Meet our hosts, Brian McKenna, retired warrant officer with the Canadian Armed Forces and Laryssa Lamrock, mother, daughter and partner of members of the Canadian military.

Our first episode introduces Brian and Laryssa, and explores what it’s like to be a Veteran and a Veteran Family member living with PTSD. As experts of their own experiences, they get candid about what a PTSD diagnosis really meant for them and for those closest to them. They share their hopes for how the podcast will help others, no matter where one might find themselves on their own journey.

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‘Mind Beyond the Mission’ with Laryssa Lamrock and Brian McKenna

Episode 1: The Expert In Your Own Journey

Brian

Welcome to Mind Beyond the Mission, a podcast for and by Veterans and Veteran Family members. I’m one of your hosts, Brian McKenna, and I’m a strategic advisor at the Atlas Institute and a retired Canadian soldier.

Laryssa

And I’m Laryssa Lamrock, strategic advisor at the Atlas Institute and a proud military Family member. In this podcast, we’ll be diving into the real issues experienced by Veterans, former RCMP members, and their Families.

Brian

We won’t promise you that we’ll do everything perfectly, but we can assure you that we’ll be getting real about the experiences that so many of us have in common but don’t always talk about, or don’t necessarily know where or how to talk about it.

Laryssa

We hope you find solidarity in our words and experiences, and more importantly, that you find a sense of hope that things can truly get better, and that you can live present in the moment and live life authentically.

Brian

Let’s get into it.

This is Brian McKenna, Retired Warrant Officer from the Canadian Forces, and I’m out here in Delta, BC, on the west coast. And I’m joined on the podcast with my partner in crime, Laryssa Lamrock, and she’s out of Meaford. How you doing?

Laryssa

Thanks, Brian, happy to be here. We’ve been talking about this podcast for a long time. We’re finally in the seats. We’re finally doing it. So yes, I’m Laryssa Lamrock, military family member kind of through and through. My dad served in the military, I’m married to a Veteran who was medically released, and my oldest son is still a serving member, so, yeah, happy to be here.

Brian

So you married an infantry warrant officer as well.

Laryssa

I did. Sucker for punishment, maybe, I don’t know. And now I’m working with one! How did I get here?

Brian

Yeah, I’ve been having a bit of discussions with some of the other folks who we’re working with over time about what we intend to accomplish in the podcast. And I find in our job, sometimes when people ask me a question, an email is good enough. “Hey Brian, left or right turn?” “Turn left.” Sometimes, though, topics come up and they need – they deserve – a long form answer. They deserve to actually get into it a bit. And that’s what I’m excited about being able to do here on the podcast.

I think if someone wants to know, “Hey, are we going with this photo or this one?” Easy. If they want to know, “What are we going to do about a sleep situation after 20 years of doing things the army way, and now you’ve got to leave that behind and just go back to being a normal person? How do I do that?” And, well, that requires a little bit more discussion. “What happens to a relationship when one person takes on the caregiver role?” How do you answer that in two seconds? And so, those are the things I’m really excited about being able to jump into. You got any of those on your mind?

Laryssa

I just agree with you, Brian, we’re going to be talking about some of our own experiences with mental health issues, particularly around PTSD. And yeah, as you said, those aren’t one-liners that we can pull out there, so I’m happy that we’re going to be creating some space for Veterans and Families to talk about their experiences, folks that we’ll be bringing into chat about specific topics. So, yeah, it absolutely impacts both the Veteran with a diagnosis of some sort of mental health injury, but absolutely the family, and something that I’ve really appreciated from you is reminding us that it’s not “the Veteran, and Family, that the Veteran is part of the family unit, and I’m looking forward to delving into a lot more of those perspectives further.

Brian

Yeah. I remember in Kapyong Barracks and Winnipeg, my first deployment, they gathered us up and we went and did a situational briefing. And then our families did a briefing on what was going to go on from the family perspective. At no time did they get a heads-up on what we were being briefed on, and yet, we were also separated out of it as if we weren’t part of the family. So the family was you, and whoever else you had in mind. It was like, “Well, hey guys, I’m here too. I haven’t abandoned my role as a dad because I’ve got this green suit on. I’m part of this as well.” And through all their best intentions, they just weren’t where we needed them to be.

I also look at our role with Veterans and Families, and I think one of the things that’s been a big miss over the time is we would often go to someone like you in so much as… you could help your husband. Well, what about you? Where’s Laryssa the person in this, right? Where’s my wife in this conversation as a person, and potentially a patient themselves?

And that’s one of the things that I’m quite proud of that we’re not making that same mistake here.

Laryssa

Right, because we’ve talked about how Veteran health impacts the family, but the family health impacts the Veteran as well. It has to be kind of a unit working together, so absolutely agree with you.

Brian

You and I have discussed this at length over time, but I think we’re kind of finding ourselves in a position where we’ve got a microphone and are just re-hashing an old conversation, but one of the more important points you asked me, and you kept asking until I gave you a real answer – which was annoying, but I can respect it – “When was the time? How did you know you had a problem?”

Laryssa

Right.

Brian

And, well, there were a whole host of things, but how did I know I had a problem that I couldn’t avoid? How did I know I had a problem that I couldn’t just overlook, push through and carry on?

And for me, I became an adrenaline junkie in some really bad ways. And I know for me that one day when I looked in the rear-view mirror and I was driving in a manner that was completely not how I normally do business, and I saw my own kids in the rear-view mirror… well, that was about as eye opening as I needed it to be. And that was one of those points, like, “Man, what are you doing? What are you doing? And why are you doing it?” And it was a bit of a moment where I had to square up and just say, okay, this is taking a new turn.

But as I was talking about this with one of our workmates the other day, something that I actually hadn’t told you was, there was one day where I was getting a picture framed at a local art store around here. Not a hard thing to do. I had the picture, had the size, measure it, get it done. And I remember going in there and suddenly I’m picking matting and frames and colours, being asked a million questions, it’s like, “Could you just frame the damn thing?! Can you just get it done?” And this person is trying to help me by presenting me these options and for whatever reason options and multitasking was just not something I wanted to be a part of anymore.

I just… I wanted to walk into a place and you know, “This is the burger.” “Awesome. Great.” “This is the coffee.” “Good.” I didn’t want to be sitting there discussing, and I was actually finding that it was becoming more than I could actually handle, just getting a $30 transaction to happen. And it suddenly became this thing where my rage was rising, I was starting to get aggravated. The more I was aggravated, the more the person trying to help me was aggravated. And I remember just grabbing everything and leaving in a big huff and sitting in my car and just having one hell of a meltdown moment over getting a picture framed. It was like, why? I just come back from a place where I’m leading 34 people in some of the most arduous circumstances the globe can find – doing quite well at it, by the way – and I can’t get a picture frame sorted? What’s that about?

Laryssa

Yeah. And I’ve heard from a lot of Veterans, kind of similar circumstances like that, that must’ve been kind of a turning point for you. And I can’t imagine all of the different emotions that were happening at that time, especially because you were in a leadership position. You could make really life-dependent decisions in a split second. And yet here you are in this frame shop where you can’t make a decision between colors of matting. So I can’t imagine what kind of mindset that would have been for you, that “I can’t even make these kinds of simple decisions.”

Brian

Yeah. It’s it was a big frustrating point. And I think it’s one of those reasons, when you’re overseas and you see the freedom bird finally lands, right? That’s the plane that’s going to get you the heck out of there. So, greatest feeling in the world. You’ve never been so excited to see the same boring aircraft land as you are the minute I actually get to get on that thing and get the heck out of here. It’s wonderful. And then about a week later, I did not want to be home. I wanted to go back. Why? And it’s because I think I got to this place where I trained myself, people had trained me, I was so well suited to doing my job… and then I come home and I can’t make meals. I can’t – I can’t sort out the bloody picture frame.

I was good at soldiering and I felt quite bad at life. Therefore… I’m better over there. I’m more suited to that. And I think that’s what a lot of guys go through is, you’ve got this thing that you do that you’re really good at, you come back to this place that you feel really ill-suited for… by the way, when we do our job as a family member and I get everything set up so that you can run that house when I’m gone and you can take care of the kids and that’s great. And then you actually succeed at it. And then I come home and go, “Holy hell, what do I do around here? I have just been replaced. And when I go back into the platoon lines, I don’t feel replaced.

I feel like I’m sliding right into where I ought to be, right, and I think that’s a lot of what folks go through. And I watched it happen with my friends repeatedly. You come out of there and you think the risk, the threat, I’ve lost friends, it’s bloody hot, I’m covered in dust. I don’t ever want to go back to this place ever again… give it 10 days, man. Maybe not even.

Laryssa

As you’re speaking about your experiences of coming home, I’m thinking about what it was like from the family side of things. So, I remember when my spouse first deployed, got on the plane, it was very exciting. It was scary. There were a lot of unknowns.

But what was kind of maybe more scary than that was, once he returned home, and I realized that he wasn’t quite the same person that deployed. And that not only the difficulty of that reintegration piece and where everyone fits and the roles of the family, but now understanding that there’s some differences in this person and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

And way back in the day, we didn’t talk about operational stress injuries. We didn’t talk about PTSD. We didn’t talk about the possible mental health impacts or injuries that military members could sustain. So I didn’t know what I was looking at. So the types of behaviours, like you’re talking about, watching my spouse melt down over a decision over a picture frame or something like that… I totally didn’t understand where that was coming from. I had nothing to base that on. And so as a family member, you’re trying to come up with the answers on your own. Wondering if it’s the relationship, wondering if it’s you, did the kids piss him off or piss her off? So that’s what’s happening simultaneously in that piece.

Brian

So when you’re dealing with something that’s difficult now, how do you guys find hope? How do you chart that path?

Laryssa

I’m going to say, we had to find hope before we ran into something difficult. It’s been a really long process, a really long journey. How we handle difficult situations and tensions now is way different than we did at the beginning.

And I know this sounds so cliché and I’m hoping that we’re going to delve into this more in future episodes, but really, communication is the key to it. And it has to flow both ways. So I spent a lot of time educating myself on what was happening for my spouse, educating myself on how I could support him in his recovery, educating myself on how best to communicate, but it also had to go the other way. He had to understand what the impacts are like on family members. I’ve gone through my own journey of wanting to support my spouse and not taking care of myself, which led to my own compassion fatigue and my own depression.

And so, we’re both Injured to some degree and we both have to be empathetic and supportive of each other. And sometimes that means we lean on each other and sometimes that means we lean on other people and other sources of support. So I’d say the two biggest components for that hope is kind of a common ground and “us against the issue” instead of “us against each other,” with the issue.

How about you, Brian? I’m curious, you talked about that experience in the car, you having the meltdown, that was a bit of revelation for you, but did your family members ever reflect anything back at the time, or is it kind of now in hindsight when you look back that your family members might say, “Yeah, actually, we saw this happening but we didn’t know how to approach it” or whatever.

Brian

They didn’t know what to do. And more than likely they were a little scared. It was a time where we were just constantly rotating in and out, and you were either going, you were there, or you came back. That was our existence for that almost 10 year period. At the very beginning of the mission to Afghanistan, it was a lot slower, but as we were putting almost 4,000 guys every six months in there, you just got into this rotation of having one of three roles in life – you’re either coming home, going, or being there. And the family got used to that. If I wasn’t overseas, one of the regular people that always came through the door wasn’t around. There was someone constantly in a state of going. And I think it took a while for us to realize that our families were in that state as well.

It’s real easy to look at your company and go, okay, well who’s going where? But all the spouses and wives were in that cycle as well. So that was a reality we had to get used to. But how do you find hope? Well, the real answer is for the longest time I didn’t. And I think one of my failings – or let’s go with struggle, that sounds so much better than failing – is that I wanted to get healthy enough so that I could go back. I wanted to get healthy enough to keep my job, right. It’s like, this is what I do. People introduce me to other people by going, “Oh, don’t worry about him. He’s in the army.” Like, it became a persona almost and a career.

And it was like, I don’t want to lose that. That’s absolutely central to what I see when I look in the mirror, whether I’m wearing a uniform or not, I see that member of the Forces. And so that’s what I was guarding. That’s what I was worried about losing. So there was no hope for the longest time. And that took me down big time.

What helped, though? Eventually I got in front of a doctor that was really properly designed for me, for what I was going through. And he just wouldn’t take my answers that were trying to fend off his questions. He would force me to dive into it. And the biggest thing was, “What is it about this incident that really bothers you?”

And when I finally relented and let him ask his questions and cooperated with him – instead of fighting the help, I took the help, and that took me years, by the way, years, three years, about – it was 2014 when I finally started relenting and listening to what he was saying. And we would take an issue, like where I’ve gone to as part of a response team to where a bus had been blown up and you go, “What was it about that?”

And at first I was like, “Well, duh, what do you think? Because it’s awful. Because there’s carnage. I mean, that’s, what’s bad about it.” And through his various iterations of peeling that onion back, we got down to the point of that one incident where he’s like, “What bothers you is that you stepped on this woman’s purse, and that forced you to recognize that that’s not just a nondescript soldier, that it was a woman.”

A woman’s very different, right. A female soldier has what I have; has a rucksack, has a kitbag, has traditional – a woman has a purse, right? And so when you get to the back of that armored vehicle and you step in a purse, it’s a different circumstance.

Laryssa

Different reality.

Brian

And that is actually what bothers me about, for example, the 29th of October, 2011, which is a really, really nasty incident, but you’ll never Google and find out about this purse. The purse is in my mind, right. But that’s what bugs me about it. It’s like, okay, well, how the hell is that a hopeful message? It sounds like a horrible message. Well, the hope is that if you work with your doctor and you don’t fight him, you might actually figure out what bugs you about it. That’s hopeful.

Laryssa

Yeah, exactly. And I, and I think that’s an important message for people to hear.

Recovery is hard as hell. Watching my husband work through his recovery, and he’s disclosed it to me, it’s probably one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. I’m sure he’d much rather be in uniform facing down an enemy than he would often want to be in our hometown in his clinician’s office.

But that hope is letting people know that if you do the work, and take that energy of fighting against what you’re struggling with, you use the word struggle – and put that energy towards recovery, things can get better. And there’s a couple of different concepts you and I have talked about. The first thing I’ll throw out there is my spouse being an infanteer, uses a lot of analogies that I think you can probably relate to is that he had to come to a point of acceptance that he can disassemble and reassemble a machine gun blindfolded. That’s his expertise. That’s his training. That’s his comfort zone. But what made him expect that he could handle mental health issues with the same expertise? He had to accept that there were other people that were subject matter experts and he couldn’t manage the mental health piece on his own, that he had to accept help.

And I think part of what that’s tied to is something you and I have talked about, being mission before self. That’s one of the core ethics from what I understand of Canadian military members’ training is the importance of mission before self. There’s a real importance and need to that.

But that must be really hard to turn off after you take the uniform off, that concept that maybe that self becomes before the mission, or maybe that self becomes the mission.

Brian

You know what’s really challenging is you become a master of this term called “situational awareness.” So in other words, “What the heck is going on?” and when you’re at a bad scene, you need to know everything about what’s going on.You need to have all your senses on.

I’ll give you an example. In a place like Afghanistan, there are I think 11 different tribes. When you looked at the different kinds of people, there was Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen, you had all kinds of different folks there. To me, no, there was one kind: there was us and them. But to them, there’s a lot of different breakdowns, a lot of different groups, and no one can really sense that like they can. And so you become a master of situational awareness and if you don’t have it, then you need to figure out who does. So your interpreter becomes very, very important to you to figure out, “Hey, is someone here making everyone else feel uncomfortable?”

So you’re used to reading the room and even if it’s in a combat setting, you’re outside on a patrol and you’ve got a problem, which means you probably have a kilometer of area cordoned off and you’re supposed to figure everything out that’s going on. Well, come home into your house when there’s tension, but what’s the tension? Overseas, I know how to try to figure out what’s going on, right. I come into my own house and everyone’s on edge, and I have no idea how to start figuring out what caused that. And I want to turn around and just walk out the door. It’s more comfortable out there. And it’s stuff like that that to this day, I don’t think anyone’s really talking about.

The usual saying is mission first, self last. In other words, mission, troops, equipment, and the thing you never have time for: yourself. Well, that’s a really good way of planning a patrol. I recommend it if you’re loading an aircraft that you do that. Not a good way of running a family. Doesn’t work. It’s also not a good way of sorting yourself out in terms of health care.

Imagine going into a doctor where the last thing that you’re doing is working on you. Well, the first thing, the only thing he’s there to do is work on you, but it goes against our gut. It goes against what we’ve trained to do, how we set ourselves up. And I think soldiers have to relearn how to put themselves to the top of their own list.

Laryssa

Right, which brings us to “Mind Beyond the Mission.” So, I think there’s a couple of different reasons and rationales for why we chose that as the title for our podcast. Like you’re saying Brian, maybe military members, soldiers need to reframe and rethink and put their mind into the mindset of the mind beyond the mission.

I think it also speaks to the more literal of where a soldier’s mind is at after the mission, after the take the uniform off. And I think it really can apply to family members too. I was a military spouse for many years. And so where does that leave me now?

As a Veteran family member, being military is very much part of my identity, but also around, as I’ve said before, the mental health piece. Where’s my mindset after this mission? After my spouse retired? And there are implications on family members. I am impacted by his service. I am impacted by his injury.

And so, where’s my mindset beyond the mission as well?

Brian

I think it also shows what we want to do with this podcast and also what it’s not going to be about. There’s a lot of Veteran podcasts out there. We’re not going to compete with them in the space of, “Are my stories cooler than yours?” First of all, some of them aren’t that cool. War’s funny sometimes. It’s also really boring, and then it’s exhilarating. And all those things are true at once, but I’m not really all that interested in forming another podcast that just talks about the individual stories.

But how do we still find a sense of ourselves? How do I know what I’m going to do so that my forties are not just me talking about awesome things I did in my thirties? That’s the mind beyond the mission for me. I want this decade to be about the new things that I’m doing now. Not just to be a professional reminiscing society where all we ever do is come back and talk about what we used to do.

And well, how do I get myself to a spot where I can enjoy my forties is I’ve got to put some stuff to bed from my thirties.

Laryssa

And how do you do that? Exactly. And, yeah, I think something else you and I are excited about Brian with this podcast that’s not in this space so far, is that we want to tackle topics and issues from both sides of the experience. So we’re going to hear from Veterans, we’re going to hear from subject matter experts around Veteran issues and mental health. We’re going to hear from family members, and we’re going to hear from subject matter experts around Veteran family member issues. That’s one of the things that excites me the most.

You and I have had fantastic conversations in working together and really acknowledged that this is something that impacts the whole unit.

Brian

So something I’ve brought up with you before is what I call the concept of Annex F. And I remember where we got this message as we were on pre-deployment training and it was all the different things you had to sort out, right? You got to get this ready, we had this thing called a DAG sheet, a Departure Assistance Group. And it was this checklist of things you had to do that was mission-oriented. Get your needles, get your passport sorted out. By the way, exceptionally funny when 800 dudes go all renew their passports at the same time and the battalion has one official Hawaiian shirt for you. Eight hundred guys wearing the same Hawaiian shirt as they get their passports done is beyond funny.

But that process would happen, and then you had the other things, and Annex F of this message was family. We fail here at this institute if we continue to treat family like Annex F. Like the only thing that you serve a role for is to help make your husband better. It’s like, where are you? Where’s Laryssa as the individual? I will never be able to promise people like we’re going to be perfect, that we’re going to knock it out of the park all the time. No, we’re going to stumble, but we will not be treating family members like Annex F.

Laryssa

I hope that there is a Veteran family member somewhere that will stumble across the podcast and feel like they’re not alone. I hope they feel that someone understands them. I hope they receive that glimmer of hope that you can be in a relationship with someone with PTSD, anxiety, depression related to military service, and it can be a good one. And that folks come away from this podcast with more information, knowing where they can reach out to get help and realizing that there’s resources available to them. So that will be a point of success for me.

And hopefully we’ll hear back from folks saying, “That was a great podcast, a great episode, guys, keep it up! And can you talk about this issue next time?” I’m looking forward to hearing back from the community. So we could think we knocked this out of the park, but that’s not the marker for success for me, the marker for success is when I hear back from one of my community members from another Veteran family that we’re getting it right. Brian, what does success look like to you in regards to the Mind Beyond the Mission podcast?

Brian

It’s a blend of authenticity and hope. They need to see that we’re actually talking about the real things that are going on. It’s not window dressing and to be frank about it, it’s not all nice, right? These are not comfortable feelings, but when you’re authentic about that in both what those feelings are and how you got to them in the first place, what caused them, you connect with people that way.

And yet, what are we doing about it? How do we get better? How do we keep moving forward? And I want people to find hope. I also want them to see that there really, really is hope that it can get better. This is not a fake smile and I am not pretending to enjoy my forties. I’m actually really enjoying myself in the last couple of year. With a problem, not without it, I haven’t parked it. I have no idea how to park it by the way. But I do know that for me, at least, there can be smiles with PTSD. There is enjoyment. There’s a way of getting through these things. And that’s what I think is a combo of authenticity about what’s happened and hope as to how we’re moving forward.

Laryssa

Wow, thank you, Brian.

Brian

We hope you enjoyed this episode of Mind Beyond the Mission.

Laryssa

If this conversation resonated with you or helped you in any way, I encourage you to subscribe to Mind Beyond the Mission wherever you listen to your podcasts, so you’ll be the first to know when our next episode comes out.

Brian

And if you know someone who might relate to what we’ve shared, or could find it helpful, please feel free to send it their way. We’re all in this journey together.

Laryssa

Plus, we’d love to hear what other topics you’d be interested in us exploring in future episodes. Brian and I have a lot of ideas and subjects we plan to dive into, but you, the listener, have likely experienced or thought of topics that haven’t crossed our minds yet.

Brian

Please reach out if this is the case. We’re on social media at @atlasveteransca on most platforms, so please feel free to tweet at us, send us a message, or leave a review on this episode, and let us know what else you’d like to hear us talk about.

Laryssa

Brian, it’s always a pleasure having these important conversations with you. Looking forward to next time!

Brian

Right back at you, Laryssa. Take it easy.