Roméo Dallaire launches "Waiting for First Light"

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Photo: Shirley Nadeau

A retired lieutenant-general and senator, celebrated humanitarian Roméo Dallaire spoke about his latest book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD, at the recent book launch by La Maison Anglaise. 

Have you ever had recurring nightmares so terrible that you wished morning would come so you could wake up and never have those dreams again? 

This is the reason for the title of Roméo Dallaire's latest book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD, which was launched by La Maison Anglaise bookstore last Friday evening. The former Canadian Army general's nightmares revisiting his military experiences in Rwanda 22 years ago still keep him awake at night, waiting for the dawn.

Some 50 people went to the event held at Place de la Cité to hear Dallaire bare his soul about his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dallaire described how he was trying to help other soldiers who suffer from the disorder as a result of the horrific things they saw, and did, and saw others do to others during their military service.  

In 1993, Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire was appointed as the force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), established by the U.N. Security Council in October 1993. Its mandate was to assist in the implementation of the Arusha Accords, which were intended to end the Rwandan Civil War. 

If you have read Dallaire's previous books about his experiences in Rwanda - Shake Hands with the Devil, which exposed the failure of the international community to stop the genocide in Rwanda, and They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, which describes the horrors undergone by child soldiers, who were "tools used by adults as weapons of war" - you will understand why he and many others in the military have suffered from PTSD since their return to Canada. 

Dallaire recounted how his editor had been pressuring him to let someone write his biography but he said he didn't want anyone else to write it, because "you never know what they'll write about you." When an assistant suggested he write about the last 20-odd years since he'd come back from Rwanda, Dallaire thought this was an interesting angle. "The previous books had snippets of my youth, snippets of my career but they were very much concentrated on what was happening at the time." The first two books were "no joy to write, but in the process I discovered the ability to write, and this was surprising. I felt it was essential to write these stories and leave them for posterity."

Dallaire said that writing the first two books was like "descending into hell to try to describe hell...." But, he continued, "... the writing of First Light was essentially descending into my guts and the caverns of my mind, and attempting to describe what [PTSD] does to an individual. 

"PTSD is created by a operation stress injury, i.e. scenarios that were faced, dilemmas of ethical, moral and legal construct were constantly making you take decisions for which there was no necessarily military solution, but there was a very human solution. 

"When there are only so many soldiers available and there are so many people to protect, and you gotta tell people at the other end of the phone you can't protect them because your soldiers are already committed to protect another group, and you hear them being slaughtered at the other end of the phone, it gets a little tough to sustain that type of assessment. It was a lose-lose situation. People died because I wasn't able to get to them, and they, seeking help, got nothing."

Dallaire went on to describe the research being carried out on PTSD since 2010 at the Military and Veterans Mental Health Institutes, in which 31 Canadian universities are involved. He also spoke of the many soldiers who have committed suicide in the past 20 years because of the PTSD caused by their combat experiences, and the help these institutes are trying to provide to prevent more suicides. Help is also being provided for the families of those soldiers. 

If you wish to learn and understand more, you may purchase Dallaire's book Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD at La Maison Anglaise.