As a former senator and Canadian military hero, retired general Romeo Dallaire saw unspeakable acts of horror in the Rwandan Genocide.
“The depth of what this has done to disrupt your whole sense of balance of what being human is,” he says, reflecting on his war story.
His organization based out of Dalhousie University, the Dallaire Institute, is now marking a decade in operation. Around the world, it aims to stop the use of child soldiers, and also get mental health care for those who have gone to war, and returned with emotional trauma.
“A soldier that came to me, I said, ‘What was your job in the battalion?’” says Dallaire, describing a conversation he had with another veteran. “The guy instantly broke down. He said, ‘I have been back from Afghanistan for five years [at the time], and I still haven’t hugged my children.’”
Dallaire says that former soldier was a sniper – and that in order to protect convoys in the line of duty, he had killed children.
The solider was experiencing a lesser known type of trauma called moral injury – psychological damage that happens when someone experiences something that goes against their conscience or moral beliefs.
“Oftentimes, this could be things that actually you are forced to do, as the result of a difficult moral dilemma you’re put in,” says Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Dallaire Institute, “or things you were unable to do, to prevent what you view as a moral dilemma. So when it comes to encountering children in armed conflict, this is heightened a lot.”
Evidence suggests moral injuries are on the rise among deployed Canadian Armed forces members and veterans— including the roughly 30,000 Canadians who fought in Afghanistan.
For Dallaire, the best treatment for his wounds was family.
“What I found, was love.” says Dallaire, “I had fallen in love with a women, which I’m now married – and I’ve found that love is an absolute: the depth of that gives you a resiliency that I have seen nowhere else.”