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LOWER FREETOWN – When Matt Beamish is in his woodworking shop, he finds relief from the haunting memories that follow him.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work. I won’t be able to get out of my head. But more often than not, it will take my focus away from those bad feelings.”
Beamish, a 35-year-old veteran who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, began woodworking in early August, after returning from British Columbia where he sought counselling for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and alcohol addiction.
He served 12 years in the military in an artillery unit. Within eight or so years, he was already ranked as a sergeant.
During his career he became friends with a young medic named Andrew Miller.
“We met on an exercise and got along great. He was a real jokester. We had a warrant (officer) that wasn’t a big fan of jokes.
“So, one night he cut up glow sticks and poured it all around. So here we are in the middle of a location, supposed to be all hidden, and we’re literally glowing,” Beamish said with a large smile and a laugh.
The pair had been through a number of training courses, Miller even acting as instructor for one.
“We’d go to a bar and hang around. Or we’d just talk. We weren’t inseparable, but when we were together, we got along really well. We even nicknamed him Caillou (a kid’s cartoon character), because, well, he looked like him.”
In 2010, during Beamish’s second tour in Afghanistan, he saw Miller twice between May and June.
Then on June 26, everything changed.
“He was in a vehicle and hit an improvised explosive device (IED). The other officers there couldn’t get him out of the vehicle, so he burned to death.”
He continued quietly, “I was actually watching the whole thing on a video signal. But I didn’t know it was him until the news got a hold of it. That’s when I learned it was Andrew.”
Beamish said he remained in Afghanistan after his friend’s death.
In 2014, during a posting in Gagetown, he decided to talk to someone about his feelings.
He was diagnosed with PTSD and major depression disorder. Then in 2017, Beamish was officially released from the military.
“I’d stay at home, drinking. Now after two times in treatment, I’m five months sober.”
He says his PTSD presents itself in generalized and social anxiety, nightmares, hypervigilance as well as other symptoms. When he finds himself in the thrall of those symptoms or if he has an outburst Beamish and his wife, Tara, try to explain to their five kids that “Daddy’s sick” or “not feeling well,” but wasn’t something they did.
“I’m getting better at noticing when I’m having those moments, so I take myself away from the situation. I tell my kids I love them, and we’re trying to find a safe way to incorporate them into working in the shop.”
Recently, after their daughter noticed that Daddy was in the shop and not in the house with her, He decided to work with her to build a crib for her dolls.
“That’s a really important step for him” said Tara.
To this day he struggles with survivor’s guilt.
“I have guilt about Andrew’s death because it was my job, and another fella’s, to check the road that they were going to be on the night before. But it wasn’t 24/7 surveillance, so we don’t know when the IED was placed there, or if we missed it,” he explained somberly.
One day, Tara noticed he was having a hard time working through his memories of Andrew.
“So, I told him to go out to the shop and work on something. He came back in with this really great piece that honours his friend.”
It was one of the first pieces Beamish displayed in the house.
“Building that piece – since being home I’ve always struggled with why he didn’t to come home – has let me feel like I’m doing something to honour him. I put it up in my house so I can remember that and so I can tell my kids about this great guy and war hero,” he said.
After he created more pieces of work, Tara decided to start a Facebook page: Island Veteran’s Woodworking.
“The main reason for the page was to show him that he can still create things that are beautiful. He’s 35 years old. Most of his career was spent with a military rifle in his hands. What is he supposed to do now? But when he goes out to the shop and makes something, he’s given a purpose again.
“And when he sees people commenting on the stuff he makes, it’s a great boost and really makes him feel confident. It’s a real wave of encouragement.”
Beamish is also involved in the veteran support group Brave and Broken as well as the advocacy group Marijuana for Trauma. He hopes one day he’ll be able to open his shop up to other veterans who want to work on creating something to help with PTSD. For now, he invites them out to his house for a coffee and a chat.
He and Tara have also been big supporters of Marijuana for Trauma.
“I was on 15 pharmaceuticals at one point. Now I’m on two. Marijuana has been a big help. It’s doing what it should be doing. Cannabis, overcoming my addiction are the reason I’m still here. Going forward I will always work to help other veterans.”