In a month when Canadians remember the fallen of past wars, Liberal Senator Roméo Dallaire is trying to ensure that surviving veterans aren’t forgotten either.

As chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, the 65-year-old retired army lieutenant general has been overseeing a review of the New Veterans Charter, a 2006 document that outlines benefits, compensation and services for injured soldiers. He says the committee will soon release a list of recommendations, including legislative changes, addressing what he believes to be inadequacies of the charter.

One of the changes would be to replace lump-sum payments with monthly pensions that had been in place for those in uniform who were injured before 2006.

“We’ve got veterans now who have more combat time than World War II vets but who are getting nowhere near what a Second World War vet was getting after that war – and that’s a major deficiency,” explains Dallaire; most famous for commanding a United Nations peacekeeping force ordered not to intervene during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

He is also fighting for an increase in financial support to families. “If we commit a member of the Forces to operations, it could have a lasting effect on them and their families, so I argue that families should also be taken care of by the government.”

The federal government plans to reduce Veterans Affairs’ $3.5-billion budget by $226 million over two years.

Dallaire has been championing other causes.

He joined interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae at a press conference last month calling on the Harper government to work with the provinces, territories, Aboriginal groups and other key stakeholders to create a national suicide prevention strategy. Rae has admitted to suffering from depression in the past, and Dallaire has talked openly about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After being released from the Forces in 2000 for medical reasons, he attempted suicide four times and has credited his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children, Willem, Catherine and Guy, as well as a peer supporter, with helping to bring him back from the edge. He remains in therapy and takes nine pills daily – stabilizers during the day and pills “to knock me out” at night, he explains.

PTSD is “an injury that can be lethal, so you have to stay on top it,” says Dallaire, who still has nightmares about the carnage he witnessed in Rwanda but adds those bad dreams are often curtailed because of the medication. However, reminders of the genocide still haunt him by day. For instance, Dallaire cannot go into a grocery store because the smells remind him of people killing each other over for food at distribution centres in Rwanda.

In a recent interview with CTV’s Canada AM, he spoke candidly of the toll PTSD had taken him. “There was no way to laugh anymore, to love, to care and there was a sense of guilt in having survived when others had been killed.”

To avoid dealing with his feelings, Dallaire “turned into a worse workaholic” than he had already been, and at one point, got drunk and cut himself repeatedly with an old razor blade. “The warmth of the blood on me was the most soothing,” he said. “It was like all that pain was pouring out of me.”

“I believe in God because I have shaken hands with the Devil”
…Romeo Dallaire

While advocating for a national suicide strategy, he has called attention to how mental illness has plagued members of the Canadian Forces and their families. As Dallaire told an October news conference on Parliament Hill, Canadian casualties aren’t limited to only those who died in theatre but those who also “died at their own hands subsequently because of the mental injuries they had overseas.”

To that end, he will be in Kingston, Ont. in mid-November attending a forum of the Canadian Institute for Military & Veteran Health Research, a jointly led initiative of Queen’s University and the Royal Military College involving 18 Canadian universities. “It’s a research institute that will look at mental health and the impact of operations on soldiers, which we’ve never had before,” says Dallaire. “It’s not only to help soldiers who have been injured by PTSD and their families, but also to work on a better means of reducing the impact of this injury.”

During his time in Rwanda, he was also confronted with the use of child soldiers and has made it his mission to end that practice chronicled in his book; They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, which is now available in paperback and which has also been nominated for an award from the Quebec Writers’ Federation.

Although international legislation and conventions exist to prevent the use of children in conflicts, the proliferation of small arms around the world and a lack of will have resulted in adults still recruiting kids for combat, explains Dallaire, whose previous book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, won the 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and is a Top 10 contender for CBC’s 2012 Canada Reads contest.

Amid all of this, he also has a day job in the Senate, where he has served since 2005, representing Gulf, Québec, which includes the Gaspé.

While the Harper government has introduced reforms to the upper chamber, including term limits and requiring senators to run for office, Dallaire is not in favour of an elected Senate. “It is not reflective of the democratic process people keep yapping about. We elect a party leader, who is the Prime Minister, and he chooses senators and that’s part of the democratic process.”

“I don’t see any value in electing senators because you then start to fiddle with local political demands when the role of senator is far more pan-Canadian as the guardian angel of minorities and stability in Confederation.”

He says it’s worth having the Senate to serve as a “double-check” on the House of Commons. “My only concern is that there have been too many political allegiances versus the historic method of having senators fairly independent in their voting. The Conservatives started to change that in demanding loyalty as they do with their MPs in the House, but that’s not the nature of the Senate.”

Born on June 25, 1946 in Holland – just 13 months after V-E Day – to a father, also Roméo, who served as a staff-sergeant in the Canadian Army and a Dutch-born mother, Catharina Vermaesen, who was a nurse, Dallaire grew up in East Montreal and currently lives in Quebec City where he commanded the 5e Régiment d’Artillerie Légère du Canada at Valcartier and his father-in-law before him commanded the Regiment des Voltigeurs.

While his life is filled with planes, trains and automobiles taking him to speaking engagements around the world, Dallaire doesn’t get to spend much time in Quebec’s capital city. And for that matter, neither does his wife whose duties as a UNICEF Canada ambassador and key spokesperson for the organization’s annual holiday campaign to support UNICEF’s work with the world’s most vulnerable children also finds her travelling across the country and overseas. “She’s also very involved with family support centres for the troops and their families,” explains Dallaire. “So she’s a busy girl too.”

When asked what he does in any downtime, Dallaire bluntly replies, “I’ve yet to figure that out.”

“With PTSD, it’s good to keep yourself busy.”

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