When he arrived in Bosnia, it smelt of fire.
Surrounded by levelled homes and missing roof tops, it was a far cry from his home in Edmonton.
It was in Bosnia, during the summer of 1997, that Charles “Andy” Williams, then a master corporal with the Canadian Armed Forces, caught his first glimpse of an active war zone — barbed wire, armed guards, tanks, planes and vehicles riddled with bullet holes.
Williams, a medic with NATO’s peacekeeping effort, said the part of the job he got “the most enjoyment out of” was in helping others.
Now retired, Williams can claim upwards of 30 years of military service to his name, a feat recognized by his superiors, his local government and the Prime Minister himself.
Those battles may be in the past, but the memories are never truly forgotten. An uneasiness, coupled with the stress of civilian life, weighed on Williams at a time when confessing to those sorts of ailments was viewed by many, even those in the military, as an excuse or a weakness.
But those times have changed and so has Williams.
Back to back
Williams walks downstairs to the basement of his Liverpool home. A floor lamp exudes a warm glow, the light reflecting off wood-paneled walls. A TV sits in the corner of the room.
Adorning the walls are plaques commending Williams for his six years with 1 Field Ambulance. A framed photo shows him in his army fatigues, a white patch with a red cross wrapped around his left bicep.
Originally from the Annapolis Valley, Williams was born into a military family. His father was in the Air Force and Williams’s grandfather was a medic.
In July 1985, Williams took up the same call and joined the Canadian Armed Forces in Halifax. He was posted to CFB Cornwallis in 1990, achieving the rank of corporal.
When CFB Cornwallis closed, Williams moved to Calgary with 1 Field Ambulance and later to Edmonton. In 1997, major flooding hit Winnipeg and Williams was called to help. But no sooner than he arrived in Winnipeg, Williams was deployed to Bosnia.
He would return just after Christmas, in mid-January of the following year, but was again sent away in the summer for another deployment, this time to Kosovo.
About three times a week, Williams would join a convoy to run supplies from Macedonia to the besieged territory. He remembers seeing flattened homes and the remains of tunnels where engineers had dismantled booby traps courtesy of the Serbian army. Few bullets made their way in his direction, but one did find its way right through the painted cross on the outside of his vehicle.
Kosovo felt different than Bosnia. In Bosnia there were people, said Williams, but in Kosovo it was deserted, an absence that gave the whole country a distinctly “eerie feeling.”
But when the violence escalated, the roads flooded with people looking to escape and Williams found himself deadlocked in lanes of traffic.
Williams sought to show people the “better face of Canadians,” attending sores or taking the blood pressure of local people. He treated Serbs as well, something that had to be done in secret given the NATO push against the Serbs in Kosovo.
“That’s not who we are as Canadians,” said Williams. “We still help them.”
Williams returned home just before Christmas. In the span of two years, the young medic, just shy of 30, had served two back-to-back deployments.
‘It was my time, not theirs’
In the years post-Bosnia and Kosovo, Williams, now a sergeant, had postings with 19 Wing Comox in B.C., in Trenton supporting Disaster Assistance Response Team, overseas delivering blood to the United Arab Emirates and bringing supplies back from the Golan Heights, and got strip-searched in Israel on one occasion.
He moved a total of 13 times throughout his career. His last move would be to Liverpool, where he lives today with his wife and son.
But when he first came back from Kosovo, Williams was angry and withdrawn; stressed and distrustful of others.
He woke up from night terrors and avoided long car rides. While overseas he was cautioned about walking on grass out of fear of stepping on land mines. When he returned home, Williams couldn’t bring himself to mow the lawn.
The signs were subtle, said Andy’s wife Kim, and at first the family didn’t fully understand what was happening. “You have to wait for the pieces to show up to put it all together,” she said.
Williams was eventually diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but regardless of what he experienced, he didn’t want to project it onto his family.
As a medic, he had seen dead bodies, but nothing really prepares you for what you see in war, he said, whether it’s mass graves or witnessing the remnants of a firing line, the bullet holes still marked in the streets and the sides of buildings, and seeing the names of people he’d never met etched into the walls of homes.
“It was my time, not theirs,” said Williams, wanting to shield his family from it all. “They don’t need to know that.”
It took time for him to regain his sense of security. Williams talks with psychologists and social workers and meets with a peer group on occasion. In the last couple of years, he’s become more comfortable talking about his PTSD and the nightmares have largely subsided.
He said the military has done better in addressing PTSD, checking on those who return from deployments and offering debriefings, something he said he didn’t get.
But the journey to recovery can be daunting. With all of the paperwork, few qualified doctors and a lack of individual case workers, Kim said navigating the system is enough to make you “break down in tears,” while those less fortunate end up falling through the cracks.
Other times they were shunned by military families. People would avoid them at hockey games or be less than receptive at parties.
“The only way it’ll get better with people understanding is if you tell them,” said Kim.
This year marks Andy and Kim’s 30th wedding anniversary. Despite the transient nature that comes with a military life, Kim, whose own father served in the Navy, said it’s almost a comfort. “I think if I married a businessman, I’d be freaked out,” she said with a smile. Williams, seated beside her in their Liverpool home, smiled back. “I can say I’ve seen coast to coast,” he said.
He still misses the discipline of the army, but says being recognized for his 30 years of military service, with certificates from the heads of Health Services, the Army, the Region of Queens Municipality, the province, and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has given him closure to his career.
For him and others, the next step lies in embracing civilian life again and being “comfortable in your own skin,” but also maintaining that camaraderie soldiers miss, even if some still have trouble talking about what happened. “It’s just they’re dealing with demons from war,” he said.
Since moving to Liverpool last year, Williams has taken a job with the commissionaires and can be seen manning the gates at Port Mersey Commercial Park. He said he chose Liverpool for the water and the beaches.
Lately he’s been focused on a couple of home projects, with renovations planned for the wall and floors. His start to a new civilian life.