TORONTO – After returning from Rwanda, retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire avoided Remembrance Day “like the plague.”
The prospect of donning his uniform for a public ceremony, or even watching a televised parade, was too much after witnessing countless atrocities during that failed peacekeeping mission.
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“I had lost soldiers under my command, I had seen soldiers grievously injured under my command, I had seen soldiers lose their mind under my command. And I avoided that day like the plague. At best — at best — I might watch it on TV,” says Dallaire, who was dismissed from service after that mission because of resulting depression, anger and suicidal thoughts.
“One year, the CBC in French had me do a play-by-play and I said, ‘I’ll never do that again.’ It was just so tormenting.”
For most Canadians, Remembrance Day is a time for gratitude, reflection and expressions of national pride. But for many soldiers and veterans scarred by trauma, it’s a time of anxiety, stress and unwelcome triggers.
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Those experienced with treating mental health issues stemming from military service say they often see these anxieties in those who have not adjusted well to life after a tour of duty. Their ability to handle Nov. 11 generally corresponds to the experiences they had with the military, how much support they receive from friends and family, and what, if any, treatment they are offered upon return.
Dr. Ruth Lanius notes the day can be especially difficult for those battling post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition marked by recurrent memories of a stressful event, nightmares, and severe emotional distress or physical reactions to any reminders of war-time trauma.
Even though well-meaning citizens organize these events to recognize sacrifice and offer gratitude, a damaged soldier might find the hoopla only increases their survivor’s guilt, or highlights their perceived failures.
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“I’ve seen veterans who it’s taken years for them to be able to attend a Remembrance Day ceremony because it triggers them so much and it brings back their own memories,” says Lanius, speaking from London, Ont.
How to handle that stress varies from person to person, she adds. While it might be important for some service members to work through that anxiety and learn to embrace Remembrance Day, that might be too overwhelming for others.
“In some cases it can also be experienced as a tremendous relief because it makes them feel closer to some of their buddies that they’ve lost in war,” she says.
“I met one man last year who hadn’t been able to attend in years and this was the first time he’d been able to attend. Even though I think it caused a lot of emotional distress for him, I think it really also led him to experience a sense of mastery for having been able to attend after such a long period of time.”
Dallaire recalls how his own soldier father, who commanded an infantry regiment in the Second World War, would grudgingly participate in the Remembrance Day parade.
“And he hated it. Because if there’s a time when those that you saw suffer, those that you saw die or injured come back to life in a haunting way, it is that day, during those ceremonies,” says Dallaire, who outlines his battle with PTSD in “Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD,” co-written by Jessica Dee Humphreys and published by Random House Canada.
“They would wash that down with gallons of beer and so on afterwards at the legions.”
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Dallaire says his own feelings about the day have swung widely from both extremes. Early on, he joined the parades with pride — but this was before he had suffered any casualties under his command.
“I was a peacetime soldier and so it was a great ceremony, commemoration, and we looked at the vets, we listened to their stories and we got pissed with them and had a great time,” he says.
Things were different after serving in Rwanda, where he was a helpless witness to a horrifying genocide that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people.
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“All those people you lost and all your buddies … they all come back to life,” he says of Remembrance Day.
“It’s digitally clear. It’s slow motion. They’re alive. They’re there with you. The orders you gave to send soldiers to their death, that’s there and real.”
Still, he encouraged the Canadian public to participate in the annual ceremonies, especially politicians and public servants.
And he urged citizens to acknowledge soldier sacrifices and express thanks directly to any military member they might encounter. All of that matters, he says.
“It is a fundamental duty of the citizenry to feel that pride. And to express it. To express it by being there, to express it by buying the poppy, to express it by shaking the hands of a vet or a serving soldier. Actually stopping somebody in uniform on the street and thanking them,” says Dallaire.
— With files from Sheryl Ubelacker