The man charged with attempting to keep the peace amid the genocide in Rwanda says not enough is done to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the United Nations commander in Kigali in 1994, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire was left powerless to intervene as up to 1 million people were slaughtered by rival ethnic groups.
Despite pleading for the resources and mandate to stop the bloodshed, the international community left him stranded.
He returned home from the horrific deployment broken by the experience, and suffering severe PTSD asked to be relieved of his command.
He says he tried to end his own life several times.
“I had nothing left. I was actually attempting to be suicidal and I was putting the mission at risk,” he told the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program.
“So the first big decision was to realise that I wasn’t able to handle it anymore and I asked to be relieved.
“The only reason I didn’t succeed is the peer support was so tight that I wasn’t able to finish it off – tried, but it didn’t work.
“And so after the fourth one, I said, ‘You know, maybe there’s another way of looking at this’.”
General Dallaire is now a senator in the Canadian parliament and says politicians, bureaucrats and military brass have failed veterans with PTSD and their families.
An outspoken campaigner for fellow sufferers of PTSD, he points to a lack of understanding of the disorder among the senior ranks of the military.
He says it is vitally important for government officials and military commanders to take PTSD seriously as thousands of international troops return from Afghanistan.
“When I see senior military or bureaucracy in the military acquiescing to budget cuts to this stuff, then you know that within the system, some of them have never really understood the depths of this injury,” he said.
“That borders on criminal because people are killing themselves.
“We are talking about people killing themselves directly because of what we had them do, and to Pontius Pilate our responsibility to those in uniform and letting the civilians get away by cutting in to that, that is the highest degree of irresponsibility.”
Trauma can damage the brain
Dr Bill Nash, a psychiatrist and former medical officer with the United States Marine Corps, says post-traumatic stress disorder is not a sign of weakness, but rather a psychological injury.
“Of all of the ways I’ve talked about post-traumatic stress with especially Marines and other warriors, the thing that gives them the most relief is to explain to them – and not in a way that’s untrue, but based on science – [that] this isn’t you, it’s your brain, you blew a fuse,” he said.
He says pathways in the brain can be damaged by trauma.
“They’re the same kind of neurones that are in the inner ear that can be damaged by too much sound; the same kind of neurones in the retina of the eye that can be damaged by too much light,” he said.
“So these parts of the brain can be damaged by exposure to overwhelming experiences, but you can’t close your eyes to these things.
“So it’s not you, it’s not a weakness of you – you’re a fragile being, you’re breakable, and you were broken.”
General Dallaire says the military has also failed to recognise those who died as a result of PTSD.
“We lost 158 people in Afghanistan, and so they’ve all received their due honours as they come back and so on, and recognition,” he said.
“However, I’m estimating there were anywhere between 30 and 40 now who’ve committed suicide when they come back due to the injuries there.
“So what about them? When do we see their names appear?”
If you or someone you know is experiencing problems, Lifeline can be contacted on 13 11 44.
This article first appeared on ABC TV Foreign Correspondent on 8 October, 2013.