Shannon Tennant’s Story – Sergeant, Windsor Police Service; Director, Windsor Police Association
Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) is a reaction for someone who has not yet been clinically assessed as having PTSD. While there is considerable overlapping of symptoms of the two conditions, there are significant differences in symptoms, intensity, duration, and treatment.
I would like to take this opportunity to share a brief story about a family living through three generations (40 years) of PTS. My story.
It began when my grandfather was called to duty for World War II and enlisted as an infantry solider for the Canadian Military. During his tour, his platoon was captured. Growing up, the only memory I had of his nightmarish experience was a distinct tattoo on his left forearm. My young mind did not grasp its significance, but when I grew older, I realized it was his prisoner of war number along with the German Swastika. For him, it was a daily reminder of the time he had spent in the prison camp. This branding continued to silently haunt him long after his rescue by Allied Forces. He never once spoke about the war and I never once asked, fearful I would make him relive the nightmare. According to my father, the only time my grandfather smiled was when the grandchildren visited. That was pretty much it. Thinking of it now, it probably distracted him, for at least a brief period. I remember my grandfather being quiet around family. My grandfather was actively involved with The Canadian Legion Local 255, trying do to as much as he could for the soldiers returning from Vietnam because of his son, my father.
When the Vietnam War started, my father was nineteen years old and wanted to support the United States. He had enlisted in the US Army but as a Canadian citizen. He wanted to be a helicopter pilot but as a Canadian citizen, he was not allowed. During his training, the US Army discovered his specialty. At the age of nineteen he was classified as an expert, masterclass sniper. He was later deployed in the heart of the Vietnam jungle. Over the course of three years he did four tours totaling fourteen months. After completing three years, he had re-enlisted and was later deployed as an E5 Class Sergeant Specialist for the Thailand Anti-artillery defense. Imagine the life and death decisions he had to make back then. At times, I do think about it. Yet, I still cannot even image it to this day.
Almost ten years after his return, my parents divorced. I do not remember much, a few arguments at most. Dad was quiet and secluded himself in our crawl space where he worked on his stained-glass projects. The theme of his work were butterflies. I never thought much of it, a hardened veteran, focusing on butterflies. But for him it was a form of distraction and escape, maybe even brief happiness from what he was thinking about. Over the years, Dad showed me photos of the war. Sometimes he tried to explain the photos. Then the conversation would stop. Emotionally he would disappear for a bit, then the conversation would change. I remember the photos very well because they were able to silently tell me his story. I was able to get some understanding of what he had gone through. At times, I still get a dark memory of the photos he had shown me. In hindsight, this was probably him reaching out back then, needing to talk about it. I was too young to understand what was going through his mind.
When my father passed, I found my parents’ divorce records from court. While reading the transcripts, my father never fought for anything during the court proceedings. In fact, everything was given to my mother along with full financial support. I genuinely believe that he had realized that he had caused emotional and psychological problems at home and needed to leave. As stated in the court records, he needed help with personal issues citing his return from the war. Sadly enough, even then, there was not any help for PTS. Over the years his alcoholism wasn’t any worse, but it never got any better. He worked for 36 years, 7 days a week as an electrician at Chrysler. This would be now classified as constructive and/or destructive mechanism as mentioned is several research journals for PTS.
During his funeral, a US Army Staff Sergeant attended and presented me with a folded military a flag for his service to their country. Although I respected this gesture and tradition, it also angered me somewhat. “Where was the help when they did need it?” I thought of this every time I saw that flag showcased next to my father’s war medals and tour ribbons. I often silently reflect on how things failed, sometimes even blaming myself for not identifying some of the symptoms of PTS as I got older.
When I was growing up, my father did not want me to be third generation military, but he did support me trying to get in to law enforcement. While applying to many police services to get my foot in the door, I received a call from the Ministry of Correctional Service and was later employed as a Correctional Officer at the Windsor Jail at the age of 23. During my employment, I have been directly involved with or witness to many riots, attempt murders, and large-scale fires. There were daily physical and violent confrontations. On one occasion, I was accidentally locked with two other officers into a unit that housed 25 prisoners. We did not have any use of force options and no radio. This was the closest thing to being taken as a hostage. I will only reveal that they were not successful and other inmates assisted us with protecting ourselves. At the end of the shift, we would be asked to stay, and it was not uncommon to be ordered back the next day as if nothing happened. No such thing as debriefing as it was explained to me several times that it was just “part of the job” or “you signed up for this.”
I worked an average of sixty hours per week and was frequently ordered to work up to eighty-four hours during numerous staffing crises. Before the implementation of the Crisis Intervention Unit (Riot Squad), I was part of a made-up team that was responsible for handling violent prisoners, murderers, and responding to institutional alarms. I recall running into a unit assisting an officer that was being assaulted by several inmates. While knowing that we were outnumbered, I had always responded with putting their safety over mine. I honestly did not care about myself getting hurt because it rarely happened. I thought I was unstoppable. Thinking of it now, arrogant possibly, but maybe it was that I did not really care what happened to me. I can’t really say for sure what was going through my mind other than respond, assist and push through the occurrence. Just following my family commitment to the job, I guess. The “above and beyond” attitude while thinking that there would be no negative consequences mentally or physically. The long shifts, shift rotation, and being ordered in on days off made it difficult to have a normal social life. Over time, I lost touch with close friends and attending family functions became infrequent. There were tensions on relationships and changes in my personality could have been prevented if helped, or even identified. I just never saw myself as having issues and no one told me.
Over the course of my seven years in Corrections, I never received counselling. It was never offered or even available to me because I never had benefits to cover the costs. In hindsight, I also never thought I needed it. There was a point in time when I enjoyed going into these violent situations. Sadly enough, it was a challenge to me. It was all that I was exposed to daily and my way of adapting to the violence and the negative environment was being a part of it.
Management had its usage for my cold and calculated behaviour. I was placed as a full-time officer in the segregation unit where violence and cell extractions were constant. There were times I would find myself lack empathy and feel emotionless to those who truly needed help. I turned everything off like a switch. Unfortunately, I was rotated in this unit for eighteen months and never asked for another post. My longest stretch was twenty-one shifts in a row that consisted of 12-hour nights working alone, in the basement of the jail, in the segregation unit. It was not healthy on an emotional level; however, we were told not to complain. If we did, our hours would be cut back. Just more unnecessary stress added to a stressful profession. It was not until the passing of my soon to be father-in-law that I remember hearing someone ask ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I did not have an answer. I did not even cry at his funeral.
When I was employed with the Windsor Police Service, I was grateful. I was finally getting out of the Correctional System. I had lost so much at this time. Everything was becoming so negative up until this point. Years had passed and I would find myself in a predicament where I would have an encounter with former Federal Prisoner known for violence and weapons. During the altercation, he attempted to pull out a loaded firearm from his waistband. My partner and I quickly saw this, reacted with force, and secured him. This individual had clear intentions of killing one if not both of us. Once everything was done, the responding officers, my partner and I were never asked if we needed debriefing, no counselling was offered, and no follow up was done for our wellbeing.
After the court proceedings, it was brought to my attention that the Crown Attorney stated that I was more of a criminal for injuring the offender. My partner and I had submitted victim impact statements for court. There was no follow up at this stage even though we had mentioned in our statements that there was issues of insomnia, nightmare, and other emotional indicators. While this individual was serving five years, I made a request to the Ontario Justice System for assistance with cameras at my house as it was brought to my attention there was information this individual was looking for retaliation. There was absolutely no support. The Probation and Parole Board was supposed to notify us when this individual was to be released. Even after we submitted victim impact statements, we were never informed. I found out the individual was released was when I was on duty getting my issued patrol boots at our supplier. This individual came walking in. The first thing I experienced was rage and self-preservation. I just thought ‘here he is, no one called me.’ I started to feel anxious but this person exited the store after making eye contact and quickly left the area.
This is one of many occurrences that I wanted to share. During my flight or fight, I immediately engaged without hesitation. To protect my partner and myself. The consequences were not even a thought. In its true form, I met violence with violence, it’s that simple. There’s that light switch I had previously mentioned but controlled, well, at least to a point. The courts failed, notification of release failed, identifying issues of what transpired in the report failed and no referral for counselling. Although that event occurred over ten years ago, the system should have been there to assist members with PTS and PTSD. Prior to the provincial government recently acknowledging PTS and PTSD in first responders, there were so many steps in place, at a local level, that continued to fail.
I started to think that I am lucky to be here in a philosophical sense. My grandfather and father fought against all odds for the family lineage to continue to this moment. That is a positive for me that I have the honour to pass on their story as well as share some of my own experiences.
My closure is telling this story, hopefully providing a platform for people to talk about what’s bothering them, and to increase awareness that support is better than it has been in the past. Within our profession, sworn or civilian, we are exposed to trauma in one form or other and that affects each of us differently. While we are at work, we always hear that we are family, so let’s not forget about each other when we go home and how PTS affects our other family at home.