Brave and broken

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Barb Sweet
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Grandson tells of First World War soldier’s death at Waterford

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When Art Stevenson was growing up in St. John’s during the 1950s and ’60s, most people called the Waterford Hospital “the Mental” — the place to put “crazy” people.

But the Waterford has taken on significant meaning for Stevenson, who has learned of his grandfather’s connection to the facility through research over the last few years.

And even several decades after the man’s death, his family doesn’t want the First World War veteran named in connection with the hospital where he died.

But Stevenson is grateful for his grandfather’s treatment there.

Advocates and patients still struggle with public attitudes about mental illness, but not as profoundly.

“Back then it was a huge stigma,” says Stevenson, retired from a 25-year military career and living in Oromocto, N.B.

“I know in my heart they provided the best possible care for him and fellow veterans. He wasn’t the only one that came back from the First World War suffering from shell shock. … There was a good side to this place, too. ”

 

Stevenson now works in recreation services for the military at CFB Gagetown and has friends suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

And that’s what he suspects affected his grandfather, who enlisted at 17 and headed overseas in 1914, spending much of his time likely as a stretcher bearer in the bloody battles.

According to the records Stevenson has gleaned, his grandfather was injured twice, but not badly enough to send him back home until war’s end.

In St. John’s he married, fathered several children and worked as a labourer.

He was admitted to the Waterford in 1943, dying the next year.

Stevenson said post-traumatic stress disorder — called shell shock in those days —  can build up over a number of years. And while soldiers today have access to counselling and programs, those in his grandfather’s time were expected to come home after years at war and resume a normal life.

“Nobody helped the family understand what was going on, which was what they do now,” Stevenson said.

“I know in my heart they provided the best possible care for him and fellow veterans. He wasn’t the only one that came back from the First World War suffering from shell shock. … There was a good side to this place, too. ” Art Stevenson

Stevenson, whose career included peacekeeping duty in Egypt in the 1970s — where his grandfather before him served in battle —  now realizes he walked the same ground under very different circumstances.

He said the men who came back from the First World War never fully understood what they were feeling — the emotional toil of their experiences — nor did the people around them.

“I always knew he was in the Waterford. That was all that was said. Nobody would ever talk about it,” Stevenson said.

Though he doesn’t know a lot of detail, he’s gaining some understanding of what his grandfather may have gone through.

“Going back almost 100 years, one can only imagine. It makes me more proud of him. All of them were extremely brave.”

Dan Breen of Calgary compiles military information for the Newfoundland Grand Banks genealogy  website and also has a family connection to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Two of his relatives died at Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916.

More than 300 Newfoundlanders were killed and hundreds wounded.

Only 68 of the roughly 800 who went into battle answered the roll call July 2.

His mother’s uncle survived the war, but died in the Waterford at around age 27 or 28, Breen has been told.

“He would yell and scream all the time,” he said.

“A lot of them took to alcohol while there and when they got back. Between shell shock and alcohol, some of them didn’t last long.”

In this year’s budget, the province announced $5 million towards planning the replacement of the Waterford Hospital. The hospital dates to 1855.

Stevenson said he would like to see some acknowledgement of the hospital’s connection to the First World War veterans.

 

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Organizations: Waterford Hospital, Newfoundland Grand Banks

Geographic location: Oromocto, Egypt, Calgary

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Recent comments

  • Ken O'Brien
    May 12, 2011 - 10:29

    By the way, the layout of the front page of the Telegram when this story ran was exceptional -- great use of the photo and the arrangement of the text over it.

  • Ken O'Brien
    May 12, 2011 - 10:27

    This is a painful story for the family, and an important one to share. It shows the struggles of those who survived war but were scarred by it. When you think about what soldiers endure in battle, it's a wonder that so many could come back home and pick up life as best they could. They must have seen the world with very different eyes after surviving the battlefields.

  • steve
    May 11, 2011 - 06:55

    I love Canada,I love freedom. Thank you every single solider,young and old,here or passed on.

  • Denis
    May 10, 2011 - 21:28

    A fitting tribute to those who served might be a centre for research into such illnesses, affiliated with the hospital. Perhaps name it after some RNR battle or significant event (anything but 'Memorial' again').

  • Gord Stringer
    May 10, 2011 - 20:50

    I know both Art and Dan and they are men who can speak with some authority on the problems caused by PTSD. They have both served their country well and have witrnessed the devastating effects of this disease. As a retired soldier I have also seen it in friends I have served with, as well, as my father who served overseas in WW II and even now in my son who has served two tours in Bosnia and one in Kosovo. Many of us are not aware of the terrible effects of PTSD, not only on the military members but also their families, and can get only a small idea of it from what we see and hear in the media. Thank you , Art and Dan for helping to shed some more light on this subject and thanks to places like "The Mental" which is doing so much to help our veterans.

  • Randy Steed
    May 10, 2011 - 14:29

    Art, well said. They all deserve more recognition. Today we have a better understanding of PTSD and what it can do in the short term but what about the long term effects. More research is definitely needed. We shouldn't hide past medical issues that may be related to PTSD but rather explore them. (Art, JLC. 1982, rsteed@nl.rogers.com)

  • FRED
    May 10, 2011 - 11:12

    We do not appreciate what our soldiers face when they enter the war or the atrocities that they see daily in their life. We should be doing all we can to help them adjust to normalcy when they come home

  • Eileen
    May 10, 2011 - 10:13

    A remarkable story to share. Lest we forget.