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Roméo Dallaire: The RD Interview

For more than 20 years, retired general Roméo Dallaire has grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder. But there’s hope in speaking of horror.

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Romeo DallairePhoto: Ian Patterson

A Soldier’s Struggle

He’s best known as an indefatigable peacekeeper, soldier and human rights crusader. Nevertheless, Roméo Dallaire may have an equally profound impact through his commitment to speaking openly about his own war wounds: haunting memories, sleepless nights and fragile mental health. For him, it’s crucial to make room for vulnerability in military culture, which is why he stubbornly revisits his own trauma-he’s bent on using his most painful experiences to help others.

In 1994, while commanding the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, Dallaire begged his superiors, in vain, for an intervention to stop the country’s descent into genocide. While he was able to help save the lives of 32,000 Rwandans, more than 800,000 others were slaughtered. When the general returned home later that year, it was as a deeply damaged man. He was appointed to senior roles within the Canadian Forces, but the effects of trauma undermined his ability to function, and he was forced into permanent medical leave. He has since devoted himself to a host of causes connected to the military.

In his new memoir, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle With PTSD, co-written with Jessica Dee Humphreys, Dallaire delves into how the disorder has affected his family, how he finds hope in rage and how he aspires to prevent children from being co-opted into battle.

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Romeo DallairePhoto: Ian Patterson

Reader’s Digest: In your memoir, you reference Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In it, an old sailor carries a metaphorical albatross around his neck because he blames himself for the deaths of his shipmates. Why do you connect so strongly with this character?

Roméo Dallaire: The mariner’s plight is to live with the horrors and the guilt of commanding a mission that failed and he must repeatedly warn people that not engaging can lead to catastrophic scenarios. I’ll always be left wondering, Did I do enough in Rwanda? Could somebody else have done better? The Rime was an absolutely critical reference in helping me articulate my experience.

It’s been more than two decades since you commanded the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. Why have you chosen to be so candid about your experiences with PTSD now?

I couldn’t just write about the chronology of my past 20 years, a story of a general who comes home after a difficult mission. Who cares? And I can’t lie to people and pretend I’ve been living a normal life. That helps no one. I also made the decision to include my family, which I’ve never done before. Relatives are affected by PTSD; children even commit suicide. Writing truthfully was essential. Many soldiers’ families have busted up because those involved couldn’t handle what was going on or didn’t know that it could be eased one day.

You’ve said that you now believe your father, a veteran of the Second World War, was struggling with the disorder.

I have never spoken of the horrors of living in a family like that. The constant stress on everybody, the beatings, the never knowing what word would trigger violent reactions or emotional breakdowns. Nobody could understand it or help us in any way. I went to bed at night hoping that, somehow, my dad would be dead the next morning, because I just couldn’t live like that.

After returning from Rwanda, you shielded your wife and three children from the state you were in by spending time away from them-they lived in Quebec City while you worked in Ottawa and travelled abroad.

I tried to protect my family. I wasn’t home enough for them to see the worst of it; at the very least, they were able to live a reasonably stable life. I didn’t want them going to bed at night wanting me dead.

You write that PTSD made you a new person. Have you been able to reconnect with who you were before Rwanda?

The pre-Africa Roméo is dead, along with his career and self-discipline, and any normalcy. That human being does not exist anymore. There’s this new guy, and he has two selves. There’s an outer person, whom people see, and an inner person, who senses what’s happening isn’t right but can’t do anything about it. The outside guy could be yelling at family members about some stupidity. The inside guy tells you that you’re scaring them, but he can’t stop it. You make the situation worse, even though your inner self is fully aware that you’re hurting others. But you have no control.

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Romeo DallairePhoto: Ian Patterson

You’ve since grown closer to your kids, who are now in their 30s. How did you heal those relationships?

It’s come from the children having grown up. They can see me helping a lot of people. They can see that giving to others has been at their expense, but they don’t hold a grudge. Interestingly enough, they’ve done humanitarian work in war-affected countries-either with the military or on their own.

You describe PTSD as a moral injury. What about your experience in Rwanda led you to think of this in relation to morality?

It’s not just that we saw chopped-up bodies; it’s that what we saw challenged the moral framework. It’s one thing to line up men, women and children and shoot them, but mutilating and desecrating them, deliberately letting them suffer as they die, engaging in rape, as the leaders of the genocide did…. That’s a whole different scenario. That moral dilemma leaves you in a state of shock, and that shock creates damage in your brain. I respect the 159 families who lost their loved ones in Afghanistan, but now I also have extraordinary respect for the 40 to 50 families who have lost their loved ones to suicide directly related to the injury they sustained to their brain in combat.

What do you hope will change for the soldiers struggling with this disorder and those who love them?

Even more than the pensions, they deserve enormous support and recognition. You are living with near catastrophic breakdown-of your family, of the relationship with your spouse-or loss of love because you don’t know how to love anymore. And fear. Physical fear. Financial fear-you might be off drinking and gambling. Reputational fear. Suicide fear. You’re living in absolute hell. After so much advocating for injured soldiers, lawyers and doctors now identify that, left untreated, this injury can lead to death. Any person who has it should be recognized for having been an outright casualty in combat.

For a soldier, acknowledging a mental injury is seen as a weakness. Why was it so important to own that part of your experience?

I am a soldier. My whole life experience involved commanding other human beings, leading them into scenarios in which I might order them to risk their lives. The thing I created-the platoon, the company, the brigade-was a cohesive fighting machine. I’d give the orders to fight, to be damaged, to have casualties and sustain combat. That’s all overt. But the covert side was destroying me, and they needed to know about that. It’s what led to me being released from the Forces. I needed to write about this so people would know what the hell was going on between my ears.

How will writing about these feelings of hopelessness help families, first responders and other people who have that brain injury?

There’s a story after that diagnosis. Suicide is preventable. If people in the chain of commands put significant effort into monitoring, they can prevent suicide. You need peer support and therapy. People cannot handle this injury alone.

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Romeo DallairePhoto: Ian Patterson

You struggle with insomnia. Why are you haunted by the hours after dark?

In the night there’s no safety. Your brain kicks into high gear and the memories come back; time comes back. There are different stages of horror dreams. I had a phase of being ambushed: a bullet or arrow would be coming and I could see it. As it was about to pierce my skin, I’d wake up sweating to discover it was only 12:30 a.m. I’d fall back asleep and then the dream would continue. Another ambush.

Many have tried to rid you of your rage. But anger seems to be intimately connected to your optimism for the future.

Anger is like a drug in itself. It generates energy and pushes me to the level of adrenalin I used to live with in Rwanda. That’s the catalyst that makes me take action. Anger became my friend. I find hope in the fact that I can look at this in the long-term: the work I’m doing now might help soldiers reconcile with their families in five or 10 years.

In addition to working with sufferers of PTSD, you’ve dedicated yourself to the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. Why is this cause close to your heart?

Since the ’90s, adults have increasingly used children as young as eight as their primary weapons systems in conflicts around the world. We spend billions on demobilizing and rehabilitating child soldiers, but there hasn’t been much done to prevent them from being recruited up front. With the help of Dr. Shelly Whitman at Dalhousie University, we began rigorous research into this area; by next year, we’ll have our own institution to continue that work. How do you turn a child soldier into something an adult won’t want to use? The better I can do that, the less attractive children will be to conflict.

You write, “Rwanda will never end and I will never be free.” If that’s the case, how do you get up every morning and keep going?

It hurts less when you’re busy. Some mornings I don’t even have to get up, because I never went to bed. The title of the book, Waiting for First Light, refers to when you see another day is coming and you’re still alive-it can bring you another chance. Daylight is the salvation.