Remembrance Day means more to me this year.
Since last November, I’ve had the opportunity to interview several veterans of Canada’s peacekeeping mission to Bosnia Most served as members of the United Nations Protection Force, or UNPROFOR, from 1992 to 1995; some served later with the NATO mission that enforced the peace treaty signed in 1995.
The soldiers who were there during the UN days had a difficult mission. They had to keep the peace when there was no peace to keep. All sides wanted to fight and the UN had no mandate to stop them from fighting or harming unarmed, innocent civilians.
Many Canadian soldiers had to watch women being raped or children being killed or investigate the evidence of such atrocities. They had to report on this as observers, but could do nothing to stop it. The soldiers obeyed the ridiculous rule and it scarred many of them for life.
More than 20 years later, some had just come to grips with what they saw and were comfortable enough to speak about it. They still suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I could see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices.
I spoke to a guy who saw some terrible things at an orphanage in Bosnia. In our first conversation on the phone, he started to tell me about it. He agreed to be interviewed on camera, but when I called him back to arrange a time, he told me that he had started to have nightmares about his tour in Bosnia. Just talking to me on the phone had triggered that.
A few other veterans that I contacted politely refused to speak with me, saying that it was just too painful. I respected their decision and wished them well, hoping that they might be among the people who could be helped by the documentary that I was working on.
One of the veterans that I spoke with said it was important for veterans to reach out and that it wasn’t a sign of weakness to do so. It’s often portrayed that way in the armed forces, but he said it actually takes more courage to go in and get help. He knows, he did it, and now he has a service dog to help him.
There’s an Australian folk song called “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” by Eric Bogle. It is a poignant song about a bloody campaign in the First World War.
The most chilling line is when the protagonist awakens in hospital to discover an artillery shell has blown off his legs. “When I woke up in my hospital bed, and saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead. Never knew there was worse things than dyin’.”
The soldier was lamenting how he wouldn’t be able to go walking or dancing with his sweetheart. Not all soldiers come back from war with physical wounds and these are the ones that are often afraid to ask for help and suffer the most because of the stigma.
They need to be taken care of when they get back and, as with physical wounds, it needs to be done as soon as possible. The sooner the operational stress is dealt with the better. Canada has learned a lot since Bosnia, but we can do better. The British have a great way of approaching it and when a soldier goes through a tough situation, they get tapped on the shoulder and sent for a chat. The attitude is that, “hey, you’ve made it through a tight spot” and it’s seen as a badge of honour.
This Remembrance Day, I will lament the dead and thank them for their sacrifice. I will also mourn the innocent lives that were lost in all wars.
And I will think of the many Bosnian veterans who bravely told me their stories despite the anguish it put them through. In Bosnia, as in Afghanistan, more soldiers died after committing suicide than by enemy fire.
That is not a reflection of the soldiers; it’s a reflection of how the armed forces and Veterans Affairs takes care of them. They can do better, and so can we.