Brandee and Brianna’s daddy came home from Afghanistan broken. It was 36 days into his second tour when his vehicle hit a land mine. His own gun, strapped behind him, launched a bullet into his helmet and his head smacked the dashboard, causing damage to his brain’s frontal lobe. When he returned home to Edmonton, the once-engaged father began drinking heavily. He couldn’t leave the house. His short-term recall was shot. If one of his daughters woke him up from a nap, he was likely to grab her by the throat. The girls, then aged seven and four, didn’t understand what had happened; they just knew that this man wasn’t their dad.
Helena Gillespie has met lots of kids like Brandee and Brianna. As a family liaison coordinator at the Edmonton Military Family Resource Centre (MFRC), it’s her job to help the families of soldiers who’ve returned from combat with operational stress injuries (OSIs), a term used to describe a range of mental health issues, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Gillespie began volunteering at the MFRC in 2004, while doing her undergraduate degree in psychology. It was a frenetic introduction to military life, where families are bounced around the country every few years and subjected to long periods apart during overseas deployments. “It’s a very unique culture,” says Gillespie. “ They don’t have a natural support network around them — they don’t have Grandma or Grandpa soldiering on to help out when Mom or Dad is stressed, or a core network of friends who they can talk to.”
Gillespie landed at the MFRC full-time as a social worker in 2007. By then, there were dozens of soldiers in Edmonton battling OSIs (the overwhelming majority of them men), and their wives were desperate for a program to help their traumatized children. “ There are a bazillion supports for the service member, but the family gets shoved to the side a bit,” she says. “We just didn’t have a lot to offer them.” She began working on what came to be known as iSTEP (Individual Success rough Empowering Peers).
The 10-week peer-support program, launched in 2010, uses art therapy, music and games to teach kids how to cope with a parent who has OSIs, like PTSD. For the younger kids (from six to eight), the team introduces the concept of OSIs by talking about visible hurts (like broken arms), and invisible hurts — the kind that makes their daddies so angry and scared to leave the house. “A lot of families don’t want to talk about it, so we make it safe and comfortable,” says Gillespie, whose weekly sessions focus on how to deal with feelings of sadness and anger, how to be supportive of other kids and building self-esteem.
For the teenagers, they developed a private blog to complement the 10-week program, allowing them to post questions and advice anonymously. “It can be very powerful,” she says. “To hear from another child, ‘ This is what was helpful to me,’ — they are more likely to follow that than what some adult is telling them.”
So far, more than 50 children have completed the program, and the results have been so positive that the military is rolling iSTEP out at 32 bases nationwide this spring.
Brandee and Brianna’s mom, Carrie Levesque (now separated from her husband), will always be grateful to Gillespie. “I’m happy there’s something out there for our children, because the military just forgot us,” says Levesque. “For those 10 weeks, the kids get to have fun and vent in a safe place. They deserve that.”