The Voices of War

32. Steve Dennis - On Getting Shot, Kidnapped And The Court Case That Sent Tremors Through The Humanitarian Aid Industry

VOW 32 | Humanitarian Aid

My guest today is Steve Dennis. After working as a civil engineer in Canada in the late 1990’s, Steve started working as a field-based humanitarian aid worker in 2002. He worked in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, for various NGOs and UN agencies, which include the World Food Programme, Médecins Sans Frontières, United Nations Department of Safety and Security, and others.

In 2012, while working with an organisation in Kenya, armed men attacked a convoy Steve was travelling in. In the attack, one staff member was killed, and Steve and two other colleagues were wounded. He and three colleagues were then kidnapped by the armed militia only to be rescued days later in another violent gunfight.

In 2015, Steve won a precedent-setting court ruling of gross negligence against his former employer, revealing a disturbingly high level of disregard for staff safety within the organisation. The court also shed some much-needed light on the need to care for injured staff, which is another topic rarely discussed.

Steve now works with individuals and organisations along their path from injury and grievance to recovery, as well as skills development and growth. This work is not only related to better navigating the landscapes of an organisation’s duty of care and risk management, but also capacity development in program management, leadership, and breaking stigmas on mental health issues.

Some of the topics we covered include:

  • Steve’s entry into the humanitarian aid profession
  • Life of a humanitarian aid worker
  • Challenges of working in a refugee camp in Kenya
  • Importance of planning and appropriate qualifications
  • Getting shot and kidnapped
  • The rescue
  • Trauma, PTSD and tools that help
  • The legal battle
  • Inadequate health and legal frameworks for humanitarian aid workers
  • Impact of Steve’s precedent-setting legal win
  • Steve’s current role helping others avoid similar challenges

You can find out more about Steve and his work here, and watch a documentary about his kidnapping here.

Listen to the podcast here

Steve Dennis – On Getting Shot, Kidnapped And The Court Case That Sent Tremors Through The Humanitarian Aid Industry

My guest is Steve Dennis. After working as a civil engineer in Canada in the late 1990s, Steve started working as a field-based humanitarian aid worker in 2002. He worked in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East for various NGOs and UN agencies, which include the World Food Programme, Médecins Sans Frontières, United Nations Department of Safety and Security, and others.

In 2012, while working with an organisation in Kenya, armed men attacked a convoy Steve was travelling in. In the attack, 1 staff member was killed, and Steve and 2 other colleagues were wounded. He and three colleagues were then kidnapped by the armed militia only to be rescued days later in another violent gunfight.

In 2015, Steve won a precedent-setting court ruling of gross negligence against his former employer, revealing a disturbingly high level of disregard for staff safety within the organisation. The court also shed some much-needed light on the need to care for injured staff, which is another topic rarely discussed.

Steve now works with individuals and organisations along their path from injury and grievance to recovery, as well as skills development and growth. This work is not only related to better navigating the landscapes of an organisation’s duty of care and risk management, but also capacity development in program management, leadership, and breaking stigmas on mental health issues. Steve, it’s a pleasure to host you on the show. Welcome.

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

To get us started, I’m slightly perplexed. You were a civil engineer living in a wealthy and stable country that is Canada. How did you find your way into the world of humanitarian aid and development work?

It wasn’t by any design at all. I was working for an engineering firm and one of the high-paying clients called me in saying, “We have an emergency.” There was this little bit of water leakage into this penthouse suite and some paint was bubbling up a little bit. I said, “What’s the emergency?” She said, “I’m having a dinner party in a couple of weeks and I will die if my guests see that.” That morning, I’d seen in the headlines in the newspaper that 20,000 people had been displaced by an earthquake or something.

That contrast hit me hard. Over the next couple of days, that story had gone to the 3rd page, the 7th page, the 20th and then off the newspaper very quickly. I didn’t think that those 20,000 people were back on their feet and everything. At the same time, somebody said I should work with an aid organisation doing logistics. I thought, “That’s the client I want to work for,” people who are having a real emergency. I packed my bags and headed off.

Talk about an interesting way to introduce you to see the contrast between “first-world problems” and then the problems that the rest of the world faces. That’s interesting. Have you had any exposure previously? Has anyone in your family done any of this type of work?

Not at all. I didn’t know what it was at work. I was blind to it. I hadn’t travelled outside of Canada except for one trip to the UK. In my interview, they said, “We’re looking for people who’ve travelled a little all over Canada. The UK, that’s our neighbour’s backyard.” I was probably as green as they come. I got declined at that interview.

I asked, “What should I do?” Somebody said, “I don’t know. Go to Guatemala or somewhere, get off the trail, and see if this is what you want to do.” It was the best advice ever. I did find myself in Guatemala two weeks later and off the trail. It was very good to do that on my own time. A lot of people get into this work and don’t know what it is. It was the best advice to find out what it is so that when you are on the ground performing, you’re through a lot of that stuff first.

What do you mean you went to Guatemala? Was it as a volunteer of some fashion?

No. This person’s advice was pretty blank. “Go there for six weeks. Learn some Spanish. Get off the trail. Go as far as you can,” so I did that. I didn’t learn any Spanish. I got out to a place to learn some Spanish and a couple of English-speaking people found me and said, “Great. We can speak English.” I thought, “I have to go further.”

I found myself up in the mountains in a remote place where they didn’t speak any more Spanish. They were speaking a Mayan dialect. I’m learning less Spanish, but that wasn’t objective. I was living in a small room, getting sick of the food. It was a good time to get into a developing country, a remote place, and figure out what’s important to me. That motivated me. My employer at the time thought I would get it out of my system, but no, it solidified some motivation to do this type of work.

I can’t say I’ve heard that too often. “Do you want me to go and get an understanding of what I’m getting into? I’ll go and do that.” That’s interesting. What happened from there? What was then your first actual job in the field?

Two weeks into it, I talked to the recruitment officer and said, “I’d like to see a project.” This was with Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders. I wanted to see a project there. She said, “We typically don’t let people visit the projects like that. Fair enough. You’re motivated. We want you to join an introductory course.” I flew out to Sri Lanka. I went to the area in Sri Lanka in the North by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. At the time, there was a ceasefire. There were peace talks and they were holding. It was an interesting time of seeing the ruins of war and the trauma through people, but it was a decent time for us. There was no active fighting.

People were going home. When people went home, there was an upsurge of all the landmines and other remnants of war. Things closed down. We started handing over to development agencies that were coming in and we were finishing our emergency medical operations and leaving. That was four years before I went back when fighting restarted. We were almost doing an opposite handover of taking over from some of the similar actors when they would leave and we would get back in. I went back in there.

How long were you with Médecins Sans Frontières?

I was with them for nine years. Great organisation.

I’ve met a couple of people throughout my life that have worked with or for the organisation, but for some people who might not be intuitively clear why an engineer would be there, what work were you doing? I suspect you weren’t in the medical space, but what kind of things were you doing?

I was doing a lot of logistics and project coordination. When you think of a healthcare project, we’d possibly be in a remote area running a hospital or some basic healthcare clinics. You’d have a team of people. The medical expertise with doctors, nurses, and nutritionists maybe as well but then you have a whole side of it that is the support side. All the medicines that are being prescribed need a supply chain to get them up in the right quantities, cold chain, warehouses and good stock keeping, so you don’t run out of essential medications.

You need other logistics support vehicles and shelters and food is often overlooked, but patients need to eat. If they have a caretaker, if you want them to take care of the patient, they need to eat too. A lot of that type of stuff. A lot of the areas where they work are insecure. There has to be some security management and that’s a lot of liaisons with the people that are there.

We might be in a rebel-held area or a non-government-held area. You have to talk with the local authorities and explain what you’re doing. Come to an agreement that you can work there and their people will understand your work and allow you to work there and have this free neutral access to people. As an engineer, some of it is the skills that you build. Engineering gives you a toolbox of tools and a lot of that’s great.

I’ve done water and sanitation roles in this. If somebody needs 20 litres per person per day and there are 1,000 of them, I said, “We need to start getting more trucks or more options besides water trucks to come in. A lot of it is emergency planning. You might not know what’s needed for an emergency because wars change. How long is a war? How developed is a war? We don’t know. You plan for what you know and some other contingencies that come up that are in your own safety, but it’s also in the program operation.

VOW 32 | Humanitarian Aid
Humanitarian Aid: You plan for what you know and for some other contingencies that come up, and that’s in your own safety, but it’s also in the program operation.

Come coming from a military background, that’s music to my ears. Our bread and butter is to plan operations and manage operations and account for the various aspects. I wonder, in that world, have you received training to do that or were these things and skills that you brought with you or learned on the job? There’s an art and science to planning successful operations. I wonder where did you get the skills for that?

It’s a mix, for sure. A lot of aid workers and aid agencies might be a bit jealous of the structure of learning through military preparation and training pre-deployment. Militaries talk about months or portions of a year to pre-deployment training beyond basic training. For humanitarian aid agencies, I was privileged with a two-week training as an introduction to the organisation, its activities and some technical know-how, but that’s pretty extensive and that’s not happening anymore with that organisation.

Sometimes when you talk about security training for a personal security course, a four-day training is about top-notch, four days in person. There are some online things that are complemented. For me, a lot of on-the-job things, a couple of courses and some good mentors as well. I appreciate the mentorship of some people who have laid out certain principles. I remember one time, after an evacuation in South Sudan and everything was looted, I was in tears about what we’d built. This is the 2nd time or the 3rd time that everything was lost. Why do we go back?

To a younger aid worker, you have these questions. You’re confronted with these impossible situations. To have somebody say, “Let’s break it down. The needs are still there. The donors are informed and know what’s going on and that sometimes you need to buy a backup and another backup of things. It’s safe enough for us to be there. What more is needed from that?” There’s the principle of it. Do we stop at this time or the next time? Let’s keep going. I was privileged to have a lot of influential people like that to give me some good principles to get through that difficult landscape.

I asked that question because as we get deeper into our conversation, that idea of planning becomes rather relevant for the incident that we’ll discuss shortly. It’s certainly an area that I’m keen and interested in because I’ve seen some fantastic planning in the development sector during my time when I worked in Iraq as a development consultant. I’ve also seen some absolute lapses. I won’t even credit us for calling it planning. Making stuff up on the fly is probably more than it was. Let’s move forward in your career. Nine years with Médecins Sans Frontières. That’s quite an extensive chunk of a career. Where else did you go from there? How did you end up in Kenya?

The first contract I had afterwards, I wanted to branch out a little bit. I did think that cross-fertilisation of ideas would be a positive thing. I thought it’d be a decent career step to move on to another organisation. That’s what brought me to Kenya, to the Dadaab refugee camp on the border of Somalia in the Northeast.

What work were you doing in the camp?

This was back in 2011. There was a famine in East Africa at that time. The camp at the time had about 300,000 people registered there. Over the course of the first four months that I’d gotten there, about 120 days, there was, on average, about another 1,000 to 1,200 people coming in per day. These were people walking in from Somalia.

The nuanced difference between a drought, a weather problem, and a famine, an inability to feed people, usually a political thing, is related there. The same lack of rainfall was happening on both sides of the border, depending on the situation. The ability to feed people in Somalia was having a harder time because of the political situation. People were fleeing from Somalia, seeking refuge. This was famine related. The insecurity in Somalia added to the drought being a famine. Over a year, about 160,000 additional people came into the camp and were registered there. 463,000 people by the end of that influx were registered there.

The nuanced difference between a drought, which is a weather problem, and a famine, which is an inability to feed people, is usually a political thing. Click To Tweet

My role there was working as an emergency coordinator. When that’s happening, the spotlight of world attention is moved over to situations like that. We were in that spotlight. Many more agencies were coming in. The agencies that were there were hiring many more people. You want shelter, water, health and food, the various different areas of needs for people.

This is very much what an emergency looks like. People will die if they don’t have essentials. Let’s get the essentials and quantities there and the details later. As an emergency coordinator there, the agency I was working with was doing water. We were doing food and shelter in bulk quantities. People were clearing land and setting up hundreds of tents every day and knowing that these only last six months, but if people don’t get tents in that heat, wind, and dust, that’ll be a health problem and their end.

We were doing a lot of that coordinating with other agencies who are doing what so that we can make sure we’re not duplicating the same thing and making sure that we’re not missing too many others. That first phase of an emergency, it’s quite messy. That’s what I went in and because of my experience in emergencies before, they felt it valuable and that’s what I was doing.

That sounds like a hugely responsible job. You were the reception for the other organisations and funnelling them left, front, and centre or had you also arrived and there was another organisation? Were you the first and the only one on the ground initially?

No. This camp had been around for about twenty years. Many established agencies were there. If you add up all national staff from that area that are working for an agency, plus the ones from the country and from other countries, you would probably have 5,000 aid workers there of that magnitude for that size of operation. You also have contractors that are doing things. When I say clearing land and setting up hundreds of tents, that’s a small job for one agency hiring. We probably had more than 100 people, contractors served local casual labour. It’s a massive operation. It doesn’t funnel through one agency or whatnot. The World Food Programme was bringing in food and having many agencies to help spread that food to the people.

If you think of 400,000 people, 4 people per household, that’s 100,000 households. It takes a while to get food to people in the right quantities and water, 20 litres per person per day. We’re close to a sizeable portion of 1 million litres of water per day. It’s a massive system. I was the emergency coordinator for one agency to meet with the other coordinators on shelter issues. We would put a plan together on shelter and water things. I must say that the first phase is messy and stressful and but through better skills, preparation, and plans, you can do a better job or you can be messy.

Through better skills, better preparation, and better plans, you can do a better job. Click To Tweet

It’s probably the most important phase of the operation. It’ll also set the tone for how it unfolds. It’s amazing, the numbers you’re talking about. It’s like running effectively in a small city. We’re establishing the administration for a small city, except you now also have people who are refugees who don’t necessarily have incomes. They don’t have work to go to. There are no schools and etc.

I don’t think most of us can visualise the complexities that come with that or the chaos that can ensue in a moment over food, water, and so on. I suspect you’ve seen a fair bit of that and it must have been a great fortuitous coincidence that you are also a civil engineer. That background would’ve been rather useful in those circumstances. I suspect you’ve witnessed some pretty chaotic scenes in those first days.

I would say chaotic and desperate. Besides the physical things that you can give people, if you can extend dignity and if you can make sure your assistance is dignified, that’s a point to the quality of something being there. I’ve seen two different groups getting the exact same thing, but when it’s explained to somebody, “Here’s what we have for you and we know it’s not enough and our plans are to get more,” whether it’s food or water, healthcare or whatever, that gives people such a better ability to get through their day than when something has dropped off. No explanations of what’s coming next or is that for everyone? Is that for half? It’s a hard place to work, but I appreciate that when you can bring a situation from desperate and undignified to a more dignified response, that’s huge.

Even though my engineering background is a numbers thing, 2,100 kilocalories per person per day for food this much, that many tons, so many tons per truck and those numbers, it’s difficult to focus on that. Those numbers, if you get them right, you can get the right assistance to people. If you lose track that those are humans, then you’ve gone too much into the robot side. If you’re too focused on one person and their situation, you lose track of the numbers you have to take care of as well. It is a very tricky balance, I must say. My heart goes out to the people who are doing this. It’s a hard job.

It’s that art and science of planning. We mentioned that before. Maybe let’s zero in to 2012 the incident that happened. Can you give us the wave tops of what occurred and how you got there?

Starting off the context, the famine hit in the previous year, 2011, in the middle of the year. Things had tapered down a little bit and stabilised a bit more. There was another dynamic happening that some insecurity was happening in the camps. At the time, there were bombs that were going off or these improvised explosive devices. The Kenyan military had gone into Somalia.

I try not to speculate all the reasons behind that, but they were there and there was some opposition to that. Some of the insecurity in the camp was showing this opposition to the bond in the camps. There were a couple of kidnaps that happened later in 2011. There were 3 people, 2 from 1 organisation, 1 from another organisation were taken and they were gone. They were in Somalia and had effectively disappeared.

Were they kidnapped in the camp as well?

Yes. After the kidnap of them, even though there was some use of armed escorts for the convoys of vehicles going around, it got quite strict after that. All convoys would have an armed escort in it. For VIP visits, when there are other members, you could have two armed escorts and a more police presence. As you mentioned, that area’s size was like a small city. The police force for a small or mid-sized city would be thousands of police officers. That was not the case here. It was less, so it was a limited resource, but whenever we needed it, we could have them. We used them for all of our convoy movements.

Were they Kenyan police or were they international Kenyan police?

Kenyan police. By the middle of 2012, numbers had stabilised this insecurity of these bombs going off and hitting these police vehicles and police officers. Several of them had died in their service there. That was going on. There was some slowing down of operations because of this insecurity as well. That spotlight had moved on a little bit.

There was a famine the last year, but it was boring the next year even though all of those people had eaten their animals that normally reproduce and are more sustainable. All their crops are gone. They eat the seeds that would’ve been planted for next year. There were still insecurities, so they couldn’t go back and they were all hungry. It wasn’t a one-off, “Here’s your food. You’re good.” It’s a maintenance thing. There’s less of a spotlight on the situation.

The organisation I worked for decided to bring out the Secretary-General and do a bit of a PR visit to get some good stories and photos and raise awareness of what was going on in the camp and that still there’s a need there. This VIP visit was planned for the end of June 2011. In the weeks leading up to that, unfortunately, this is a breakdown of plans on the security people planning for a well-managed security visit, but then other plans compromising that and not linking in with that.

There were rocks being painted and trees being planted. Everything must look perfect for the Secretary-General’s visit the next week. Staff meetings with more than 100 people talked about this. For the visit, we met the visitors at the airport. The night before, there was a decision to make the visit the lower profile, so they decided to do away with the front and back police escorts. We would go ahead to all the places where there were meetings lined up with refugee representatives or other people in the camps, as well as bringing in about 60 casual labourers who were on their day off but to bring them in to show what some of the shelter building operations were.

This visit went on. Some would say it was low profile because we didn’t have police escorts, but we had white Land Cruisers with flags from the organisation. We left the airport and drove through the camp. We stopped at various places to have these meetings. There were three vehicles after the last stop in one of the camps we had left there. I was in the lead vehicle. A lot of the VIPs were in the middle and then there was a third vehicle of some others. Right at that moment, three people came out of a hidden place in front of us and started shooting our driver. We were on loose sand. The driver tried to accelerate to get us out of there. The shooting continued.

I got shot in my leg quite early on in this. He tried to go forward, but the wheels were spinning. He went back and got caught in a barbed wire fence. He tried going again and the car stalled and couldn’t move anymore. The person behind me got shot as well. The driver got out and he was shot as well. The three of us in that vehicle were shot.

The middle car was able to turn to the side and break through a fence and get away. In the third vehicle, three other people had come around that vehicle and tried to convince the driver to stop. He didn’t. He tried to accelerate out. He was only going 5 or 10 kilometres an hour at the time. They shot him four times, once in the head. He was killed there. One other person in the vehicle got shot. From there, they took the third vehicle up to where I was. I was taken out of the vehicle and put into it. Myself, along with three others, were taken. We were kidnapped. They picked up two more people of the attackers and we left.

We’ll pick up there. I want to backtrack to one point you made. The night before the VIP visit, it was decided that the police escort would be removed. What forced that decision and who made that decision?

It was unclear to us. I was brought into a meeting. At the time, I was in a different role. Since the emergency was down, I was put into an HR, admin, and logistics role, but because of my previous knowledge of the camps 1 day or 2 before the visit, I was put on the visit. A lot of this was new to me, but I was brought into a meeting and told that security in Nairobi had determined this was the better way forward.

We later found out that security was not involved in that decision, but some of the decision-makers who were not part of the security technical advisory group had decided that because there were bombs in the camp and the bombs were hitting police. If we took away the police, then we wouldn’t be hit by the bombs.

They had also said later in court that the kidnap risk had gone down because there hadn’t been kidnaps in 8 and 9 months since those last ones. What they didn’t focus on is after those kidnaps, there was strict adherence to always having an escort around because it was felt that with an escort, kidnappers wouldn’t attempt a kidnap.

There were also two months before, information came out that security had known about and some of the decision-makers may have received these emails that there was a report saying that there are 1 or 2 kidnap groups in the camps planning to kidnap from international NGOs. We’ve got this from three unrelated sources, so we feel it’s valid. There was a miscalculation there. People who were unqualified and removed from the technical security expertise made the decisions on technical security decisions. That was later flagged as one of the several issues.

Maybe complacency or negligence guiding down the wrong path.

There is some optimism. If nothing happens, then people think nothing happens. Also, for a kidnap risk, you think about as an aid agency, “We’re helping people, so why would somebody want to do us harm?” There’s a bit of thought there. I’ve worked in areas where I’ve thought that. Not where kidnap was a thing, and that’s quite true in a lot of ways. There’s a saying no program without security and no security without a program.

VOW 32 | Humanitarian Aid
Humanitarian Aid: No program without security, and no security without a program.

I take that to try to deliver high-end programs so that people would say, “We want you here. We like what you’re doing.” When we had a problem, we talked about it and we came to an agreement. You can always have a problem. One of your vehicles might go too fast and hit a goat or hit a child. Work through some of these problems with a community.

In the end, they say, “We still value you here. We don’t want to hurt you.” The key point is to know when that is correct and know when that is incorrect. Going back to this place as big as a mid-size city, if generally, people feel that way, you also have to worry about the people who don’t know what you’re doing or might have a grievance against the organisation. They might say, “They’re not safe in my mind.”

It comes down to the risk matrix. There’s a risk profile that you understand. What is the threat to who is the threat? What capabilities do they have? What is their intent? All of these things exactly come into play. I suspect that’s where you making the point that it was unqualified people making the decision. Without getting too sidetracked, honing in on the actual incident, you were wounded in your leg. I suspect walking was an issue. What injury was this? Did you need immediate treatment? How critical was the injury?

As a military person, you’ll appreciate I was quite lucky with my gunshot wound. A couple of things happened. The bullet went through the door, which is not bulletproof, but it slowed it down. It went through my wallet and then it went into my leg. To add to the luck, I was supposed to fly out that afternoon, so I filled up my wallet with a bunch of extra cash and all my credit cards and bank cards. It was the thickest that it would’ve been over that year.

It wasn’t the biggest of wallets, so it hit exactly there. It was a shallow wound and it poked in. There’s a bit of a problem there, a bit of muscle loss. it became a problem as we were walking, but I was able to walk. One other person with us also had a gunshot wound but it was relatively lighter as well. It had gone on the top of his leg through some muscle, but it could have been a lot worse as well.

We drove for about an hour, and then the vehicle stalled or stopped working. It was a windy road and they were going very fast and sometimes not able to stay on the roads. We went through trees, bushes and at one point, the car gave up. The Land Cruiser is a great car, but you can only knock down so many trees with it before it stops. We started walking. We walked for a bit and then this was 1:00 in the afternoon in a very dry, dusty place. It’s on the equator and there’s no rain there much in the year. We were taking shade under a bush, not knowing what was going on.

By sunset, we got up and we were pushed to walk. For the next three days, we would walk 9 or 10 hours at night. During the days, we would take shelter under a bush and wait out the days. There was much more drama in there, but we ran out of water very quickly. We were drinking horrible, dirty, disgusting water. Any water that we could find, we were drinking it. if you’re working in that type of environment, I highly recommend water. My shoes saved my life. Good footwear, you hear the theory of it. That was a very important thing.

Why is that? I can perhaps guess, but what do you mean by your shoes?

I have a photo of it. On the bottom of my shoe, I count about 250 holes where holes or thorns are still in there, where the thorns had gone through. Most of them stopped and didn’t go through all the way, some did. A couple of other people with us developed bad infections from cuts from the thorns that were around. We got rescued on the fourth day. If we had been there for months, as many people do in kidnaps in Somalia, a small infection on your foot could cost you your life.

I imagine that you survive a capture with some gunfight, you survive everything in the bush, but an infection. People who wear sandals in the field, I have stronger words for them these days. Get better shoes. Throughout the nights, we walked a lot. Throughout the days, we hid from the sun. On the morning of the fourth day, the sky lit up with gunfire. There had been a militia that had found our track and had been tracking us. They were in contact with the crisis team and the head of the crisis team, the regional director.

Was it of the organisation you worked for?

Yeah. They had agreed to attempt a rescue. Knowing it was risky, the militia leader said, “We don’t know if we’ll get them dead or alive, but we can get them.” They decided to go ahead and with the rescue. The sky lit up with gunfire. There was a lot of running. Our captors were away from us at that very instant. They ran away. The rescuers ran and were shooting everywhere. The four of us were together. We were low. We tried to dig into the sand and tried to get as low as possible. In an open field with sand, it’s very hard to do that. Very few times in my life, I’ve been spending every single ounce of effort to do something.

You see it sometimes at the end of a race or in a game of something when you’re giving everything. To dig lower, to compress your chest by not breathing so much to move your feet. How do I keep my toes down or my nose, anything to reduce a percent of surface area? Looking back at the casualness that was applied to safety and security before the incident and to a lot of measures to prevent an incident compared to that moment, it’s quite a difference.

We didn’t know who these people were. They chased away our captors. We thought maybe were being taken by a different group and this would be a different chapter of our story. They convinced us there was a rescue. They got us into our vehicle and they started driving away. Still, the gunfire was happening and there was still an active shooting thing going on. We drove away. We got back to the Kenya military and then back to Nairobi and we were safe.

This wasn’t the Kenya military that rescued you? Was it another militia?

It was the Somali militia.

To add confusion to the mix, I have to pick up on one point and that is that the decision was made despite the call, “We don’t know if we’re going to get him dead or alive. We can get them. ” Someone made that call and the crisis coordinator would have. That strikes me as an exceptionally brave decision. How do you feel about that decision? It all worked out well, but what are your thoughts on that decision? That would not have been an easy one to make. It turned out to be the right one, in your case.

Mixed feelings. I have to flag a bias here. I got out and alive. I’m grateful that I am out and alive. I can’t think that a day goes by and there’s not some reflection of the time that I have that maybe I wouldn’t have had. In kidnaps in Somalia, the most likely outcome is that people get out alive after 1 year or 2. That’s generally what happens. I’m talking about SEAL Team Six was in doing a rescue attempt, and the French Special Services were in doing 1. If you take ten of these types of things, probably about half of them come out with people being alive at the end of it.

It’s thought to be the last resort if the information is that the person’s life is in imminent danger. The French Special Forces that went in to get somebody, two of them were killed and the hostage was killed as well in that rescue attempt. That’s a high-skill-level force. We had a militia that I remember looking around in the vehicle when we were going out and there was probably a sixteen-year-old behind the .50 calibre machine gun with the earbuds hanging off of his ears. Not necessarily a similar level.

In court, the person who made that decision was asked, “What was your decision-making about this?” He said, “I couldn’t live with the idea that they would be held any further or any longer.” “Walk us through your decision-making about that.” He was talking about, “I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep one moment when they were taken. When I heard that there was an opportunity to get them, we had to try it. We had to do it.”

This goes back to unqualified people being promoted into positions where they’re unqualified to make those decisions. A sleep-deprived person who is making life or death decisions, I’m sure the organisation also feels like, “That wasn’t our proudest moment. It was great to get them back, but things have to be tighter than that.”

In this case, more through luck than good planning, that’s for sure.

I regret if that means that somebody else is held longer than we were. It was four days. It wasn’t 400. The previous people that were taken went on for quite a long time, even after I was released. 1 of them is 2 and a half years, and the other 2 close to 2 years, I believe. Not only did I have that year or two years extra but I also avoided 1 year or 2 of likely hell. I’m grateful for the outcome, but I do agree that they could do better.

Speaking about that, that must have been a harrowing experience, not knowing what was going to happen, being wounded, and having other colleagues there being wounded. How would those three or into the fourth day? What did you guys talk about? What did you guys worry about? Describe those couple of days.

There were different phases of belief and disbelief. In the beginning, very much a disbelief of sorts. I got shot and it was probably the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through. With the continued shooting, my heart was racing, and I was in a full panic attack, the fight or flight reactions of the body were there. I stopped feeling the bullet wound very soon after it happened. It was the immediate most painful thing of my life. “What’s happening? Not like this. Not now. I’m not done on this world,” thoughts. Moving around, getting put into another vehicle. “What’s going on here? There’s a lot of blood. Who are these people?”

There are a lot of guns. There are a lot of people with guns. They’ve searched us. We’ve been around people with guns before. We’ve been on visits to places where our national staff lead us around. We’re being led. “What’s going on here? This isn’t a kidnapping, is it? No. That happens to other people.” I hate to say it, but there are some parts of logic that got missed. “This isn’t a kidnap, but this looks a lot like a kidnap, but no.”

When a friend or a colleague said, “We’re being kidnapped, aren’t we?” Maybe that’s what a kidnap looks like, extremely messy and confusing. It was about 45 minutes later that this searing pain started again in my leg and I looked down and there was the blood. There’s the hole that’s going on there. Over those days, disbelief. A lot of thoughts for family and friends back home.

There were thoughts like, “If this is how the story ends for me, this career, these choices that have led me here, how does that sit with me?” Some thoughts like that. Going into those darker places where you question things, my life has changed since, for sure. I live differently now because of seeing the fragility of life. There are practical things. I’ve spent a lot of my time out in the woods in Canada and other things.

I know the stars. I know some things about field first aid from my time with MSF and South Sudan or other places. I know dusty wounds are going to get infected. We got to treat those. It was difficult. Everybody reacts differently in those situations, but that idea of belief, disbelief and even getting rescued and that we’re back, I’m in a disbelief time. That’s a struggle. The quicker you can understand it, then the better for everything.

It’s not something you have once gone through before, so it doesn’t marry up with any expected outcomes in the real world that one is normally used to. It’s fortunately not something most of us experience on a day-to-day basis. After the rescue, how long did it take for you to realise you’re struggling with what’s happening to you? How did the picture unfold afterwards?

Part of it was a blur. I find the concept when the release happens, there’s such a relief to the crisis team, to all the colleagues, to families and everything and to the person, for sure. When you’re doing a lot of debriefs, you’re reliving it a bit and you are getting these flows of adrenaline and all the chemicals. When you close your eyes, there are the things. There are scary moments.

VOW 32 | Humanitarian Aid
Humanitarian Aid: When you’re doing a lot of debriefs, you’re reliving it a bit and getting these flows of adrenaline and chemicals. When you close your eyes, there are the scary moments.

Something that only came to me nine years and a few months past this incident and I’m still learning and getting better at things, was I had a hard time with shadows. At nighttime in a parking lot or somewhere where there was a shadow, I would have a huge avoidance of that. I only realised that when we were walking at night, only the stars and the moonlight were lighting our way.

Often, one of our captors might be up ahead off the path a little bit, letting us walk by. For the observer, you’re walking along, and then all of a sudden, the shadow starts having this image of somebody. They were one of our captors. That association was there deep in my mind. The release happened, but I feel that there was this cloudy transition time where I was still in it a bit or my mind was in it a little bit.

I got home probably five days later or so. I’d seen a lot of medical people. We had some first-response psychosocial people come by. Half of our session with them was getting some of the details. “You were working in Somalia?” “No, we were working in Kenya.” “You said that you were working with Somalis?” “They’re refugees. They’re Somali refugees.” “You were in Somalia?” “No, they moved across the border.”

Some of that was happening. I got home. When is it still jet lag and when is it not jet lag anymore? I understand in normal people who’ve gone through a traumatic event, it’s natural for a couple of weeks of things to be unsettled, but after that, if it’s not going away and getting a good balance again of gained wisdom, but not hypersensitivity or hypervigilance, then you should start worrying about things.

Also, I had known with NSF that meeting up with a psychosocial person is also about information. As you would going to or coming back from a malaria zone, you’d say, “This is just an information session. Malaria’s like this. Here are some of the symptoms to look out for. If you see any of those, here are some ways to get support.”

I had that structure or knew about that structure. I did see somebody. I was able to find a trauma specialist and he said, “My schedule’s full. Maybe I can refer you to somebody else but tell me what happened.” I said, “I was working in Kenya,” and I gave him a couple of the details. He said, “That’s important. Are you available later?” He cleared some time and saw me. He was very good about picking up on a lot of things that I was going through like, “How was your drive over here?” He could see that I was still breathing quite hard.

I had stopped at a traffic light. I don’t know if this happens to you, but people would get a squeegee and slap it onto your windscreen to start washing your window, coming from out of sight so that you couldn’t refuse their service. You’re forced to tip them. That slap on the windscreen was a surprise being inside a vehicle right there. “Let’s talk about triggers and let’s talk about these things.” It was quite something

On the trauma that came into it, you said you started seeing somebody, but at what point did you realise, “I am suffering and this is having a significant impact on my life?”

I was going through a belief-disbelief phase and there are a lot of games that one can play against their best interest in such a time. You say, “I’m still jetlagged. That’s why I’m sleeping oddly. It’s been more than two weeks. It’s a bit much to get over eight hours. The hypersensitivity, it’s because it’s a new thing. I’m jetlagged, so I don’t want to be around people,” or things like that. I was explaining things away. I was quite lucky my wallet got shot and I was behind that. Other people got shot worse.

VOW 32 | Humanitarian Aid
Humanitarian Aid: Going through a belief-disbelief phase, there are a lot of games that one can play against their best interest.

It was the first letter that my psychologist wrote to the organisation to say, “He’s not clear for work or I’m not clearing him for work. Here’s a letter describing some of those details so that you can continue support.” Incipient PTSD, I think, were his words. “This is early. We can diagnose it more firmly later, but clearly, he exceeds the threshold on a number of different criteria for PTSD.” That was when it hit me. I thought, “PTSD? Soldiers get that. I’m just a guy.” He had to give me some straight talk. “No, you’re a guy that got shot, attacked, kidnapped, and then saw other people injured as well. At what point do you allow yourself to also agree that you might be suffering from some of those types of things?”

That was a fundamental point where once something has a name, it has symptoms that you can learn about, start treatment, and start getting better. Going back to that other medical analogy, if you had fevers and bone aches and you didn’t know what malaria was and how to treat it, you’d probably muscle through a lot of things and hurt yourself and maybe die from it.

Once something has a name, then it has symptoms that you can learn about and start treatment to get better. Click To Tweet

Instead, I wanted to get better. I’m doing exercises, confronting it, and trying to do better with it, but the symptoms were hypersensitivity, hypervigilance of the shadows, anxiety, and panic attacks. I would get panic attacks when the idea of going into a place where there’s a risk, like the street in Toronto. I would see somebody unzip their jacket and I would get out of there because clearly, they’re unzipping and they’re going to pull out a gun. Those types of things were going on. It was quite bumpy, I must say.

You mentioned some of those tools that helped you along the way. It’s been years. Firstly, how are you doing now? If I understand PTSD correctly, it’s a condition that one needs to learn to live with. Also, what were some of those tools that helped you? How do you manage it on a day-to-day basis?

I do believe it’s a thing probably there are no shortcuts or at least I wasn’t able to find any shortcuts, even though I tried. With work, you can get better at things. Right now, I can talk about the story without getting any adrenaline jolts and my heart probably stays the same. I haven’t gone through some parts of the questioning as the story with my psychologist, so I’m bored with it. One of the things that I was doing was going through the story 45 minutes a day to get that rise and then fall of adrenaline and other things so that it becomes a boring story. You can stick it in a box, stick it away, and move on.

When somebody asks you about it or you see a headline of a kidnap somewhere else or triggers to that story, you can approach it in a calmer way and say, “That’s quite bad for them.” As far as me, I’ve got my story. It’s in that box. If I have a little bit of an unsettled thing that I want to think about, I write it down on a pad of paper and make an appointment for myself.

I’m doing a piece of work. My mind wants to think about something there and I make an appointment for myself to do that. My brain understands that there’s a time for that. It can’t interrupt me at any one time. Whereas I would say that beforehand, a story would come up on BBC and there goes my day. I wouldn’t be able to function for a day.

On all of the ways that your mind wants to recalculate, like survivor guilt, there’s a whole topic of going through. What if we tried to escape? What if we did this? What if we did that? That can occupy a ton of time as well. For me, the success was working with a trained professional. It was a trauma psychologist, but other people might have spiritual leaders or professionals on this, as well with that approach that things come from things.

When I was going through a triggered reaction, afterwards, I would remember things come from things. I’m going to work with my psychologist to pick this one apart and then come up with exercises so that it wouldn’t have a similar reaction. Either I would see it coming and I would slow down a little bit or when it was happening, the early stages of it happening, I could try to lower the impact of that trigger. It’s a lot of work.

I can only imagine. What struck me is the way you refer to the mind as almost a third person. I find that fascinating. I’m a long-term meditator and that’s one of the things about meditation. You realise that the mind does its own thing. You can’t fight the mind. You can’t stop thoughts. Becoming removed from one’s thoughts as though they are a third person is a tool that works, as you’re describing in dealing with PTSD but also in everyday life as well.

Do not let the mind carry you as though it’s a river that takes you with it. I find that particularly useful insight as well as making an appointment with your mind. I hazard a guess that that’s a useful tool for all of us to avoid the continuous chattering mind interrupting, particularly for somebody where trauma is trying to make itself feel unknown in the most inconvenient times.

I’m very hesitant to offer generic advice, but I do like bringing up that example because some people are hesitant about what value can come from psychotherapy. I do like to use solid examples. I would take three hours to get through a paragraph of reading about a difficult topic because of all these distractions from my mind saying, “I want to talk about that. I have a thought. We got to talk about this, Steve. You said we would address this at some point. We haven’t. I’ve got feelings,” or whatever it is. This one exact tool for that setting that somebody helped me learn and exercise and use has been monumental in my ability to focus better. That’s the type of value that I find in psychotherapy or professional assistance.

A lot of people are hesitant. There are stigmas with mental health and support for it, but so many things to your point on separating oneself from their mind. I feel that my mind started doing that first. I came in second. It was my psychologist describing to me when he was hearing about my sleep difficulties when he asked, “Are you falling asleep, having problems falling asleep, having problems going asleep or going to sleep?” “What’s the difference?” He said, “Difficulty falling asleep is you turn off the light, tuck yourself in and you can’t go to sleep, whereas difficulty going to sleep is you have a hard time turning that light off. That’s your mind saying, ‘Boss, we let you down. We admit that, but we’ve got a new plan. No more sleep. We got your back.’”

VOW 32 | Humanitarian Aid
Humanitarian Aid: Difficulty falling asleep is you turn off the light, tuck yourself in, and you can’t go to sleep. Whereas difficulty going to sleep is you have a hard time turning that light off.

I was up until 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning, struggling to stay awake. It wasn’t me. It was my mind saying, “New plan. This what we’re doing.” I tried to outsmart it. I tried not to nap during the day. I’d be exhausted by the end of the day and then boom 8:00, 9:00, or 10:00 PM, my eyes would be open. There’s no way I’d be able to go to sleep. I was a sleep-deprived zombie for a lot of my earlier months.

We know what sleep deprivation does to us. After eighteen hours we’re sleep deprived, we’re legally drunk. The other thing on that point, it’s something that the military had to reconcile with as well. The military as an institution, certainly in Australia, Canada, the US, and the Western militaries, has started paying proper attention to trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, moral injury, and all of these types of things. This is an institution that is designed to go to war and one that’s had to deal with PTSD forever. They never called it that.

There’s an inculcated sense of trauma that comes with service that has been recognised at least publicly since Vietnam. That’s not something that is necessarily discussed or recognised in the development industry, at least not to my knowledge and certainly not as institutionally. In your battle with the organisation you worked for, the support, the tap was turned off because, at some point, you were “healed” and then you are now someone else’s problem. How did it get to that?

I was in the sleep-deprived, traumatised phase. I had a physical injury as well. The organisation supported me for the first months after that but then said, “This is an insurance issue.” The insurance companies said, “Yes, absolutely. No problem. We’ll support you. Send us all the relevant documents.” I tried to understand the relevant documents and get them over to them. They took quite a long time to digest them. They said, “These are three months old now. We have updated documents and we want some specific ones. Can you give us all the relevant documents?” I would try to interpret what they were saying and get them more.

“Sorry, summer break was long. These are outdated. Can you send more?” It went on like that. I asked the organisation to help me with this and said, “It’s for your confidentiality. It’s the insurance.” I was in this mess of myself, not completely capable to navigate a new landscape with the medical expertise that I needed for that.

I had an orthopaedic surgeon. “We want something else.” I got a spattering of different medical people. They said, “We want a psychiatrist, not a psychologist.” I didn’t know the difference there, but okay, I’ll get that. It’s using different designations for PTSD than we use in Europe. It was a difficult landscape to understand. I was not at my highest performance at that time at all, so it was difficult for me to go through that as well.

There were some outright unhelpful things. Somebody very senior in the organisation said, “Steve, I heard you have PTSD. You just got to get out of bed. You got to shake yourself off.” I thought, “Bed? That’s the place where the nightmares are. I would welcome sleep if I could have it, but I’m a zombie right now.” It was difficult like that. Also, after some time the organisation said, “This is insurance.” I also had some questions about the incident, and what happened. The report that I saw a couple of months after, I was never asked to comment on it or I was never interviewed.

I was the longest-standing senior staff member in that program and I wasn’t asked on this. I had raised several security concerns before. Several other people involved were not involved in the interviewing. I was given a copy of it the night before. I would be commenting on it and it was a 117-page document. It was odd and I had a lot of questions. After maybe half a year or so, they didn’t want to hear any more questions. My injuries were for the insurance company and they had lowered the reception for me.

Ultimately, what forced you to then take the organisation to court?

I looked for a lawyer who could help open the door to the conversation. I finally came to one who was quite aligned. I want some coverage for losses. They weren’t paying medical bills and my psychologist. The insurance company was playing games and I wanted some questions on the incident. A lawyer was able to open the door.

The conversation started again, but then it came to a similar conclusion. They stopped agreeing to meet with us. We had four times where we’d asked for a meeting where I would fly to the headquarters and they had to come to a different building in the same neighbourhood. They said, “It’s not worth it for us. Sorry, keep pushing.”

What was the resistance? Was it the reputational exposure? It strikes me as unusually callous.

Some of the senior management were not given all the details. They’d said, “It was a residual risk. There was nothing that could have been done.” This was quite a line that was brought up. Right after the incident happened, the first press release that came out was, “There was nothing that we could have done to have avoided this as part of residual risk,” before any review had happened.

A lot of the senior management and board members who’ve told me afterwards that that’s the line that they were given and that’s what they believed from the senior management. Any questions that I was raising were a non-starter. There was no willingness to listen to that. As far as the injury side of things, I started asking for some coaching and retraining and a bit of salary support for that transition time.

They said, “You could have five hours of coaching and we’ll talk about the others once things go on.” I couldn’t get a coach for five hours. Ten hours was what I got. They said, “With that, you can’t have a training course. The salary, that’s an insurance thing.” That’s where things started diverging. The more and more letters I was getting, the more they were saying permanent disability. We started talking about lost earnings and then those discussions came there. There was an effort that if they engage with that, then they might believe it. I don’t know what was going on there, but I do know that there were a number of tactics.

There are hundreds of pages of documents that were sent to my lawyer that were being used to exhaust any finances for his time. By the time it went to court, there were 2,500 pages that were submitted to the court. There was more correspondence that was irrelevant that neither of us brought into court. They were countersuing me at one point and I think that was an attempt to get me to walk away and back down like, “You don’t have this.”

Their position was quite clear, “We’ve got recommendations to make things better, but there’s no negligence involved. Stop talking about that.” We disagreed with things and then it was almost three and a quarter years later that we went to trial. There were three solid years of internal attempts to discuss this and hidden from the media, hidden from everything like trying to embody the whistle-blowing of it’s the duty of everyone to escalate misconduct.

The inevitable fact is that they were also worried about setting a precedent because that’s what it ultimately ended up being. The win was a precedent-setting victory, which is quite important for the industry as a whole because it gave those who otherwise remain in the shadows a voice. Is that how you see it?

All the way up to the trial, it wouldn’t have been a precedent-setting situation. It would’ve been an injured staff member, some disagreement on how to go forward and then coming to an agreement and that’s that. Even through those three years, about two dozen other staff members from the same organisation were either killed or kidnapped in the same organisation. These were all talked about as residual risks.

I know that some people in the organisation were also looking for a bit more of a precedent-setting thing, so there’s an ounce of oversight and accountability. The review that happened was by the head of security looking out over the major security incident or the largest security incident for them. This wasn’t quite the independence that a review would normally have.

I don’t think they were afraid of the precedent. I don’t know at this point, but I think they wanted it to go away and a lot of their actions may be consistent without counter-suing me and trying to. Send thousands of pages to my lawyer to digest and go through. It didn’t work. We went to court and at the beginning of court, they said, “We acknowledge the insurance isn’t good enough and it should be better. That contributed to this, and our staff support was not good enough and it should have been better.”

In their closing arguments at the end of the court case, they said, “We realise now that we were negligent,” and they admitted to negligence in court there. They did say, “We don’t believe it was gross negligence, but we see now that we were negligent.” I’m glad we finally came to that agreement, but it could have been years before. It would’ve been better for me, for sure.

Has it sent ripples through the industry or maybe through the organisation first, but then also through the industry to start paying more attention? One of the inevitable things is that humanitarian and aid workers are often young, highly motivated, idealistic individuals who go to these far places to do some good. They are not necessarily highly experienced in legal battles or understanding the ins and outs of international law, and how insurance applies.

I can put myself in this category. I was in Iraq for eight months and it was after the company that we were working for collapsed that we realised that we had never had insurance, even though it was part of our contract. I was assured, “You have insurance.” I was naive as well to not get things clearly articulated and explained and I’m sure you know this happens all the time. Has this had a ripple effect first thing in the organisation, but then beyond as well?

In the organisation, for sure. People have thanked me in the organisation and up through their ranks. I didn’t know that part of the incident or I didn’t know about what happened. Some people have talked about the activities that they’ve done to implement duty of care and that’s the core concept of this. If an organisation deploys you somewhere, they have this duty to care for you to put reasonable measures in place to protect you from foreseeable risks.

If an organisation deploys you somewhere, they have this duty to care for you, to put reasonable measures in place to protect you from foreseeable risks. Click To Tweet

I’m picking those words quite carefully. Reasonable measures. You’re not going to wear armoured suits and armoured vehicles for a nine-month deployment somewhere. That’s not reasonable, but reasonable measures and foreseeable risk. If a meteor comes out of the sky and hits you on the head and kills you, that’s likely not a foreseeable thing.

It’s that type of thing. It comes out in like informing staff about what the risks are so they know when they say, “I don’t mind being involved,” because there is a residual there and if I get hit with that residual risk, I can accept that, but you have to know about what that residual risk is. There are many other elements of it. I believe the organisation has very much embodied a lot of this.

Unfortunately, they said that right after the incident, but too many people in the organisation told me they are still back to their old ways and those multiple incidents afterwards where they say the same thing. “There was nothing we could have done.” If in all the incidents, mine’s the only one that was looked at and found to be gross negligence, I suspect there was some other learning that could happen in those other incidents that might have been glossed over.

In the aid industry, a lot of people have told me as well that this case has opened up the conversation to how they are vulnerable to the risk of not upholding a duty of care, both in trying to protect their staff and prevent things and manage things well, but also the post-incident care. I struggled to find cases similar to this to help guide me and now, I get a lot of people contacting me because they are guided by this, both on the organisation side of things as well as the individual side of things. The organisation’s trying to do better and the individual who’s in this cloud of not knowing things. I used to run food and now, these insurance forums are complicated or whatever it is in their cloudy landscape trying to get some help with it.

Without taking anything away from your efforts, you are a highly educated person living in a country where laws matter, working for an organisation where laws matter. I can only imagine what this is like for the locally employed staff and it would be remiss of me not to mention the staff member that got killed on the day and his family and their struggles.

I suspect they wouldn’t have had even an inkling of any recourse that they could have against the organisation and what’s happened. I suspect that’s the case for them and for thousands of other cases where people don’t even have it. It is a fact of life that their loved ones have died. There is no means or avenue to tell anybody about it, let alone try and get some help dealing. I suspect that would be accurate.

The disproportionate distribution of good chance and luck follows this type of situation as well. To a lot of staff that are locally employed, support might not be available. I know people with injuries where they’re like, “Go see an orthopaedic surgeon.” Do you mean the local doctor who did one year of GP training somewhere until the money ran out and then came back, but everyone calls him doctor?”

It’s a difficult landscape. I do sympathise with a lot of aid organisations, even the organisation I’ve worked for. It’s not an easy way or thing to implement. I can’t think of anyone who says we implement duty of care perfectly. That would be a red flag to find the liar in the room. It’s very much difficult and probably disproportionately against people in the field by a lot of circumstances. There are other elements of legacies and situations.

If I understand your job correctly, you now work as the person you wished you had when you were going through this. Maybe you can give us a description of what is it that you do now?

I never thought of it the way you worded it, but that’s exactly right. I am a Case Manager. It’s sometimes referred to as a Recovery Coach, Survivor Advocate. The terms are quite loose and again, I haven’t found the exact situation that I’m looking for. I struggled a lot because I was alone and in an unfamiliar landscape at a lower functioning than how we normally function. I usually run complicated programs and I was knocked off my feet.

What I do is for other people who are off their feet, knocked by a trauma or a prolonged grievance, very much out of their landscape. I work with them to get them the support that they need. On the individual side, that could be getting a team together, a psychotherapist, or medical experts who can start talking about the various pain management options like, “Here is a good way to think of it forward,” or possibly in the legal landscape.

There are so many options involving a lawyer and some legal terms and situations without going to court. There’s a lot of alternative dispute resolution expertise that can be put into here to help a person come to an agreement. I work with individuals to put the teams together for the support that they need on the organisation side.

Sometimes I’ve been called by the organisation to support somebody. I’m paid by them saying, “We have somebody that has a problem with us. Can we hire you to be with them? We’ll let them describe everything. We’ll have no accountability towards you, but we want our person fully supported.” That’s probably the best way that this should work. These are proactive organisations that sometimes have that expertise inside the organisation, but they feel trust and bias. Confidence building isn’t there. We need to hire outside and here’s a service we’d like to dip into.

From that, there’s also learning and then policy work where people want to do better on how they act during and after a crisis to best support people when they’ve been freshly injured or freshly into a crisis. How best to support them so they don’t go through as deep of a dip as possible? Being involved on that side of things and for sure on the prevention things.

The best way to stop multimillion-dollar crisis management is with tens of thousands of dollars of preventative measures in place or hundreds of thousands across an organisation. I’m trying to make people aware of that side of things too. That’s what I’m in. I wish I had somebody like this. I hear good reviews of this. I hope to work myself out of a job with this. I hope that I can share the learning with the organisations and they can have these resources internally which would be the best. Until then, we’ll keep working.

VOW 32 | Humanitarian Aid
Humanitarian Aid: The best way to stop a multimillion-dollar crisis management is with tens of thousands of dollars of preventative measures in place across an organisation.

I somehow doubt that that’s the case, not because I am doubtful of the organisations. I certainly don’t want to come across as though I am casting a shadow of doubt because most of the people I’ve met in these organisations are noble individuals who want to do the right thing. It’s a matter of changing how we view situations. The way I see it, it’s the same as what happened in the military. It wasn’t something that was considered as important. It was, as you said, you just got to get up. You got to keep going. That’s how we dealt with these things until we realised that’s not how we can deal with this.

There are 2nd, 3rd order consequences that we need to deal with. Slowly over time, it came out of the shadows as something that needs to be hidden away or something that can’t be talked about to something that needs to be the support of which needs to be institutionalised and needs to be there for everybody. Recognition of the hardships that people go through, genuine hardships for doing good in the world.

On that note alone, I congratulate you. It’s fantastic, but maybe the last question I’ll ask is this. I somehow suspect that perhaps this work also helps in your own healing because you are paying forward. You are doing something for others so they don’t suffer in the same way that you have suffered.

It’s tricky. It’s not an easy subject matter. I often think that opening up a pizza joint and selling pizzas all day may be easier on my mind. It’s meaningful. Seeing somebody who is lost and desperate and knowing suicide rates for people with PTSD, knowing the fact that 95% of people with PTSD break off of their marriages or long-term relationships. If we can keep some of those outcomes from happening, that’s huge. That’s meaningful. I want to be part of meaningful work. This is where I’m at. I’ve got the platform for it. The needs are there. I do share your thoughts that maybe we won’t be wrapping up this 2021 or 2022 because these needs are complex.

Unlike the military, a lot of people are from different countries that come to that organisation. They’ve worked with several different organisations, maybe picking up different traumas along the way. Maybe the last one is reluctant or doesn’t have the resources to say, “We’ll take the psych bills and the longer-term disability for something that maybe has built.” Maybe there are other complications.

Also, the learning. I applaud a lot of the militaries for being open to that conversation and the cause-and-effect structure where some organisations might not have the resources to be open to that. It’s important. There are a lot of initiatives as well. I see a lot of coordination bodies across humanitarianism that are trying to support each other in how to do the best implementation possible. There’s still some frontline. Yes, across industry support.

I get a lot of people who don’t have the money, their organisation won’t pay, and they need full-time concentrated non-pro bono on the side support. There has to be funding for that type of stuff. There has to be psychosocial support for people who need it and nobody’s going to pay for it. There are a lot of front lines that still need to be pushed on this, for sure.

There has to be psychosocial support for people who need it and nobody's going to pay for it. Click To Tweet

That’s a safeguard that we need to have in place because we want people to go and do these jobs because these are incredibly important jobs doing some incredibly important work around the world. Steve, it’s been a pleasure. I know we’ve gone well past our originally agreed time, but it was a fascinating story and I couldn’t help myself to dig in a few different angles. I appreciate your patience. Thank you so much for your time and best of luck. I look forward to chatting with you again in the future.

Maz, thank you very much for the conversation. I feel it’s a very important one. I love your show. It highlights a lot of issues that need to be supported. I hope your readers get a lot of support when they need it. Otherwise, come contact me and let’s get you forward.

Steve, thanks a lot.

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