My entire life, I’ve heard the phrase “Thank you for your service,” and I’ve said it many times, but it wasn’t until I met Desmond James that I really understood what it meant.
I met James in 2018 when I started working toward my master’s degree. He was in my cohort.
James lives in Langford, but at the time was working out of Ottawa. Over the two-year program we worked on a few projects together and I knew he was in the Royal Canadian Navy.
When we were in class together, he dressed casually, and I automatically, inaccurately, assumed he was working in an office job.
Near the end of our program, James let us know he would be deployed to the Middle East, but could not disclose his exact location. He also said he would continue working on the degree while abroad. I heard these words, but I didn’t fully comprehend what his experience or role would be.
I know now that James was a public affairs officer for NATO Mission Iraq.
During his deployment, we were working on a group project with a few other classmates. We would have team meetings over video conference, and we would see James in his uniform and his surroundings in Iraq. It felt like he had transformed into someone else. It was a lesson to me that there are many different layers and experiences to the people we know that we are not always privy to.
As our weekly team meetings progressed, James’ situation turned into a scary territory.
“It was a non-combat mission that suddenly switched gears,” James explained.
He was telling us about bombings, rocket attacks, attack helicopters flying overhead, the arrival of the U.S. Army and Marines in the region and a possible evacuation.
He was telling us this so we would know he might be late with his assignment contributions. As a team, we only cared about his safety and let him know we could cover his obligations. He declined our offers and still delivered.
I’ve had other friends in the military, both Canadian and U.S., and they’ve told me some scary stories, but somehow seeing and hearing James share his experiences in real time hit me hard.
I would go to work and think about him and worry for his safety. I would wait for our team meetings, hoping he would join so we would know if he was OK.
This past week, I read an article James wrote on his experience living with post-traumatic stress disorder and his healing journey. Reading his words brought me back to that time.
“I’ve had symptoms of PTSD for years. I didn’t know that’s what it was — I just thought that is how people lived,” James said, explaining he was also deployed to Afghanistan in 2006.
Over the years, James said he had friends and military professionals suggest he seek help for PTSD related to his deployments, which he eventually did, but he still did not fully understand the severity and impact it had on him.
“My PTSD was caught during a post-deployment screening in July 2020,” said James, adding he is grateful for the level of support he is receiving from the military. “I know that not everyone in every profession receives the amount of support I have received.”
In his recovery, James said he is living day by day and working through his experiences.
I want to thank James for his service, and for teaching me the real meaning behind the phrase.
June 27 is National PTSD Awareness Day.
Charla Huber is the director of communications and Indigenous relations for M’akola Housing Society.