There are two types of war stories, says Reginald Wise: the physical and the emotional.
Everyone loves the physical, he says, soldiers storming a beach, racing to save a bridge, or fighting to take out a machine gun nest; war stories offer tales of the courageous overcoming great odds to achieve a seemingly insurmountable goal.
“You hear different war stories from different guys and they’re all similar,” says Wise. “But none of them ever go into the emotional side of war.”
The physical stories offer the best Hollywood films their material. They all contain images of war, but they only paint half the picture of a war story, adds Wise. It is the underlying emotional toll on a soldier’s mind, and the expressed mental trauma that it manifests, that makes up the other half.
I meet Wise at his home in Cloverdale. It’s a sunny, windy day. Rusty leaves flit over his walkway as I approach his door.
He greets me with a light in his eyes belying his 95 years. He walks slowly, but thoughtfully. His right hand is curled in a loose fist resting on the top of a cane.
Inside the house, books are scattered everywhere, mostly history. Bags of painting supplies line the floor row on row like numerous flower pots. Jars of paint brushes keep watch on tables, sentinels from another time.
He lives alone. His wife Phyllis passed away 10 years ago.
We sit at his dining room table overlooking his yard. The wind still agitating leaves, as they flutter around.
Wise tells me the emotional toll of war plays out in two ways. It takes its toll on the men in the field as they fight, and it takes its toll on the men after they return.
That emotional toll is drawn out immediately when men cry over their fallen comrades or lose their minds in battle. It expresses itself later in the form of PTSD, and then—in unfortunate cases—its grotesque nature displays itself when a soldier takes his own life.
“The emotional toll is just as difficult to navigate as the battlefield itself,” he explains.
He would see it in the ranks during roll call after a mission. The sergeant-major would call out names.
“That’s where the guys would break down. Officers would yell, ‘Steady in the ranks!’ It’s hard on the guys in that regard.”
Wise’s colonel was killed in Yugoslavia. He was well-liked and it was tough on the Marines.
“Some of the boys heard we’d taken German prisoners,” remembers Wise. “So, a few of the lads went down to the port to see about the German prisoners…. Then there weren’t any more German prisoners.”
The emotional toll materializes as lifelong PTSD for every soldier—no exceptions, he says.
“Wartime nurses and doctors too. Troop support units too. They all suffer, in some way, a form of moral trauma and they all need help.”
Wise says everyone who comes back from a conflict zone should be assessed and treated immediately.
“Even if someone’s seen dead bodies—they’re vexing. They’ve suffered a moral injury. It’s a form of PTSD.”
A NEW COMMANDO
The young Reginald Wise was a sniper with No. 40 Commando, Royal Marines.
He signed up with the Home Guard when he was 15. He joined the Royal Marines at 17, in June, 1942. Then he took commando training and at 18 was promoted to corporal and assigned to lead a 10-man squad.
Wise shuffles through a pile of books and complains his new cleaning lady is always messing with his stuff by putting books back on the shelves.
“I know where everything is, in my way,” he laughs, getting up to search.
Wise finally returns with a book about the No. 40 Commandos—a unit comprised of only 450 men. The original green berets.
Wise tells a lot of your typical war stories—the physical ones—as he speaks of war and his past.
He’s excited to find a map of Italy and Yugoslavia in the commando book. He presses his thumb across the name “Termoli,” an Italian town.
The weight of history hangs on each sentence. He talks about “Monty” like one talks about a good pal.
He tells how his unit landed at Termoli, destroyed the German garrison there, and prevented the Germans from counterattacking.
“We stopped them from coming down by doing continual ambushes,” he adds, pride in his words, knowing the immense task he was a part of.
His unit helped Montgomery take Termoli. They fought at Anzio and Salerno. They helped the Americans at Garigliano. They conducted covert ops in Yugoslavia. They fought in the Battle of the Argenta Gap—one of the final battles of WWII.
On one mission, they went to Yugoslavia to find Josip Tito. Tito, the future leader of Yugoslavia, was then the leader of the Yugoslav Partisans. Tito had been commanding the partisans from Bosnia, but had to escape after the Germans raided his headquarters at Drvar on May 25, 1944.
Nobody knew where he was,” Wise says. “We got direct orders from Winston Churchill; ‘Go to Yugoslavia, find that character Tito and get him organized.’ He said, ‘We’ll supply him with any uniforms, money—whatever he needs, but he has to hold the (Germans) that are in Yugoslavia.’”
So they found Tito hiding out and spirited him away to the island of Vis (now part of Croatia) and “organized” him. Trained his fighters. Supplied them with weapons.
“Of course, unknown to us, D-Day was less than two weeks away.”
The commandos would go on raids of all sorts: assassination attempts, bridge demolitions, or missions to blow up ammo dumps, supply trains, or transports.
He tells stories about his missions as a Royal Marine. But it isn’t until Wise drops little details into his tales of valour that the emotional toll finally seeps through them—like blood through a bandaged wound.
“During the fight, some guys get killed and some guys get wounded. Now what do you do with the wounded?” he asks. “If you can’t carry them, you have to leave them.”
On one assassination mission in Yugoslavia, Wise says his unit dressed as German soldiers. Wise’s team would run a diversion for another unit’s assassination squad. The other unit was sent in to kill a high-ranking Nazi, while Wise’s men went to blow a bridge in another area.
They landed on the coast and had a few days to get in, get the mission done, and get back to the beach for their scheduled rendezvous. If they didn’t make it to the coast on time, the boats would leave without them.
After a successful strike deep into Yugoslavia, his squad was making their way back to the coast to meet the boats.
“I had a Smith’s pocket watch, accurate to within one second in a month,” says Wise. “After the mission was achieved, and we were set to head back to the coast for the rendezvous, I looked at my watch and I said, ‘Blimey! We haven’t got much time, lads. We have to start moving pretty fast to get to our boat.’ You have to be there (on time) and everyone knew that.”
Wise and his unit had to cross a roughly three-mile stretch of field to get to the beach. That stretch ran parallel to a road. Halfway to the coast, the road had a “T” intersection. Just as Wise’s unit neared the T, Wise and his men heard a German patrol of about a dozen marching down the perpendicular road toward them and the intersection.
“I said to the boys, ‘We have no choice but to destroy that German patrol, lads.’ If the Germans turned left, they’d see us and if they turned right, they’d move toward the beach and see our boats.” Wise says the Nazis would radio for air support and his entire unit and the boats would be destroyed.
So, Wise and his unit double-timed it to the intersection, discussed assignments, and hid amongst the trees, rock walls, and bushes. Wise would take out the officers, another would take out the radioman. Each man had an assignment.
“All but one of the Germans got killed.”
That soldier started running up the road towards the crest of a hill. If he made if over, he’d be gone and the Luftwaffe would destroy the British commandos.
“All I had was a Thompson Submachine gun. So, I grabbed a mate’s rifle and I got the German in the back so he couldn’t go back to his base and tell the others they’d been in a fight with the British.”
As the sounds of the bullets fell silent, Wise looked around. He noticed one of his men sitting up against a stone wall along the road trying to hold in his intestines with both hands. As Wise walked over to see his mate, he also saw a six-year-old lying in the ditch.
“We didn’t see the little boy,” Wise says. “It was a pretty depressing scene.” He’d been caught in the crossfire.
The soldier leaning against the wall got hit in the stomach with a Schmeisser MP 40 submachine gun at close range.
“You get hit in the stomach with a Schmeisser, that’s your lot. You’re done.”
Wise stayed behind and sent the rest of the men to the beach. He’d catch up, if he could.
“I took a coat off one of the Germans and just covered him up a bit. I couldn’t leave him alive.”
He says it would only take 10 or 15 minutes for him to come around.
“You hear guys screaming blue murder, sometimes, because they’ve gotten over the shock. I had to put him to sleep. I had no choice.”
So Wise gave him a big shot of morphine. It was standard practice for the time, he says. The highest ranking soldier would take care of his men that way.
“That’s the hardest thing to do. But it’s part of your job. And that’s what I did.”
Wise says he sometimes thinks of the chaps he “couldn’t leave alive.” He stops talking for a moment and peers into his yard, his eyes lost in the past. The wind hums.
“It never leaves you,” he finally continues. “I used to wake up in the middle of the night all the time, and I’d scream ‘Give me that rifle, I’ve got to get that guy running away.’ That’s when my wife had to call the doctor. I had to take some injections to calm me down.”
Injections weren’t the only thing Wise used to cope. When he was discharged from the commandos 1946, his mind purged the names of “all the chaps” from his unit—both those that died in the war and those that survived. He also couldn’t remember any names of school friends back home. He’d lost them all.
“I didn’t know why.” Wise looks up again. He slowly places his thoughts into a sentence. “But one day, I just couldn’t remember anyone’s names anymore.” Decades later his psychiatrist told him his brain repressed the names at the same time it repressed his traumatic memories.
Wise coped in his own way, forgot his comrades’ names, and didn’t attend Remembrance Day ceremonies.
Instead, Wise says, he turned to painting.
|Reginald Wise paints at his home in Cloverdale. (Photo: Malin Jordan)
An accomplished painter, Wise uses colours to brush some of his emotional agony away.
“When you’re painting, you have to concentrate. You can’t think about anything else.”
As Wise eschewed Remembrance Days and his thoughts about his time in the war, some of his fellow soldiers rekindled their interest in their fallen brothers.
In 1995, men from 40 Commando contacted him.
“They said, ‘Reg! We’re going to visit all the chaps’ graves in Italy! Are you coming?’ I said, ‘Uhh, I don’t know.’ And they said, ‘You gotta come. And bring the wife. Okay?’”
But the then 71-year-old was still hesitant.
“I hadn’t written for my medals. So I told them I’d have to do that and they just said, ‘We’ll send you your green beret and a proper tie. All you have to do is get gray flannels and a dark blue coat and you’ll be okay.’”
So Wise got himself organized and he went back to Italy for the first time since he was wounded in the Battle of the Argenta Gap.
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In that fight, Wise’s No. 40 Commando was decimated. Of the 450 soldiers, only 32 answered the first roll call. Wise wasn’t one of them. He’d been shot trying to take out two Wehrmacht machine gunners. After getting the first gunner, the second ravaged Wise’s left forearm with three bullets, shattering it. Two bullets and one forearm bone were removed at a field hospital in Northern Italy. One bullet remains and still causes Wise some pain from time to time. If he bumps his arm on something, he gets an intense shock that makes his fist clench up for about 10-15 minutes.
TIME FOR CHANGE
After Wise got back to B.C. from visiting the graves in Europe, he felt differently than he had for 50 years.
“I don’t know why it changed,” he says. “It’s just one of those things you can’t explain. Your brain doesn’t tell you all the whys and wherefores. Things just start to change around.”
So, Wise started going to Remembrance Day ceremonies and he’s been every year since.
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Wise explains that Canadians suffered heavily after the invasion of Normandy. He says Canadians suffered more than the other Allies because Canada didn’t have reinforcements to allow the frontline fighters some leave time. Thus Canadians suffered battle exhaustion and suffered a greater emotional toll than soldiers of the U.S. and Britain after June 6, 1944.
“Soldiers cannot fight non-stop,” he explains. “You must give a man a certain period of time for rest and relaxation to overcome the wild horrors of battle.”
After a lot of statistics and tactical analysis of Canadian battles post-D-Day, Wise again returns to the emotional cost of war.
“How come more than 150 Canadian soldiers have committed suicide after returning from Afghanistan?” he asks, before immediately answering his own question. “Nobody questions why they committed suicide. It’s because they never got help in time.”
Since 2004, 251 Canadian soldiers have committed suicide. By contrast, during Canada’s Afghanistan mission (2002-2014), only 156 soldiers died from enemy and non-enemy action. (There were 159 deaths in Afghanistan, which includes three suicides.)
And it’s not just Canadian vets that are ending their lives. The U.S. VA published a report in 2016 that studied veterans’ records between 1979-2014. They determined in the U.S. 20 veterans kill themselves everyday.
A Veterans Affairs Canada study from 2018 found, “Suicide claimed 40 per cent of the 435 male vets who died before turning 25.” The report noted “vets were 2.4 times more likely to kill themselves than their comparable population – a worrisome finding that is prompting a deeper look.”
But no deeper look is needed, insists Wise.
“You have to recognize PTSD from an early stage. If you put a guy in the ranks and he’s already suffering from PTSD, you make it twice as bad.”
Wise says the Royal Marines never did that.
TREAT SOLDIERS EARLY
“We treated our soldiers much earlier. So, therefore, in our unit not one guy committed suicide. They got treated at the right time with the right type of treatment and the women—wives, girlfriends, mothers—were always involved.
It’s hard to believe the suicide rate for Royal Marine combat veterans after the war was zero, but Wise insists it’s true.
“I asked a [Veterans Transition Network] psychiatrist, ‘why don’t you bring the womenfolk into these lectures that we give to people that suffer from PTSD? Tell the wives how their husbands will never be exactly the same.’ I don’t know if they started doing it, but this was three years ago that I mentioned it to them.”
Two decades after the war, Wise’s mental agony grew so serious that he got electric-shock therapy in the ’60s. He says it helped him a bit, but the pain always returned.
“It hits all of a sudden and you don’t know when you’ll be affected by it.”
He saw four different psychiatrists over the years. When he retired in 1984, he says the pain was so great he would often collapse. His doctor wanted him to go to a psychiatric hospital.
“But my wife said, ‘No, I’ll take care of him.’”
He started to get better again around 1987 and hasn’t had a major relapse since then. From time to time though, his wartime demons resurface.
“I shake. I grind my teeth. I try to listen to Beethoven. And painting helps a lot.”
Painting turns his mind into a blank slate, he tells me. He is so involved in his paintings that nothing else can enter his mind.
“My son comes around, and the sink’s full of dishes, and I say, ‘I’m too busy.’”
Wise walks me over to his easel. He’s making a painting based on a faded picture from the war. (See image at top of story.)
The picture is from Albania in 1944 after his unit captured a Nazi flag. When it’s finished, he’ll send it to the headquarters of the No. 40 Commando in Devon, England.
“This PTSD, it never leaves you,” says Wise, looking at his painting, a brush in his hand now.
“You try not to let it take control of you. If it does, that’s when it takes over and you have nothing left. That’s when a soldier commits suicide.”
Wise’s answer for suicide is simple.
“They’re doing it all wrong today. They’re waiting too long before acting.”
Wise says families have to get “seriously involved” if the tragic cycle of soldier-suicide is to cease. “They have to be there. All the guys I’ve talked with over the years who are really struggling, I mean are on the brink, are guys who’ve lost their families in one way or another.”
He pauses. Pensive. Each sentence a distilled thought.
“The only one that understands a guy with PTSD is another guy with PTSD.
“Everyone needs to be assessed and treated immediately.
“Canada has a lot to learn about how to treat their military.”