Veterans' vignettes

Ten years ago, Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire was found on a park bench, passed out from mixing alcohol with his anti-depressants.

Ten years ago, Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire was found on a park bench, passed out from mixing alcohol with his anti-depressants.
Dallaire, who was the force commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force during the Rwandan genocide, was medically discharged from the forces in 1999.
The global community did not recognize the events in Rwanda as a genocide until it was too late. Dallaire was haunted by what he’d seen; he felt like he had failed. His public park bench breakdown brought attention to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Until a general had it, it didn’t exist,” says Gary Zwicker, a former petty officer who was also medically discharged for PTSD. After 17 years, peacekeeping around the world took its toll.
“I joined the military to serve my country and to help people,” says Zwicker. But once he was prescribed an anti-depressant, Serzone, a drug that has since been taken off North American markets, his outlook changed immediately.
“I did everything,” he says. “I had dangerous behaviour. Suicide—I had four of them under my belt. I was a hopeless alcoholic. They didn’t know about my drug addiction, but I was a drug addict, and a gambler… My behaviour got to the point where I gave them all the ammunition to throw me out in the world.”
It went downhill from there, Zwicker says. His life gradually fell apart. He entered a battle with Veterans Affairs for funding for a pair of orthotics to treat plantar fasciitis and arthritis in his feet, which he said were caused by his military boots. Zwicker lost his home and was estranged from his family. And when he left the forces, he lost his military family, too. “Once you stop being an effective cog in the machine, they replace the cog, plain and simple,” he says. “It’s a well-oiled machine. At one time, I was proud of it. I mean, I was the cog that kept it together to make it work.”
Now, veterans like Zwicker are working against what he calls the “bureaucracy” and “unfair treatment” of the Veterans Affairs office. He believes it’s especially urgent because Canada’s ongoing mission in Afghanistan is producing many young veterans. After filing his own wrongful dismissal suit, Zwicker now spends his time working with veterans who have trouble filing claims to Veterans Affairs. The goal, he says, is to create a web of support for these veterans. And on Nov. 6, a week before Remembrance Day, he’ll be organizing a rally in Halifax’s Grand Parade as part of the National Day of Support for our Nation’s Veterans.
Media attention to Afghanistan and veterans’ issues has caused public support of troops to grow, and it’s that external support that soldiers need. “We fall through the cracks because we don’t know how to fight for ourselves, let alone one another.” Zwicker believes the public feels ashamed about how veterans are being treated, especially as the number of veterans continues to grow.
Sgt. Michaela Brister believes that Canada has a responsibility in Afghanistan.
Her stake in that statement is even more than that of a soldier: her son is a tanker in Afghanistan, and returns to Canada this month, less than six months before Canada pulls out next spring.
But she still believes it’s a dangerous move. One of the only countries with a reconstructive component, Canada will have to leave the rebuilding efforts up to other, “more aggressive” countries once it pulls out in 2011.
“I’m saying the Americans are much more aggressive,” she says. “I think they shoot first before they ask. They don’t have the hearts and minds that we have. We’d rather ask first or we hesitate before we, you know, shoot somebody or commit somebody.”
In 2007, Sgt. Brister was the senior clerk for the Provincial Reconstructive Team (PRT), located 40 minutes from Kandahar. The PRT’s principal job, she says, was to evaluate the demand for infrastructure in the community, and then to hire and pay locals to build it. This included schools, hospitals, and prisons. By teaching the locals the necessary skills, they would “get the locals off the streets from joining the Taliban or growing poppy fields.”
This helps, and even if it’s in a small way, it’s the reason she volunteered to go. But Sgt. Brister’s friends and family have trouble understanding the value of the work she did there.
“I try to explain what it’s actually like,” says Sgt. Brister. “A lot of people can’t put themselves in the shoes of those people, the [Afghan] people, especially females. They are finally now able to go back to school and get some education. Before, if you were over there, you wouldn’t even be able to go to school.”
Despite the “complete lack of education of the public,” Sgt. Brister says she has seen an increase in Remembrance Day ceremony turnout, particularly from young people aged 25 to 30 with children. “Back in the day,” she says, “you didn’t see families with little kids.”
Lauchie Macdonald, a retired army colonel and veteran of World War II and Korea, believes that the fact that Canada’s Afghanistan mission is at the fore of the Canadian consciousness is the reason for higher attendance at Remembrance Day ceremonies.
“During World War II, it was a notice in the paper that so-and-so was killed,” explained MacDonald. “Now they’re bringing the bodies home from Afghanistan.”
The publicity, negative or not, connects Canadians to the once faceless soldiers, he says.
MacDonald still is involved heavily in military life through 20 years of volunteering with cadets and the Citadel Army Museum. On Remembrance Day, he’ll be marching with the veterans at Grand Parade.
“When we go up to the cenotaph, there are tons of people there,” MacDonald says, “and they clap for us because we are veterans.”
MacDonald pauses. “It’s a pleasure to be appreciated,” he says, “to be appreciated for the fact that you served.”

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