British Columbia

Romeo Dallaire shares struggle with PTSD prior to Vancouver speaking engagement

Romeo Dallaire is in Vancouver, speaking about his experience and his most recent book Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD.

“The moral injury was starting to really, really rip us apart,” says retired lieutenant-general

Romeo Dallaire is a former lieutenant-general and retired senator. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Romeo Dallaire was a force commander in the United Nation's mission to Rwanda in 1994 and, to this day, lives with the catastrophic effects and pain of witnessing the massacre.

The retired lieutenant-general was in Vancouver Thursday, speaking about his experience and his most recent book Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD.

He said PTSD in the military is only just starting to be better understood.

"At first, we just thought it was the shock effect of seeing horrors," he said. "Only in the last years have we realized that there was a far deeper injury that we weren't getting at and that was the moral injury."

The continuous ethical and moral dilemmas that have to be made in a conflict situation take a huge toll on mental health, he told CBC On The Coast host Stephen Quinn.

An estimated 800,000 people were killed in the Rwandan genocide. Attempts to save lives were hindered by a bureaucratic UN, Dallaire said, and a reluctance from Western countries to intervene.

"The moral injury was starting to really, really rip us apart," he said. "How do you decide between who lives and who dies? How many times can you take that decision?"

He would be given legal orders to pull out, Dallaire said, knowing those he was trying to protect would be killed when the troops withdrew. For months, he witnessed brutalities of war and massacre.

'Ways to attenuate the pain'

When Dallaire returned to Canada, he turned to self-destructive behaviour in an effort to cope with the trauma.

"What really you seek is ways to attenuate the pain," he said. "You can either drink yourself to death. You can go to drugs. You can go to destroying your own life in any other type of fashion."

Dallaire recalled one moment of self-harm that stood out to him above all. He was at home, drinking Scotch and leaning against a sofa.

"I remember that I had my father's old shave razor," he said. "I felt that maybe a physical pain would ease the mental pain that was already ripping my gut apart."

That's when he started to realize the depth of his struggle with PTSD.

"There was a release there that I had never felt before and that was one of the lowest of points of self-destruction that I actually find solace in physical self-destruction," he said.

Turning to writing

Dallaire was eventually released from the Canadian Forces due to medical reasons.

"That's when it hit —  the day I took the uniform off," he said. "That's when I went downhill and became suicidal and that's when I decided to write."

Dallaire sought help from mental health services and has since penned several books about the conflict in Rwanda, including his latest memoir published last year.

He is speaking at St. Andrew's–Wesley United Church in Vancouver about his experiences on Thursday evening at 7:30 p.m.

With files from On The Coast.

If you or someone you know needs help, there is a province-wide crisis line to call. The number is 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or call 310-Mental Health at 310-6789 (no area code needed).