Inside Roméo Dallaire’s ongoing battle with PTSD

From 2016: Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire’s raw and emotionally devastating memoir lays bare his own inner torment
A portrait of Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. (Photograph by Roger Lemoyne)
A portrait of Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. (Photograph by Roger Lemoyne)

One night after he was medically discharged from the army in April 2000, former Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire drank most of a bottle of scotch in his Hull, Que., apartment before he opened a metal box containing his father’s medals and his 50-year-old razor. Very slowly, he began to slice himself, first his thighs, then his arms.

It was another of Dallaire’s rolls of the dice, another in what has become an uncountable number of attempts, stretching over two decades, to kill himself “accidentally,” through behaviour so reckless it is a wonder he is alive now. Much of it, in Africa to start and later in Canada, involved driving, including reaching 150 km/h on a Quebec road with his young children in the back seat. As UN commander in Rwanda during the still tense days after that nation’s 1994 genocide bled to a halt, Dallaire would drive up, alone and at night, to checkpoints manned by heavily armed teenagers as skittish and traumatized as he was.

The cutting, perhaps the most arresting incident disclosed in Dallaire’s brutally revealing 2016 memoir, Waiting For First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD, was no different in kind, he insists. Deliberate, calculated suicide was a step too far for Dallaire’s almost lifelong military sense of duty, and he points out he did prudently hand over his guns to an old comrade, Gen. Maurice Baril. But bereft of one of his main supports—“the uniform,” as Dallaire calls it, meaning his tribe, his very identity—and overwhelmed with pain, he was willing to take what came.

“I might have cut just once,” he says in an interview, “but the warmth of the blood and the smell of the blood, because there’s a sort of an iron smell, had an incredibly soothing effect. So I thought [I’d] see how much more of that would help, knowing that, sooner or later, if nobody came, I would bleed to death. But I wasn’t looking immediately to bleed to death so much as wanting to feel that release.” But someone came: his sister-in-law, Christine, whose role in keeping Dallaire alive and functioning can scarcely be overestimated. So far someone—or, often enough, blind luck—has always come.

Related: Roméo Dallaire on peace, child soldiers and retirement

Dallaire was back home in Canada in September 1994, hard at work in a new job in Ottawa as deputy commander of Land Force Command, when his boss, Gordon Reay, called him in for a brief chat. Something new and troubling seemed to be happening in the Canadian Forces, something to maybe keep in mind, the chief of Land Staff told Dallaire: “We are starting to see some issues with guys coming back from [peacekeeping tours in] Cambodia and Yugoslavia,” said Reay, as Dallaire recounts in his memoir. “Fatigue, a few cognition problems, some trouble readjusting. Nothing more. Nothing to worry about.”

Only five months earlier, Dallaire had been the UN’s peacekeeping commander in Rwanda, boxed into a guilt-ridden defensive posture while the worst genocide since the Holocaust unfolded around him. After months of planning, and urged on by radio broadcasts of genocidal propaganda, extremists within the Hutu ethnic group raised their community against the minority Tutsi in an orgy of literally blood-soaked murder—machetes, not sterile gas chambers, were the key tool—and sexual violence.

Rwandan force commander Romeo Dallaire (left) walks with UN envoy Igbal Riza (right) May 26, 1994 in Kigali, Rwanda. (Scott Peterson/Liaison/Getty Images)
Rwandan force commander Romeo Dallaire (left) walks with UN envoy Igbal Riza (right) May 26, 1994 in Kigali, Rwanda. (Scott Peterson/Liaison/Getty Images)

Dallaire warned UN headquarters about the trouble brewing, and repeatedly pleaded for action and backup. But the world’s major powers failed to act or provide him with troops. Dallaire, a soldier with a mission to protect and orders not to intervene, had to stand by as up to a million people were killed in 100 days.

Already, in the immediate aftermath, Dallaire couldn’t sleep. His right arm was mysteriously fluctuating between sharp pain and paralysis. A voice in the back of his head was incessantly screaming, “Why is the rest of the world carrying on like nothing has happened?” Upon his return flight from the worst wartime experience a senior Canadian officer had undergone since the Korean conflict, there was no one at all, neither politician nor fellow general, to greet him at Mirabel airport. It was a shocking breach of protocol that seemed to underscore how much his own countrymen wanted to ignore the genocide—and that his peers secretly blamed him for the UN’s failure in Rwanda.

But, for all that, Dallaire still didn’t see himself in Reay’s prophetic warning, because in 1994 no one saw post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for what it was. Dallaire learned soon enough that hard work wouldn’t make it go away. A few weeks after speaking with Reay, Dallaire and his wife, Beth, walked into a autumn farmers’ market set up in Quebec City’s old quarter. The “sweet, humid smell” of the cascading heaps of fruits and vegetables pitched him into a living memory. He was suddenly back in the midst of a Rwandan market, absorbing sights and scents: a few blackened bananas and avocados reeking of rot, a crowd of starving women and children storming a food aid truck as it arrived, stripping it bare and fleeing within minutes, those who did not survive—“a couple of women and three children, trampled to death.” In Quebec, Dallaire ran for his car.

Canadians became widely aware Dallaire had not, could not, leave the slaughter behind in June 2000, when it was widely reported he had been found near-comatose from a mix of scotch and anti-depressants beneath a park bench near his Hull home. (He twice asked the ambulance crew to kill him.) And we knew why in 2004 with the release of Shake Hands With the Devil, Dallaire’s award-winning book about the genocide. But PTSD was slow to enter the conversation, and Dallaire kept private the full cruelty of his struggle with it. He is not a man given easily to spilling his guts. He wonders if his graphic honesty, stripping away veils that have hidden two decades of pain, will inspire contempt for his perceived weakness.

Gem Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda 2004 to commemorate 10th anniversary of the genocide. (Peter Bregg, C.M. )
Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda 2004 to commemorate 10th anniversary of the genocide. (Peter Bregg, C.M. )

Not likely: the twin hells Dallaire describes are far more liable to provoke sympathy. The hallmark of the 1994 Rwandan genocide was its peculiar intimacy and the deliberate obscenity of its sexual pathology. “It’s hard work to kill someone with a machete,” Dallaire says matter-of-factly. “So it was often a blow or two and left to die over the next day.” Blood, litres of it, was everywhere. To this day the stench of it coagulating haunts Dallaire, whose PTSD is especially prone to scent triggers, as much as the iron-tinged smell of fresh blood soothed him once.

And what blows they were. Beyond the rivers and creeks jammed with corpses, the men with their heads split open, the way UN soldiers had to walk in front of their slow-moving vehicles to avoid running over the dead and the still dying—beyond that were the women ripped open, their fetuses beside them, the women “lying in pools of blood, broken bottles between their legs,” the mass rape sites. The horror of the latter is mostly passed over in silence in the memoir, but in conversation Dallaire captures it in the single most appalling description he utters, recalling one site where “we could still smell the sperm.”

There was no relief at all to be found in writing about such memories. “Nothing,” Dallaire says. “It’s not been cathartic, more like digging up evil again and trying to put it into words.” But he had a powerful motive to start digging. Service and duty matter more than anything else to Dallaire, and he could see how a description of his post-Africa life—the story of the other hell—could help fellow sufferers, “because there’s an ugly side to this injury, not just a bad, stupid side, which is about the impacts it has on you. The ugly side is what the darkness does to the inner person and its significant impact on others. Nobody has written really on that because it’s not very nice, and so I thought I’d do that.”

If PTSD has had a face in Canada over the last 20 years, it is Roméo Dallaire’s. His life story, in effect, is a personal history of how Canada, and the modern world in general, has responded to PTSD. “That’s putting a lot on my shoulders,” he protests, before conceding its inevitability and discussing the incomprehension that faced him when he returned to Canada in 1994, an incomprehension he fully shared.

“We’ve always known about ‘shell shock’ and ‘battle fatigue,’ ” he says, “but the military has never really sustained any desire to research it, to figure out how to handle this injury.” Even as battlefield medicine began saving soldiers’ lives at a rate that dwarfed past efforts, there remained what Dallaire calls the “inappropriateness” of tending psychological injuries, “because it was against the fundamental culture of the military, which is so Darwinian.” The military doesn’t like injuries that it can’t see, he adds. “And because you couldn’t see it, because it affected the way guys acted with their colleagues, PTSD was—in a term I’ve used often—an unacceptable injury, not dishonourable but not honourable either. It has taken us two decades to get the regiments to recognize that these guys are injured, they’re not slackers, and if you don’t take care of them, this injury can be terminal. We’ve probably lost well over 40 back home from injuries sustained psychologically on the battlefield.”

Major-General Romeo Dallaireat the Kigali airport Aug. 1, 1994. (CP PHOTO/ Ryan Remiorz)
Major-General Romeo Dallaireat the Kigali airport Aug. 1, 1994. (CP PHOTO/ Ryan Remiorz)

So Dallaire was misdiagnosed when he returned home, or, more accurately, not diagnosed at all. No one asked about the genocide, “no one even mentioned Rwanda.” He was tossed immediately into the maelstrom of helping manage a severe Canadian Forces downsizing during the budget-crimped 1990s. “My colleagues and superiors honestly believed that hard work and a stiff upper lip were the way forward.” Those giving that advice included Gen. Reay, whom Dallaire said urged him to throw himself into his work immediately after their little talk about troubling developments among returning troops. The subtext of this instinctive reaction, never made explicit, was that psychological trauma was the realm of the “weak,” the insufficiently committed, and not to be expected among career officers.

His PTSD, left untreated for too long‚ became permanent—Dallaire still takes medication, still has nightmares, still goes to therapy, still becomes unstuck in time—and he learned about its nature and effects as his life unfolded. There is no point in telling victims, or one’s self, to get over it, put it in the past, move on, because there is no past: the memories of the traumatic experience are not memories, but eternal moments of right now. When that Quebec market brought the Rwandan market to Dallaire’s mind, he wasn’t recalling it, he was living it.

“No, there’s no time factor,” agrees Dallaire. “A very close colleague of mine, who was with me over there, ran a program for us with veterans. He got so engrossed with their hurt that it brought back everything that he had experienced in Rwanda. He fundamentally crashed—22 years later. The stress was so powerful that he could not sustain it and he nearly lost his mind.” Another fellow officer from the Rwandan mission hanged himself in 2008. Once the tumble into the living past happens, sufferers become what Dallaire calls “bystanders” to their own actions, people who helplessly watch themselves “doing stupid and ugly things.”

There is a line, not always clearly expressed, in Dallaire’s mind between stupid and ugly. Suicide, as idea and action, straddles it, and the line is also blurred when it comes to family. For all his openness about himself, he is understandably more circumspect about his wife and children. But from scattered references in Waiting for First Light and Dallaire’s careful responses when asked, it’s clear they too bore the cost of his injury.

Liberal Sen. Romeo Dallaire at Senate caucus in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. (Adrian Wyld/CP)
Liberal Sen. Romeo Dallaire at Senate caucus in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Roméo and Beth’s three children—Willem, Flower and Guy—were still young when he returned, only 15, 12 and seven. They and his wife had learned to get along without him, or so thought Dallaire, whose response to them veered from a cold disdain for family life to a bitter feeling they had no idea what he’d been through and no desire to know. Once, maybe twice, says Dallaire, channelling what he believes is a common veteran’s experience, your spouse “will listen to you pour your heart out, but next time they’ll interrupt to ask if you remembered to feed the dog.” He was in a constant rage, yelling at his family for no reason, and feeling that “any amount of shouting” was nothing compared to what he had seen. Sometimes, as in that 150-km/h race down the road, he simply didn’t notice them. Working to exhaustion all day and thrashing about in his nightmarish sleep, Dallaire was soon in the spare bedroom.

“You come back a zombie, or at least a foreigner to your family, and everything around you seems so material, so superficial,” he says. The family had a home in Quebec City and he had work in Ottawa, so he made the decision—“which was not necessarily the best one, I’m sure”­—to stay away. He would live alone in the Hull apartment. It wasn’t a good decision for Dallaire, leaving him to rail about alone at night, drinking himself into unconsciousness and, at times, thinking about his father’s razor. If not for Beth’s sister, Christine, her daughter and another niece, who also lived in the Gatineau area and who would come by, alone or together, to sit with him on occasion, Dallaire would almost surely be dead.

It was not good for the Dallaire children either. All three have followed their parents—Beth too is from a military family and is now a UNICEF ambassador and leading advocate of family support centres—into lives of humanitarian and military service. The youngest, the only one who has read Shake Hands With the Devil, recently sent Dallaire an email, prompted by the anger-management therapy he had been undergoing. He asked, “Why didn’t we move to be with you? Wouldn’t it have been better for all of us? For us, but also for you?” Dallaire says, “I didn’t know how to answer.” Lately, he has drawn closer “than I had ever dared hope” to his oldest child, “who came home from his latest mission hurting.” Personal knowledge of how devastatingly PTSD ripples outward has put military families much on the Dallaires’ minds, especially now that evidence is emerging that the teenaged children of PTSD-injured soldiers “are themselves sometimes committing suicide.”

So too is the larger military family. Dallaire did not fully realize how mighty a bulwark his military belonging provided until after it was no more. It’s no accident that both the cutting and park-bench episodes occurred after his unwilling retirement on medical grounds left him feeling “like I was wandering naked in a foreign land.” Or that his latest episode of dangerous driving—in December 2013, Dallaire went from a full stop directly into a pole near Parliament Hill, without any memory of how or why—correlates with a spate of military suicides. Dallaire’s thinking here is much like that of American writer Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe: “Part of the trauma of war is leaving it,” Junger writes, meaning not the actual bullets whizzing by, but the emotional support that soldiers find in a military unit’s cohesion. The military puts its members into the situations that cause their injuries, but it also provides, however badly, the only solace many have afterwards.

There needs to be a new covenant between the military and the nation, Dallaire argues, in part because of his belief that PTSD is not just a physical or psychological injury, but a moral wound.

He tells a story in his memoir. After hearing of a massacre in a village, Dallaire sends a patrol, Canadian soldiers as it turns out. They find a rape site, a ditch full of dozens of mutilated women and girls, most but not all dead. Later, Dallaire sums up the situation with his 26 international contingent commanders: there are no medical supplies; the dying are too injured to be moved and there is no means of transport anyway; the risk of HIV infection is very high. What orders would they issue: do what you can, or move on? Only three countries—Ghana, Holland and Canada—say to intervene. But the Canadian patrol leader never gives that order, because he never has time. His soldiers—“young men, just 19, 20, 21”—have already broken ranks, and are in the ditch trying to provide what comfort is possible.

That is the kind of army Canada has, says Dallaire, because that’s the kind of nation Canada has evolved into. We have an army that, precisely because it “carries our moral norms into immoral situations,” will be sensitive to the shock and trauma presented by those sorts of conflicts. “There’s been a breaking of the bond between the nation and its military,” he says. In recent years, “we have practically had to beg for the help we need.” If Canada is going to send its armed forces to help the world’s vulnerable, and Dallaire fervently believes it should, “we need a new cradle-to-grave agreement” that Canada will take care of these soldiers, who have suffered injuries on Canadians’ behalf, right up to veterans’ retirement homes. And suicides should be numbered among the war dead.

Dallaire is most alive, and willing to stay that way, when he has a cause and a sense it is progressing, whether that was his work as a senator from 2005 to 2014, his efforts to end the evil of child soldiers or work on behalf of veterans’ rights. But he has learned to think outside the duty box too, in his scarcely hoped-for reconciliation with his children, and in his appreciation of the healing power of art.

A few years ago, Dallaire’s Pakistani deputy in Rwanda, Iqbal Riza, sent him a copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 Romantic classic of life-in-death and survivor’s guilt. Dallaire “cried for days” after he read it, seeing himself as the mariner with the albatross about his neck, condemned to tell his tale, over and over, to an unresponsive world.

But Riza, described by Dallaire as “very, very intelligent, principled, unfailingly sensitive,” may have known Dallaire better than the Canadian knew himself. Sometimes Dallaire could find in the poem not just a portrait of his fate, but “a sense of eternity,” he says, “which created a friction in me.” The tension was between his belief in the better angels of our nature—and his failure to protect them—and Coleridge’s portrayal of “these endless frictions that essentially pit human beings against each other. That is something that I am still troubled by, to be quite honest.”

Troubled, perhaps, but also eased in his sense of personal responsibility for the genocide. Dallaire ended up framing his memoir between Coleridge’s stanzas, beginning with the one that must have stabbed closest to his heart: The many men, so beautiful! / And they all dead did lie: / And a thousand thousand slimy things / Lived on; and so did I.

The former general is 70 now, and in as good a place as he’s occupied for these 22 years, but one made precarious by the very nature of his injury. First light has broken on Roméo Dallaire, but it’s not full daylight yet, if it ever will be. He knows it. Maurice Baril still guards his guns.