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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Healing the invisible scars

TORONTO, January 25, 2017 - Let’s talk about strength and courage.  Let’s talk about the resilience of the human spirit.  Let’s talk about Master Corporal (Retired) Natacha Dupuis.

Eight years ago, Dupuis was moving up the ranks in the Canadian military.   On her second tour of duty in Afghanistan, she was a gunner, defending her fellow soldiers from the Taliban with a 25-millimetre cannon in a Coyote armoured vehicle.  A recent promotion saw her become the on ground commander for a week-long foot patrol “outside the wire” of the base in Kandahar.

Master Corporal (Retired) Natacha Dupuis
Master Corporal (Retired) Natacha Dupuis during one of her two tours of Afghanistan

In the early morning hours of March 20, 2009, her life changed forever.

“It was a hot morning in Afghanistan,” says Gatineau, Quebec native Dupuis, now 37. “We were rolling down a hill in a convoy and the vehicle behind me hit an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).”

Two soldiers were killed instantly.  Three others gravely wounded.

Dupuis and the surviving members of the platoon did emergency triage, knowing that one of the Taliban’s most devious tactics was to detonate a second IED when the first responders arrive.

“From the IED to the helicopter evacuation was about 20 minutes.  That may sound short, but they were the longest 20 minutes of my life…images I will never forget.”

The psychological trauma began immediately.  For the next 72 hours she could not sleep, could not stop reliving what had happened.  Only after a patched-through phone call to a military psychiatrist, and a prescription for sleeping pills, was Dupuis’s mind able to rest.

But for the rest of her tour, her mind could not be at rest, not for a second.  Thirteen times after that day, her unit was called to the aftermath of another IED attack on her fellow soldiers.  Thirteen times when she felt certain she was going to die.

“I would be lying to say I was not scared.  I was scared shitless.  The more IED attacks I was involved in, the more it felt like Russian roulette.  I felt there was no way I was coming out of there alive.”

She did make it out alive.  But that’s when the real war inside her head began.

“When I came home I shut down.  I totally collapsed.  When I say collapsed I mean I lost complete control over my life, my emotions.  One second I was numb, the next I was having uncontrollable crying spells.  I was having major flashbacks to the point where I would faint.  Panic attacks so bad I would fall to the ground and hyperventilate.”

CAMH Psychologist Dr. Vivien Lee, who has treated Canadian veterans with PTSD, has heard many stories like Dupuis’.  Coming home, she says, can be the hardest part.

“It’s only when they come home, when they are away from their military family and the adrenalin wears off, that they start to think ‘What the hell is wrong with me?’” says Dr. Lee. “When they have to slow things down a bit, that’s when the thoughts start coming back.”

Dupuis credits a decision she made before being deployed to give up drinking with saving her from the descent into alcoholism that has become another occupational hazard for veterans with PTSD.

She admits she thought about going back to the bottle many times during her long recovery. But she didn’t go back.  She sought help.  She got treatment.  She started to get better, started to regain a sense of control over her life.

To signal her renewed determination to live her life on her terms again, she connected with the organizers of the third Invictus Games, a tournament founded by Prince Harry for military veterans around the world with physical or mental injuries. Despite only getting in as a last-minute replacement last year for a competitor who bowed out, Dupuis won two gold medals in Track and Field and a bronze in power-lifting at the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando.

Natacha Dupuis after winning one of her two gold medals in Track and Field
Natacha Dupuis after winning one of her two gold medals in Track and Field

This year, the Invictus Games will be held in Toronto, where wounded veterans from 15 nations will compete in September.

Dupuis is the co-captain of Team Canada.  She credits her experience with the Invictus Games with playing a major role in helping her get her life back.

“It was so inspiring,” she says about her experience in Orlando last year. “And it was a safe space for us to tell our stories-- there was no judgement at all.”

And her impressions of Prince Harry?

“He is one of my favourite people.  I have so much respect for people who use their celebrity for such a great cause.  Even with all that security around him, talking to him was just like talking to anyone else-- he was so approachable.”

Looking back on her long recovery, Dupuis is still taking nothing for granted.  The PTSD, it’s still there.  The symptoms have not completely gone away.  But they have receded to the point where she feels now something she could not feel for years… in control.

“Don’t think it cannot get better,” she says at the Invictus Games nerve centre in downtown Toronto. “My symptoms used to rule my life, but I have way more control now.  I am Natacha, I have PTSD, but I am also a strong person, I’m an athlete, I’m more than PTSD.”

The Invictus Games will be held in Toronto from September 23 to 30.  BellMedia is the exclusive broadcaster.

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