THEN AND NOW: Tour of duty in Afghanistan leaves scars for Port Alberni veteran

Shawn Standley crouches with his support dog, Jo Jo, in their Port Alberni backyard. (SONJA DRINKWATER/ Special to the AV News)Shawn Standley crouches with his support dog, Jo Jo, in their Port Alberni backyard. (SONJA DRINKWATER/ Special to the AV News)
Shawn Standley, now living in Port Alberni, stands outside an encampment in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this undated photo. (CBC PHOTO)Shawn Standley, now living in Port Alberni, stands outside an encampment in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this undated photo. (CBC PHOTO)

By SONJA DRINKWATER

Special to the AV News

For the fourth year in a row, freelance writer and photographer Sonja Drinkwater is telling the stories of veterans from the Alberni Valley. She approached three different veterans and asked them to share a photo from when they served with their respective military branch.

She then took a photo of the veterans as they are now.

If you know of a Port Alberni veteran who deserves to be featured in a future edition of Then & Now, please contact Sonja Drinkwater at sonjadrink@shaw.ca.

Shawn Standley was a nurse in the war in Afghanistan—a tour of duty that has left its scars. But the Port Alberni resident doesn’t hesitate when he says, “If I had it to do over again I would still go.”

Standley was born and raised in Victoria and had the travel bug. He learned to scuba dive at the age of 14 and after graduation went to the Cayman Islands, Fiji, Australia and taught scuba for a year.

Standley’s mother was a nurse and after graduating from Humber College in Toronto in 1997 he finished his degree at the University of Victoria, following in her footsteps. “I worked in both hospitals in Victoria: the Royal Jubilee and Victoria General,” he says. It was in August of 1997 that he met future wife Rebecca; that December they were engaged and in May 1998 they were married. She was a teacher and the child of missionaries so had travelled extensively as well.

It was then that Standley decided he wanted to go to medical school. “I…found that the military would be the place to achieve this,” he said. That was in September 2000. With Rebecca still living in Victoria, Standley headed to St. Jean, Quebec, half an hour south of Montreal for 13 and a half weeks of officer training. This was followed by 33 weeks in a second language course, learning to speak French. A year later he took the national exam and Rebecca moved to Toronto to be closer to him.

“When 9-11 happened I knew my life was going to change,” Standley said. “I got posted to Borden, Ontario and in December 2001 Rebecca moved onto the base in primary married quarters (PMQs) which consisted of (a house with) three bedrooms. I worked in an overnight clinic that was attached to the medical school and was promoted to captain.”

He was in charge of 20 people despite only having three years of experience in the military; he taught, did academic training and learned from the people on his team—some of whom had more years of experience than he did.

“In 2003 my son Jonathan was born and we moved into a house in Barrie, Ontario. I wanted to go to Bosnia but didn’t. In 2005 Rebecca was pregnant and I went to Kabul (Afghanistan) and worked in the hospital there as a nurse.”

He was eventually moved to Kandahar where he worked with six other Canadian nurses. “The severity of the casualties were through the roof,” he recalled.

“In 2005 I had a mid-tour holiday in October for the birth of Michael, back to Afghanistan two weeks later, leaving my wife alone with a newborn and a two-year-old. I was sent home in December to help my wife with a child with colic and a toddler at home.”

In February 2008 he was again deployed to Kandahar and worked there with a multinational healthcare team at the Canadian-led military surgical hospital including doctors, nurses and medics. “It was a privilege to with them and in the six and a half months that I was there, there were over 700 pure trauma cases,” he said.

“I was not a combat soldier but have tremendous respect for those brave individuals who are.”

When remembering that time of his life, he says he was proud of his co-workers: they had a 98-percent survival rate with the patients they received.

Life in a war zone was not easy for Standley: he returned to Canada in September 2008 with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“I had come back with an addiction to work, I worked in Edmonton in the emergency department in the hospital non-stop. My third child, Ella, was born in February 2008. My wife told me to get help three months after I got home in 2008.”

Standley reached his darkest point in 2010, after working 12-hour shifts. He thought he was doing “fine,” right up to the point he attempted suicide. He agreed to go to rehab on the Sunshine Coast for 90 days. “At rehab in 2010 after my suicide attempt I realized I was not an alcoholic but used work as my addiction to escape,” he said.

He was paired with a support dog, Duke, and is now partnered with his second dog, Jo Jo, who was trained in Israel.

Standley is open with sharing his story. “I find and tell others, there is light, you are never alone. It is important to stay in contact with fellow workers.”

He was released from the Canadian Forces in 2012 to work as a critical care flight nurse in Yellowknife and Inuvik, Northwest Territories. While there he worked 30 days in and 30 days out. He came to Port Alberni to manage the emergency and ECU departments at West Coast General Hospital but found it wasn’t a good fit for him. He ended up leaving health care to work for the Huu-ay-aht First Nations as their senior project manager and development officer.

After two and a half years he and Rebecca opened a coffee shop in town and sold it right before the coronavirus pandemic.

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