An army's hidden wounds

When peacekeepers come home, they confront the strain of remembering

RAE CORELLI March 28 1994

An army's hidden wounds

When peacekeepers come home, they confront the strain of remembering

RAE CORELLI March 28 1994

An army's hidden wounds


When peacekeepers come home, they confront the strain of remembering


They are soldiers, men and women, prepared for war and trained to kill, but their enviable reputation rests on 45 years of peacekeeping, not fighting. Yet since the United Nations took on the assignment in the shell-blasted wreckage of Yugoslavia in 1992, the Canadian troops there have had no peace to keep. They are finally in a war but they are forbidden by the United Nations to fight, to do more than defend themselves if attacked.

So they are left to move across the nightmarish moonscape of ruined cities and poisoned wells, collecting the bodies of children and disembowelled women and risking their lives to get food to the survivors. Every few months, the soldiers from storied units like the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal 22nd Regiment are replaced by others and come home to Canada. They bear no visible wounds. But they have been scarred, some for life, by too much anger, too much frustration and images of unspeakable horror.

Said Lt.-Col. Jim Jamieson, the Canadian Forces’ chief social worker: “The biggest identifiable problem for our people is what they are witnessing and not really being able to act on that.” g

In fact, two years after the first Canadian peacekeepers arrived in the Balkans—and s nine months after the last Canadian unit has o left the similarly stressful UN assignment in §

Somalia—the Forces have begun preparing □ troops for psychologically hazardous duty, g Trained personnel also talk them down when their tours have ended. The need for what the army calls “preand post-deployment briefings” has be come alarmingly evident: in a study funded by the defence department, Lt.-Cmdr. Greg Passey, a navy doctor, concluded that about 20 per cent of the personnel re turning from the Balkans suffer from either clinical depression or a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I think that’s high,” said Passey, now doing post-doctoral work in psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. “I guess the figures were unexpect-

ed.” And for good reason: studies done during the Second World War showed that, even after six years of combat, only marginally more Canadians—25 per cent— became what were then called “neuropsychiatrie casualties.” Then and now, Passey said, PTSD is a consequence of being caught up in monstrous events that tax the mind. For the Canadians in the Balkans, there have been plenty of those.

“We found dead civilians, many of them women. One was shot a dozen times in the back. Some were gutted, oth-


ers obviously tortured. We put them in body bags.

“Sometimes the bodies were still so hot from burning that we had to pour water over them before handling. We found two buried in a pen under sheep droppings. The bodies were still smoking. They wiped out those communities so people could never live there again. After a few days, you wonder who could do these acts. ”

—Master Cpl. Eric Middleton, 33, Terrace Bay, Ont., talking to Maclean’s last week.

Before peacekeepers leave for the Balkans, they are briefed on the conditions they are likely to encounter, the nature of the conflict and the don’tshoot-first restrictions of the UN mandate. Before they return home, they are put through a more sensitive debriefing to help them understand and resolve stress and emotional turmoil. “What we do is get people to talk about what they experienced, assuring them of confidentiality,” Jamieson said. “You move them from the facts of an incident through to discussing their thoughts, what they were thinking during the time and then on to a discussion about their emotional reactions to it. In other words, you take them from the safest to the most vulnerable aspects of the incident and then you bring them back out of it.”

Ten years ago, Jamieson said, “you would have had a hell of a time getting this stuff implemented. Now, virtually every commander understands the need because their biggest human problem is in this area. That is what they worry about the most” In the tormented Balkans, there is ample reason to worry.

“One day we had to sit on a road outside a village while the Croatians burned up the rest of the buildings.

They blew up or burned down every house, killed all the livestock, even the cats and dogs. Then, they threw the dead animals down wells to ruin the water supply.

“Other troops did the ground sweep for bodies. It was very stressful for them. Personally, I found not the sight but the smell of death the worst. There is a terrible smell to death. It sticks with you. ”

—Warrant Officer Jim Butters, 36, Hamilton.

Passey’s conclusions about the prevalence of depression and PTSD are based on questionnaires and personal interviews involving 428 members of 1 Combat Engineers Regiment, based at Chilliwack, B.C., and the Royal Canadian Regiment, stationed at Camp Gagetown, N.B., when they had been back home for a month. Eventually, he said, his study will embrace as many as 1,300 individuals.

Already, he has chronicled numerous symptoms: recurrent nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and anxiety, working to near-exhaustion to avoid remembering, and becoming detached. Others, Passey said, “have difficulty falling asleep. They get irritable and have outbursts of anger. They

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have a decreased tolerance of everyday work. They tend to be hypervigilant and scan their environment for danger. Loud noises really bother them.”

Frustration is a significant factor, Passey said. “There have been times when they felt they could have made a difference but because of the UN mandate they weren’t able to go in and help out. There are times when they are quite aware that civilians are going to be injured or killed and it’s difficult for them not to be able to do something to stop that.”

It is more than difficult.

For some, it is agonizing.

“Our mission was to escort two Croatian nurses to a hospital which they told us was for mentally handicapped children. When we got there, we came under sniper fire from empty houses nearby.

What we found inside the hospital were 230 children between six months and 12 or 13 who had been locked up in there for three days with no one to take care of them.

“The children were on the floor, in cribs and in the windows. They were mostly naked and covered in excrement.

Some were screaming. Others were passed out in heaps on the floor. Some were huddled in comers with blue feet from restricted blood circulation. The place stank of vomit, excrement and diapers.

“After about 20 minutes, I went outside to make sure the perimeter was secure. After that, I just ripped my helmet off and threw it on the ground. I took a lot of deep breaths and tried to calm down. It took me about 10 minutes to get my head back together. Two of the children died the next day. ”

—Lieut. Andrew Webb, 24, Valcartier, Que.

From time to time, civilian authorities have argued that peacekeepers should be trained differently. The military strenuously disagrees, and so does Alex Morrison, the 53-year-old executive director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, based in Toronto. Morrison, who spent 34 years in the army and negotiated Canada’s peacekeeping role at the United Nations during the 1980s, said the best training for keeping the peace was training for war.

However, Morrison said, “there are special supplements that have to be developed and one of them is what’s called culturalization training. One of the lessons of Somalia is that in the future we will have to teach our people more about the people in the countries where we’re going to be working. In some of these missions, in Somalia and in Bosnia, there is much more contact of an un-

friendly nature than there has been in previous peacekeeping situations.”

In parts of Croatia and Bosnia, unfriendliness has long been the rule.

“We were sitting having our morning coffee using the ramp of our vehicle as a table. About 700 m away, Croats and Serbs were sending mortars and shells at one another. We

were off to one side, set up with our missiles deployed against both. I thought to myself, I am going home soon, away from all this.

“Once, we were called in to help two French soldiers believed to have been wounded in a minefield. About 1,800 m into the minefield we found one of them—the other guy had crawled out. The Croats knew we were there and fired machine-guns over our heads. The French soldier had about 100 holes in him but we whacked him with morphine and he lived. We felt good about that. ”

—Sgt. Dave Hunt, 33, Collingwood, Ont.

It used to be, Jamieson said, that soldiers thought there was something wrong with them if they were overwhelmed by war and atrocities. “People thought they were going crazy or that they were cowards,” he said. “In our macho world, if nobody else seems to be having problems, then there must be something wrong with me. Well, we know it’s pretty normal to have those reactions. Anyone who doesn’t is completely sociopathic.” For most returning peacekeepers, he said, the symp-

toms of stress usually subside after two or three weeks. People still having trouble after that are given further treatment. “This phenomenon of post-traumatic stress is, by definition, a recurring experiencing of acute stress that is normal, but it becomes abnormal when you carry it with you for a long time.”

Even for those who have fully recovered from the savagery of the Balkans, the symptoms of stress are well-remembered.

“I had alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea, dry mouth, frequent anxiety and dull, daylong headaches. I also had a lot of dreams, not fearful or crazy ones, but ones where I’d relive the shellings and the gunfire.

“I never want to see again what I saw one July afternoon. Some young kids had been hanging around the UN headquarters in Sarajevo hoping to get some candy when a series of shells—19 of them in 27 seconds—came down. Many kids were hit and five were brought inside our compound. One young girl died in the arms of a Canadian. A cook had to hold a girl’s leg while it was being amputated. It took him weeks to come to terms with that. Another soldier was digging a trench when he hit something. It was Ö a pair of feet and a head. He § ran into our building and g wouldn’t come out for a long time.

“Another Canadian soldier was hit by shrapnel. After being patched up, he simply refused several orders to return to his trench. The padre finally said he’d go with him and the two of them spent a whole day together in that trench until the soldier eventually got his wits back. ”

—Capt. Douglas Martin, 34, Halifax.

The clergymen who counsel and comfort troops in the field as members of the chaplains’ service are among the first to spot signs of stress and depression—and to dispense the old-fashioned remedies of faith, prayer and compassion. Capt. Daniel Paquin of Laval, Que., is a padre still serving in Bosnia. “Every house in Srebrenica has been destroyed but people still live in them,” Paquin said in an interview published earlier this month. “You see kids barefoot standing on ice. But they somehow wave and smile; for them, the UN troops are like angels. I don’t question God here but I do wonder where the men of goodwill are.” In the devastated Bosnian countryside, they are virtually impossible to find.

With JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and MARK CARDWELL in Quebec City