CAF Story | Hope after trauma – Warrant Officer Joe Kiah’s search for salvation

Video / January 28, 2021


Everybody was pumped up and excited about the potential of helping people, which is what we do. And we get down there and kind of on the beaches and realize that it was no longer a rescue mission, that it was a recovery mission.

I am WO Joe Kiah. I am the Warrant Officer in charge of the Royal Canadian Air Force Pipes & Drums here in Ottawa.

I joined the Forces in January of 1987. My drumming background, people in the battalion knew about it and so, I took over the position of lead drummer within the First Battalion corps of drums. At that time, I really wasn't aware that there was an opportunity in the regular Force to be a musician pipe & drummer. And that's where my drive to get into this trade, in the job that I currently have, has started back then in 1991.

My first job, my first trade was in the infantry. We received a phone call late one afternoon about an aircraft that had crashed off the coast of Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia. We deployed that evening, drove through the night down to Peggy’s Cove. Initially on the way down, we were believing that we were going down for a rescue mission. Everybody was pumped up and excited about the potential of helping people, which is what we do. And we get down there and on the beaches and realize that it was no longer a rescue, that it was a recovery mission. And our job was to essentially pick up everything that came ashore. Having young kids on my own at the time, I had a very emotional situation. Wading into the water, I picked up some stuff out of that water and one was a shoe of a little girl and when I picked it up, realized that the foot was still in it. I came on shore with it, went down on my knees and I started to cry.

We came back, we went overseas, we did our tour in Bosnia, we came back. No work after the trauma itself. Then I got posted to the battle school in Meaford. After a couple of years up there, I was given a phone call with an opportunity to join the musician trade and the posting was to Greenwood, Nova Scotia. On the way down, I've seen a road sign that said: "Peggy’s Cove, 36 kilometres." And at that moment, my heart stuck and I just realized that I'm coming back into this area. It was the first time that I'd ever thought about that situation. When I got to Shearwater, it was definitely ground zero. In the base itself is where the temporary morgue was set up. There was still remains of the aircraft in a sprung shelter on the base itself and I started to struggle. I started to see this little girl. This little girl was probably about 11 years old, she had a nice yellow polka dot dress, same shoes that I picked up and long dark hair. And I'd see this girl. My first impression when I saw her was like: Wow! Here parents must have gotten posted here too. Because I remembered seeing this girl in Greenwood.

As time went on, I struggled by self-medicating with alcohol, keeping it from my family as much as I could and where things really started to come to light was when I saw that girl at a grocery store. And then one time, I'm in the grocery store, it was winter time and all she was wearing was this yellow polka dot dress. And that's when I knew that: Okay, something's up, here. I got posted to Ontario to train in Ontario, sitting out of the house watering my front grass, and going by on a little scooter was this girl with a smile and that dress. And I put the hose down and realized: This isn't gonna work, grabbed a bag full of beers and I went and sat on the railroad tracks that night waiting for a train to come by.

The train never showed up. I got off the tracks that morning, I went to a hospital and I talked to a doctor. I broke down and told her. Within three days, with the support of my Wing Commander and my Wing Chief, they set me to treatment for four months. Basically got a whole new lease on life. It's not like it's gonna end, but I know how to cope with it now.

Reach out. Don't keep quiet. The struggle is real. A lot of us grew up in an area where you don't complain. Call somebody, call a friend, let your leadership know. The support is there, the help is there. PTSD is not a weakness. I do definitely credit everything that I'm going through now with the support that I've had from my leadership and the support that the Canadian Forces give to members with PTSD.

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