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Swimming for soldiers' lives
Doug Setter trains soldiers for combat. He knows some of them may not return from their tour of duty alive.
But he has a hard time accepting that some won't survive their return to civilian life.
So on Monday Setter will join two colleagues, Linh Lai of Burnaby and Dave Iten from Coquitlam, at the Josh Fueston Memorial Swim to Live, a four-mile open water relay swim across Bellingham Bay in honour of American and Canadian servicemen that lost their lives to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Setter, a fitness trainer and a sergeant with the Royal Westminster Regiment, has personally attended the funerals of three soldiers who took their own lives. He says the stress of military service, dodging bullets and bombs, is often compounded by the day-to-day demands of shifting policies and procedures, moving around, being away from family.
"There is a different level of stress in the military," says Setter, who served as a peacekeeper in Croatia, and did tours with the airborne regiment and as a morse code operator.
The public's perception of soldiers also exerts pressure, says Setter. "Every time you opened the paper, it was very negative."
To cope, Setter says he often worked himself "to exhaustion."
Debriefs were often ineffective, because counsellors don't have battlefield experience.
Instead, most soldiers decompress with colleagues, swapping stories in the mess hall.
"There's a place you can go and say what you want," says Setter. "It means everything in the world that comrades are there to listen to you. It's something you can't replace."
Some seek solace in alcohol and drugs. Some can't shake the military life and keep signing on for further tours.
"Some guys come back a little hard, and they go back but it's not for the right reasons," says Setter. "They don't know any other way of life."
Setter says he's seen many improvements during his tenure, though. There's more career transition counseling and outreach, the process for selecting soldiers is more refined. And the military has become more involved in local communities.
"We used to be very closed," says Setter. "It's important to be able to connect with the community."
Setter says events like the swim help shine a light on the challenges soldiers face when their duty is done. It's named after a Bellingham native and avid swimmer who succumbed to his own post-battlefield demons after a tour in Iraq in 2008.
"You send a message that you're not forgotten when you come back," says Setter. "We have a responsibility to look out for our fellow soldiers."