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Friday, October 28, 2016

Soldier's Mental Health A Serious Concern for African Mission

By: Matthew Fisher, The National Post 

A soldier who served with Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire during the Rwandan genocide is deeply worried the Trudeau government is about to embark on another UN peacekeeping quagmire in Africa that could have grave consequences for the mental health of troops sent there.

“We have historically made the same mistakes again and again,” says Stéphane Grenier, who founded Mental Health Innovations Consulting after retiring from the Canadian Forces four years ago as a lieutenant-colonel. His retirement followed deployments to Rwanda, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kuwait, Lebanon and Haiti.

“History will repeat itself because people will not be properly prepared to go overseas,” Grenier predicted.

Compounding the problem in past doomed missions was that the UN did not provide strong support for troops in the field, he added.
(Matthew Fisher/Postmedia) Retired Lt.-Col. Stephane Grenier says Canadian soldiers aren't trained to deal with the different standards of morality in Africa.
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“Is there any indication the UN is better equipped today to govern military forces trying to implement what are impossible mandates?” he asked. “I don’t think so. Until that is fixed, history will repeat itself.”

Grenier became a passionate advocate for mental health after witnessing shocking barbarism when more than one million Rwandans were slaughtered in the genocide in that country in 1994.

What Canada was most lacking, he said, was training for soldiers, diplomats and other government workers to deal with what he called the moral conflicts that arise on such missions.

“Because our soldiers are Canadian, and mostly raised in Canada, they live their lives according to a moral compass that is calibrated to Canadian values, to a sense of what Canadians think is right or wrong. When you put them in another country which has a very different perception of what is right or wrong, there is an issue.

“There is no way right now to adjust our moral compass to that other reality. The principles that we establish for our missions don’t apply there. It becomes a real challenge to maintain your moral compass.”

Grenier spoke of standing beside a boy as the youngster was shot by the Interahamwe (a Hutu paramilitary organization) in Rwanda, and the mental anguish that some Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan suffered after hearing the cries of young boys who were being abused by Afghan troops on a joint base.

“All the resiliency training and briefings in the world do not to this date help us to recalibrate our compass for things like that,” he said.

“Something gets lost in translation between the air base at Trenton (Ontario) and wherever it is that Canadians land. That is the starting point for understanding the challenge to successfully prosecute a mission in a place like Africa and to get everyone back home safe and sane, not only from the battlefield but the mental battlefield.”

The African mission now being drawn up in offices in Ottawa would create unrealistic demands because the discussion is taking place in a vacuum with a poor understanding of the true situation on the far side of the world, the former armoured corps and public affairs officer said.

“I don’t want to play with words such as peacekeeping, peacemaking or peace-enforcing but I think that it is very naive to think that the peacekeeping concept can be implemented in 2016 and going forward,” he said. “The Kumbaya thing will not work, especially in Africa.

“Given the volatility of these countries, why do we think that our human kindness will work over there? Maybe niceness will work if it is backed up with some real teeth and a line in the sand.”

Grenier recalled what a fellow blue beret from Senegal told him early in his UN tour in Rwanda.

“‘When an African shows you his fist, you show him your knife’,” the officer said. “‘When an African shows you his knife, you show him your gun. You never show weakness’.”
(Marianne Helm/Postmedia) Retired Lt.-Gen Romeo Dallaire, shown in 2004, was haunted by the atrocities he witnessed while leading Canadian forces in Rwanda.
Grenier said: “What we do is create complex mandates with the best intentions in the world, but in a context that is completely different than where the mandate has to be executed. It is as if politicians and bureaucrats have skipped a series of chapters that have been written since the end of the Cold War.”

Nor do governments calculate the true cost of these missions, he added. “We do the simple math of fuel, beans, boots and bullets and are satisfied with that answer. The cost in the mental health of the troops only becomes obvious 20 years later. We have never grasped that.”

Grenier’s new battle space is mental health in the workplace. He works with police and paramedics to combat the on-the-job stresses they face every day.

And although he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder himself, Grenier said the number of Canadian troops who have been diagnosed as having PTSD after serving in such places as Rwanda and Afghanistan has been greatly exaggerated.

“There is a national obsession with PTSD that I despise,” he said. “The fact that you are injured in the mind does not always mean that you have PTSD.”

Although Grenier has great respect for Dallaire, he feels the general’s fame sometimes diverts attention from the problems of other troops who witnessed murder and mayhem.

“With the general, Canadians are a bit star-struck,” Grenier said. “It is a phenomena that is not good or bad. Countries need heroes and he became one. But all the attention that he has had, had the perverse effect of taking attention from the issue.

“The mistake that is made is that people listen to General Dallaire, when people like him have no trouble getting a psychiatrist to support and treat them. That is not the case for soldiers at the bottom of the chain.”

Grenier added: “The American Psychiatry Association and Veterans Affairs want to hear the general’s views, and he certainly deserves to be heard. But his experiences are not representative of what the masses experienced. That is not his fault. He has tried to include others and has invited them to speak in Ottawa, but people there would rather hear from a celebrity.”