Connecting Veterans in Crisis to Better Future

By Kevin Masterman, Toronto Police Service Published: 10:10 a.m. November 10, 2020
Updated: 10:13 a.m. November 10, 2020

A new program will help Toronto officers connect military veterans in crisis with support.

Two TPS officers wallking
Constables Jeremy Burns and Aaron Dale are helping to equip police officers to connect military veterans in crisis with social services

The Police-Military Veterans Wellness Program, which was also adopted by the Ontario Provincial Police, gives frontline officers training and a formal mechanism to connect military veterans in crisis with the Royal Canadian Legion, Veteran Affairs Canada and the Operational Stress Injury and Social Support Program to help them access financial, housing, psychological and peer support.

Premier Doug Ford lent his support to the program because mental health illness impacts so many people.

“The reality is that no one is immune to it, including our veterans. Everyone can sometimes experience burden, depression, anxiety and isolation. I always say mental health is health, because our government believes your mental health and wellness is just as important as your physical health.”

Chief Jim Ramer said police officers serve people in mental health crises each day and military veterans are some of those people struggling with mental illness, addictions or homelessness.

“The program provides frontline police officers with additional training to understand veteran issues, build rapport and help a veteran who is in crisis. Every veteran deserves honour and respect for their service to Canada and the Toronto Police Service is a proud supporter of this program and stands in solidarity with our military veterans because nobody fights alone,” said Chief Ramer.

The program was borne out of conversations between new Consts. Aaron Dale and Jeremy Burns who trained alongside each other at the Toronto Police College and immediately connected because of their shared military experience that made them immediately feel at ease with each other.

After only a few months on the job, Dale was called for an Unknown Trouble Radio Call and found an intoxicated man outside the bar, nursing his wounds after he tried to fight everyone inside.

Two tattoos on an arm and hand
Tattoos hold great significance for the sacrifice made in military service. At left, Dale's crossed tomahawks symbolizing his work as a Special Forces Operator. At right, Burn's regimental symbol and 14 for officers lost in Afghanistan.

“I saw that he had a military tattoo and asked him about it,” said Dale, of the man who immediately became combative with him too. “He wanted to fight me until I rolled up my sleeve also to show him that I had served… Within minutes he was in tears telling me his story. I saw then the tremendous power I had to help in that moment.”

In this case, Dale only spoke to the man briefly, telling him that connecting to Veteran Affairs Canada and receiving the proper support was better than battling any demons on his own, especially adding alcohol and drugs as a tool in the fight.

Also a rookie, Burns saw the work of policing differently than what he had signed up for.

“As a police officer you wear a lot of different hats. I found myself helping people in a lot of ways that I never thought I would be doing,” said Burns, who served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Edmonton, Alberta and deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

In May this year, Dale saw firsthand how the program could work when he got a call from two police officers who came across a man living out of his car with his dog. The officers apprehended the man under the Mental Health Act after he expressed suicidal thoughts and brought him to hospital and transporting his support dog to a shelter temporarily.

Dale drove to the hospital to talk to the man, learning he struggled with mental illness and a back injury. Within the hour, Dale had confirmed his service to the country and linked him to veterans’ resources including temporary housing at a hotel and gift cards for food and reunited him with his dog. A month later the veteran called to thank him, telling him through tears that he had permanent housing, financial assistance, was connected to medical care and back on the proper medication and had even got his old job back.

“It’s really a great example of the difference that we can make,” said the 35-year-old Dale, who served with the Canadian Armed Forces since he was 17 – most recently in the Canadian Special Operations Regiment as a Special Forces Operator deploying too and partnering with different Central American countries on counter-terrorism and anti crime initiatives. “There are a lot of resources available to veterans that we can help them tap into which can make a huge difference im someone’s life.”

Dale connected with his Staff Sergeant Mike Leone and then to his Inspector Tim Crone who helped champion the plan to help veterans.

Chief Ramer speaks about importance of supporting veterans

Both Dale and Burns can empathize with veterans struggling to find their place when they get home. 

When Burns left his military post in Alberta, he flew home to Ontario, suddenly separated from the friends he served side by side with every day.

“It’s a difficult thing. You have to give up regretting that you aren’t the person you used to be before the military and you have to focus your time and energy learning who you are now.” said Burns. “I was completely removed from the identity I once knew”

He said it was hard to find anyone outside of the military who could relate to the challenges of transitioning back to society because of his experiences overseas and a feeling that he had left the fight before it was over. It still pains him to hear of a Taliban attack in Afghanistan and feeling helpless at home.

Dale recalls the same feeling of losing his identity as well as his purpose. As he left the military, his unit was deploying to Iraq to fight ISIS.

“I missed out on that experience of fighting for something I believed in, it was something that was important to me,” he said. “I also wasn’t there to fight with my friends and help keep them safe.”

Now, as the Police-Military Veterans Wellness Program Coordinator, Police Constable Dale and Burns have a new mission.

“A lot of military veterans don’t know what’s out there, we want to empower police officers to help a veteran live a better quality of life.”

Two men in military uniform, one greets children
Aaron Dale on base and Jeremy Burns in Afghanistan

Frontline officers will all receive online training and a package of resources to help them connect veterans with appropriate help – whether that be immediate emergency housing and food or long-term housing and counselling.

Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams and the Emergency Task Force will receive in-person training on de-escalation techniques for veterans in crisis.

TPS Officers with past military experience, will be able to volunteer for more training to be an on-call peer support resource on the road that other officers can tap into to help a military veteran in crisis.

Dale said having officers with military backgrounds respond to these crisis calls will help immensely.

“It’s an instant rapport. It still surprises me how much someone will open up to you very quickly.”

Read more about the program: Blueline Magazine article

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