Kelowna veteran shares remarkable story of recovery and fate

PTSD changed Warren Webber's life and eventually led him to a new and unexpected friendship.

Sitting in an office overlooking Okanagan Lake, Warren Webber pointed to a picture of a 21-years-younger version of himself flanked by children.

He was wearing military gear and flashing a grin that’s noticeably more world-weary than the bright smiles of the girls and boys sitting around him.

“This one is Sunday,” he said, gesturing to one of the boys in the snapshot.

Justin Sunday was 12 years old then, sitting second to Webber’s left in the photo taken in 1994 at an orphanage in Rwanda. And last Wednesday, he was the man whose voice streamed through a computer sitting in the Kelowna office as part of a remarkable story about recovery and fate.

Webber had no reason to think that his and Sunday’s paths would ever intersect again until very recently.

Sunday was just one of many children he’d played some basketball with in 1994 while volunteering at the JAM orphanage in the City of Gitarama located outside of Kigali, Rwanda.

It’s tradition for the Canadian military to assist at least one orphanage in each UN Mission, and the experience there always stayed with Webber.

The children there had suffered incomprehensible loss and hardship and had nowhere else to turn. In just 100 days in 1994, some 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists.

They were targeting members of the minority Tutsi community, as well as their political opponents, irrespective of their ethnic origin.

Sunday’s father and brothers were murdered in the purge.

Another boy in the photo was missing a hand, said Webber, explaining that it was common practice for the Hutus to cut off the limbs of children and cauterize their wounds in an open flame.

“There wasn’t a reason for it. They didn’t see (their victims) as human… they were like rats,” he said.

Despite ongoing attempts to strip the children of their humanity in those 100 days, Webber says the smiles in the photo show the tremendous Rwandan trait to find reason to move forward and be positive.

It was Webber’s own desire to mirror that—moving past the sights, sounds and smells of a genocide that have lingered 20-plus years—that took him to the office overlooking Okanagan Lake years ago.

And that made the way for that chance reunion with Sunday.

Every day is Remembrance Day for soldiers with PTSD

Webber’s struggles containing a mind ravaged by the horrors of genocide brought him to Dr. Gary Lea’s Kelowna office 11 years ago, although his time with Canada’s Armed Forces had ended nearly a decade earlier.

He’d white-knuckled it through the intervening years, immersing himself in civilian life.

“I just kept trying to keep positive and busy with the wife and kids, but it got to the point in 2004, when I realized I needed more help,” he said, noting he had moved back to Kelowna, where he’d been a Dragoon decades earlier, in 2001.

“There were flashbacks, nightmares, hyper vigilance…I was uncomfortable being around crowds. The stress of always being keyed up, being always ready to go, it’s very exhausting.”

To try and understand what someone with PTSD experiences, imagine, for example, a cobra being thrown at you, said Lea.

If all is working properly, your heart rate should go up, blood will be directed to your arms and legs, and everything in your body would adapt to address the threat.

It’s supposed to be a short-term reaction, aimed at getting through a worst case scenario—it’s commonly known as the fight or flight response.

PTSD is caused when that reaction is set off too easily, making that fight-or-flight feeling nearly continual.

It’s not a common condition. And not all people who encounter a trauma will experience it, but there are circumstances where the condition tends to prevail.

“I like to think of PTSD as the crabgrass of the mind,” said Lea, pointing out to Webber that the grass analogy is a developing theory.

“Here’s the lawn, and let’s say you have a single incident of trauma or crabgrass, most will be able to manage. But, if you get enough crabgrass, it begins to take over the lawn of your mind.”

Webber said he absolutely agreed with Lea’s theory, pointing out that a tour in Honduras combined with his Rwandan stay laid the groundwork for his struggles.

Lea has been treating PTSD sufferers from both the military and RCMP in Kelowna for the better part of 30 years.

“When I started, fellows and a few women, would slink in through a back door with their eyes downcast and talk about their traumatic events…they didn’t have full understanding from their administrators or anyone around them then,” said Lea.

“That’s changed, though. Any cultural shift takes time, but over the last 10 to 15 years there has been a shift in the mentality, thanks in large part to Quebec Senator Roméo Dallaire, who played an iconic role in that shift.”

Dallaire went public about his own PTSD in 2000, which was formed by his experiences following the Rwandan genocide. He has regularly spoken about it since.

In 2013, of most recent note, Dallaire crashed his car on Parliament Hill, naming the root cause of that event as the disorder he’ll never be rid of.

“On my way to work this morning, I fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into the barrier near the East Block with my car. I am very thankful that nobody was injured or worse by my not being more attentive to the level of fatigue that I have been experiencing,” Dallaire told the Senate.

What had triggered Dallaire was a spate of apparent soldier suicides linked to PTSD.

“There is just a higher than normal rate of suicide among veterans,” said Lea, pointing out that the numbers aren’t easy to come by.

Why the stats are skewed in that way aren’t a mystery.

Soldiers and Mounties, he said, in many cases, endure more trauma than most people can imagine.

“What (Webber) experienced was utterly horrific,” said Lea. “I don’t care who you are, you are not going to walk away from that unchanged.”

Bodies in ditches, wild dogs roaming through the carnage, and exposure to the potential shots of snipers, are just a few things that Webber was comfortable discussing.

“Just being on the ground where such evil existed, was hard,” Webber said, adding that years later it was the smell of human decay that would send him spiraling.

There were so many horrors. But even so, he didn’t want to admit they were from PTSD.

It was with Lea’s use of EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, that he came to terms with the trauma he’d suffered.

“If it weren’t for Dr. Lea, I’d be one of those suicide statistics,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t be here.”

Medicine and a miraculous twist of fate

With extensive therapy, Webber’s outlook has improved and he’s found some peace of mind, though he’s not sure if he’ll ever shake the nightmares.

He can now be in crowds, and is even planning a speaking engagement at the university later in the month.

Several years ago he turned his focus back to the place where he saw the carnage of genocide and started doing research on the orphanage where he’d volunteered.

“I came across a profile of Justin Sunday who was being sponsored by an organization called Generation Rwanda to complete a university degree,” he said.

The profile laid out a bit of Sunday’s history.

What caught Webber’s attention, however, is that Sunday had been at the JAM Orphanage for two years starting in 1994, which coincided with his stay.

“I wanted to contact him, but I didn’t know how he would be. I didn’t want to trigger any bad memories,” he said.

So he sent an e-mail to the organization, requesting they forward his request for contact to Sunday.

Sunday happily struck up a correspondence, and the two have been in contact ever since.

“We talk all the time,” Webber said.

He learned over the months and years that followed that Sunday had been at the orphanage two years, and left when he learned his mother and two sisters had survived.

When they were reunited, he embarked on his own path of recovery.

Webber went to school, married and had a child.

Sunday’s wife, said Dr. Lea with some enthusiasm, is also a therapist, and he’s been speaking with her about ways to forward her career.

At some point Webber sent Sunday— who’s a national UN volunteer on the community project—that faded photo of him at the orphanage.

That’s when their story took a seemingly miraculous twist.

“That was him in the photo,” said Webber.

Webber identifies himself as spiritual, and while his Rwandan experience challenged those beliefs, the chance reconnection with Sunday has buoyed them.

Now they are working together to develop a charity that will help women in Rwanda surmount the hand they were dealt.

“In Rwanda most women are vulnerable. Most of them are orphans from the genocide,” Sunday said. “They grew and they didn’t get the support from family.”

Sunday, with the help from Webber, hopes to build a technical skill centre where these women can gather and learn skills to improve their lives and raise their quality of living.

“We don’t want the country to be full of street children. We have been street children so long. We want to help them so they can help themselves,” he said.

Webber believes they will be able to do it.

“After the genocide in ‘94, I don’t know how many people would come this far in such a short time,” he said.

“The Rwandan people’s work on forgiveness and their willingness to put the genocide behind them… it’s amazing.

“They don’t want to be defined by genocide, and they shouldn’t be. It’s a vibrant country rebuilding itself.”

For more information on the charity, a gofundme page has been set up at https://www.gofundme.com/7ws6bc

A website for the program is available at http://www.itemefoundation.org/

Reaching Webber is possible through itemecanada@shaw.ca.