followed me into adulthood. It led me into service. It led me with great confidence into what I had always considered to be the tip of the spear of service: The Canadian Armed Forces Infantry. I didn’t just want to be a watchdog, I wanted to be a wolf! Not a lone wolf, but a part of the pack. It’s the pack that is unstoppable. They own the very ground they walk on.  They move with grace and conviction. The only direction they need to concern themselves with is to their front, for wolves know that their pack has their back. With this support they are powerful enough to go anywhere. This is what I wanted. This is what was taught to me by my Family and upbringing in a military/paramilitary world.

My career allowed me to experience many different things and be a part of many different packs within the military. I excelled at instructing, and found a great sense of pride and contentment in fostering the values of “pack life” in those seeking it through service.

But my “Aha!” moment — when everything suddenly seemed to come together — wasn’t until many years into my career. It was almost seven months into a tour in Afghanistan. A tour of long days, heavy combat and an ever-changing environment as we either moved around or our activities shifted with the dance of war.

We were on a patrol and had stopped to investigate an issue. As a Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) Sergeant I was positioned in my vehicle with a command view of our troops and the terrain around us. As I watched my “pack” dismount and move into various positions to take on the necessary roles of an infantry platoon in a war zone, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of elation and pride. I kind of chuckled as I watched all the members of the platoon simply move without speaking, feeling tired but comfortable — maybe not comfortable — but safe. Our pack owned the very ground we walked on. We did not need to check behind us, for we knew without a shadow of a doubt that every member of our pack had our backs.

I suddenly realized that it was not the training, nor the chain of command, nor the pay or equipment that mattered. It was the comradery. It was the unspoken knowing that we all had with each other. It was at that moment that I finally got it: I had found the sacred ground.

And then, in the very next moment, that sacred ground was shattered. We were ambushed.  And three members of our platoon were killed that day.

The same three that I had watched pass by me as they completed their shift of watch.

The same three that I was reflecting on just moments prior, who had led me to discover our sacred ground.

They were rough and tumble. Crude and to the point. They did not put much thought into their dress and deportment. I remember laughing to myself at how frustrating it must have been to put them through their basic training. But, they were exactly what was needed for our job. They were exactly what I needed in my pack. When they spoke, you could trust them. Their clothes were torn and dirty, but they always had their equipment and there was no question that it was in perfect working order. They would be the first ones to tell you to relax, and the first ones to jump into action when needed. They were wolves. They believed in the pack.

I remember seeing my parents when we returned home shortly after. For the first time in my life, I understood my father. Without saying a word, we suddenly connected. I had entered that sacred ground with him. I realized at that moment that the sacred ground we shared was that of the loss of our pack. We had both become lone wolves. Surviving alone, instead of thriving together.

I spent years after I returned home as a lone wolf just trying to survive. I was not able to connect with others. I was starting to decay. When another lone wolf looking for a pack told me about the Veterans Transition Network – a group of clinicians from the University of British Columbia who run a 10-day peer support group program for Veterans – I knew I at least had to step into the door.

By this point I did not feel like a lone wolf, but more like a scared and abused dog. But I stepped in and saw a room full of other lone wolves and some clinicians. The clinicians were unlike any that I had seen before. They were connected. They seemed to know and understand us without saying a word. They felt safe. These clinicians knew that they had each other’s backs. They were a pack. But, a pack like I had never seen, or like any of the other lone wolves had seen. These clinicians showed us how to be a pack, but in a whole new way.

Within a few days, the room full of lone wolves had become a pack. We started to recall our journeys and reclaim ownership of the sacred ground we walked before. We began to walk with our heads held high as we healed together and reclaimed ourselves from the traumas of our past.

We walked the ground of our memories that we had fought through as lone wolves, but we did it as a pack. Because we shared this sacred ground, we couldn’t navigate alone.

I got to have my new pack at my side when I said goodbye to the three team members I had lost. In that moment, I became free to not just survive, but to thrive once again. That is the power of peer support.

– Doug Allen, CD

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