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Theatre and therapy join forces for veterans project

Contact! Unload runs Sept. 20 and 21 at the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Armoury
Contact! Unload director George Belliveau and Officer Cadet Phillip Lopresti of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada outside the Seaforth Armoury, where the play will be performed on Sept. 20 and 21.

For those recovering from substance abuse, bottoming out and reaching for help is the beginning of the way forward.

The equivalent for many combat veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is acknowledging the worst day of their lives.

For Tim Garthside, that day was Aug. 3, 2006. He was in Kandahar, Afghanistan, serving an eight-month tour with the Canadian military.

Stationed five kilometres from an ambush scenario that would take four Canadian lives and injure 10 others, Garthside was the radio link between those troops and his command post. From there, he could order aerial support, medical evacuation, or other means to assist the soldiers under attack.

Garthside couldn’t order helicopter assistance until enemy fire abated. When he did, a man posted on a nearby rooftop was spotted by the chopper pilots. He appeared to be in possession of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The aerial support team needed the green light from Garthside to engage.

“I said, ‘Well, if he’s going shoot at you, then f***ing kill him,” Garthside said.

That rooftop kill ended up being Garthside’s counterintelligence source helping him assess the firefight and subsequent evacuation. He was on the phone with that contact as the battle and ensuing evacuation was playing out.

As soon as the Apache helicopters carried out Garthside’s orders, the cell signal went silent.

“They told me they cut him in half — their words, not mine,” Garthside said. “That was my moral dilemma.”

Garthside’s moral dilemma and his life dealing with PTSD are laid out over the half-hour play Contact! Unload, which runs in Vancouver Sept. 20 and 21 and again at the Invictus Games in Toronto Sept. 23 to 30.

The play depicts the veterans’ transition back to domestic life and the unimaginable difficulties that come with it.

“Civilians don’t understand the experience of war and then coming home,” Garthside said. “You come back, and you’ve done all these things that don’t fit at all with anything in your normal breadth of experience.”

Garthside didn’t reach out for help, nor did he acknowledge any personal suffering, for six years after his time overseas. It was then that he entered into the Veterans Transition Program, under the supervision of co-founder and UBC professor emeritus Dr. Marv Westwood.

Through that relationship, Garthside was linked up with George Belliveau, a UBC theatre professor who’s overseen the production since its inception three years ago. It took the prof almost two months’ worth of icebreaking to get buy in from the vets to tell their stories in a theatre setting.

“For the first several sessions when some of the vets would come in, they definitely looked around, looked at each one another and went, ‘What is this theatre piece about, what am I going to get out of this and why would I trust any of the theatre people here?” said Belliveau.

Now on its fourth iteration, the play has been performed on Parliament Hill and in London, England in front of Prince Harry and other dignitaries. The script has since been streamlined and cast members have changed. Counsellors and therapists attend each rehearsal and live performance to assist anyone in the audience or cast who may have difficulty processing the show.

Processing is the essential theme in Contact! Unload. Each vet recounts and attempts to reconcile their wartime experience as Garthside’s character sits on the side of the stage and refuses to do so. The production ends with the Shawnigan Lake resident accepting help.

“The most immediate benefit, especially after the first set of performances, was not having to explain my story to friends and family,” Garthside said. “The performance itself tells my story in a way that I could never re-tell it in just words. It’s more visceral.”

Contact! Unload’s Vancouver performances are slated for Sept. 20 and 21 at the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Armoury. Show times are 8 p.m. both nights, and the Sept. 20 show will include Bard on the Beach artistic director Christopher Gaze.

Tickets are online at