Whalen’s novel puts spotlight on PTSD in armed forces

John Whelan’s novel Going Crazy in the Green Machine examines post-traumatic stress through the eyes of a troubled protaganoist, Billy Reardon, a Newfoundland soldier who witnessed terrifying events. (TIM KROCHAK / Staff)
Newfoundland native Billy Reardon is the man who never was. But elements of this fictitious character can be found in the personalities of real-life military members and veterans who’ve battled post-traumatic stress disorder. Reardon is the creation of Halifax-area psychologist John Whelan, a former navy sailor who has written a book examining post-traumatic stress through the eyes of his troubled protagonist.Going Crazy in the Green Machine: The Story of Trauma and PTSD among Canada’s Veterans tells the tale of Master Cpl. Billy Reardon and other composite characters who have served in this country’s Armed Forces. Names were made up; horrific events experienced during deployments to troubled regions overseas were not.
Reardon has his demons and faces some of the mental health consequences associated with witnessing terrifying things: disrupted sleep, depression, anger, family trouble and alcohol abuse. The picture the reader is presented with is not pretty. That portrait shows understandable frustration and unhappiness clawing at Reardon, a married father of two. Then there are the times he’s just plain numb, whether from medication or from a lack of human connection.
Whelan spent about nine years in the navy before attending university to earn a master’s degree and PhD in clinical psychology. He wrote the book because he wanted to tell, from their vantage point, the anguish-filled stories he’s heard from serving and retired members of the Canadian Forces.
“So readers could then have the experience that these soldiers go through,” he said in a recent interview.
A 58-year-old Hatchet Lake resident, Whelan said he put in long days during a three- to four-month period working on his book, which was published in November. He sees his main market as military members and retired personnel, but also readers from military families and the mental health community. Dialogue in his book is often laced with salty language, Whelan acknowledged, but military people who read it before its release advised him not to sanitize his material. They wanted an accurate reflection of their world and their lingo, he said. The book is divided into two parts, with the second focusing on a larger discussion of post-traumatic stress (with references to Billy Reardon’s case) after the reader finishes Reardon’s story.
Chapters in Part Two cover such topics as remaining connected to the people close to you, and Whelan’s experience with case workers from Veterans Affairs Canada and the bureaucratic system in which they toil. (The “green machine” in the title refers mainly to administrative aspects of the military bureaucracy, the author says in a note to readers.) Ottawa has been blasted by critics for its handling of veterans’ concerns. Retired general Rick Hillier has called for a public inquiry into the treatment of vets with emotional problems, in the wake of soldiers’ suicides. In January, Prime Minister Stephen Harper replaced embattled Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino with MP Erin O’Toole, a former Royal Canadian Air Force officer.

Last winter, the federal government said it was finally in the process of hiring up to 54 mental health specialists for the military to satisfy a need identified years ago. Asked to assess how Ottawa is currently handling veterans’ issues, Whelan said there are positive signs but the jury’s still out. “I’m waiting like everyone else” for marked improvements, he said. What is clear, Whalen said, is that Veterans Affairs “was really caught off guard” by the wave of younger vets and military members requiring assistance. He said the department was focusing on Second World War veterans and didn’t see this next generation coming. After working in the addiction treatment for the Canadian military, Whelan about a decade ago set up a private clinic to help those with PTSD. He’s developed a group therapy program to help promote peer-support networks.

Whalen left the navy in 1985. Originally from Newfoundland, he heads a psychological services office in Halifax’s Clayton Park staffed by him and other psychologists. In the last line of the book’s epilogue, Whelan appeals to men and women who served, and who might be struggling mentally, to seek a sounding board. It’s a crucial part of the book’s theme: If you, like many people, have a psychological wound, don’t ignore it or place it at the back of your mind. “For those who may be living the life of quiet desperation, talk to someone, talk to anyone,” Whalen says in his postscript.

Michael Lightstone is a freelance journalist living in Dartmouth.