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Making PTSD ‘honourable’ in Forces only way to ‘break the code’: Dallaire

Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire tells Metro about his mental health struggle since Rwanda — and why the military must do more to offer ‘sustained support’ to veterans.

Retired Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, author of Waiting for First Light, speaks to Metro before his speech at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research forum in Vancouver on Tuesday.

David P. Ball / Metro Order this photo

Retired Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, author of Waiting for First Light, speaks to Metro before his speech at the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research forum in Vancouver on Tuesday.

Canada’s Armed Forces must do more to “remain as engaged” in combatting mental health and suicide “as they do in the theatre of operations,” according to retired Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire.

In an exclusive interview with Metro on Tuesday, the former Senator said the high number of homeless veterans across Canada, including many in Vancouver — and persistence of suicide among those serving — are symptoms of widespread mental injuries.

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For Dallaire, his operational injury is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has haunted him since commanding a United Nations peacekeeping force during the Rwandan genocide 23 years ago.

“It is only by going public and by educating, informing and making it honourable as an injury that we are able to break the code in the military world,” he told Metro, before speaking at the conference of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research in Vancouver.

He said that the departments of defence and veterans affairs were too “slow off the mark” in tackling mental health.

And though the federal government has built up its “capacity” to address such issues, he said, there’s still a “deficiency … the sustained support of helping people rehabilitate after is still too restrictive and doesn't go far enough.”

Additionally, a “deficiency still resides in taking care of the families who are sign affected,” he added. “When you deploy the individual, you deploy the family.”

Asked for his recommendations, he suggested increasing the number of therapists employed and boosting family support services.

But ultimately he said more change is needed from the top-down, too: “There’s a need for the chain of command to remain as engaged as they do in the theatre of operations,” he said, “in order not to let this injury create a scenario we often see: the fact that the injury can be terminal.”

Also attending the annual military and veterans health conference was Canada’s Minister of Veterans Affairs, Kent Hehr, who told Metro that the Liberals are trying to overhaul the mental health support system while also undoing cuts from their Conservative predecessors, including staff reductions and closed offices.

“Our department is pushing forward with mental health issues,” he said, citing hiring 300 staff, re-opening nine shuttered offices, and a 27 per cent increase in claims processed.

Hehr also cited a new way of processing disability claims, which he called “a benefit of the doubt approach, to get veterans the support they need … not an insurance company mentality.”

In his Vancouver speech on Tuesday, Dallaire argued the “moral” aspect of PTSD has been too long overlooked. He recounted refusing the United Nation’s Secretary-General’s direct order to withdraw from Rwanda in 1993, abandoning 32,000 Rwandans seeking refuge in his compound.

“I said, ‘I'm not leaving,’” he said. “I refused a legal order because the order was immoral, because we had 32,000 people under our protection.

“In the end we stayed. It was the moral dimension that was exacerbated back home when you're injured and it's not taken care of. That is what's actually creating the injury …. We are not preparing for that moral injury.”

His standing-room-only audience — which included many armed forces personnel in uniform — all rose to offer the retired commander a standing ovation.

Dallaire’s most recent book, Waiting for First Light, is a memoir of his struggle with PTSD. He is currently leading the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

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