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Few careers can be as fraught with potential for post-traumatic stress as the armed forces. Stéphane Grenier knows better than most. A retired Lieutenant Colonel, Grenier spent 29 years in the Canadian military, during which time he spent nine months in Rwanda alongside Roméo Dallaire during one of the worst genocides in modern history.
“General Dallaire was trying to muster the international community to care about what was happening in [Rwanda],” he says. “At the same time, you had Bosnia, where the attention of the world was [focused]. My initial task was to bring some media, because expatriates had left the country. It was pretty dire out there.”
Grenier arrived in Rwanda in 1994 to a downpour on the tarmac, just two days after he had been briefed about his assignment. The rain was the least of the troubles.
“That got overshadowed pretty quickly by gunfire. The Hercules aircraft that had brought us in didn’t stop very long,” he says. “It took off, and when it landed back in Nairobi, there were some holes in the aircraft. So reality hit fast — fast and hard.”
“You have this sort of notion of a ceasefire and peacekeeping, and then of course reality hits, and it’s not at all what we dream about, right?” – Stéphane Grenier
Grenier’s book, After the War, documents his time spent in the country, describing the countless situations he witnessed.
“This woman had walked I don’t know how many kilometres with a hammer stuck in her head,” he says. “The hammer was literally stuck in her head, and scar tissue had grown around it, because she had been attacked during the genocide and survived.”
He returned to Canada in 1995, but as the months progressed, he realized that he had been dealing with lingering effects from his time in Rwanda — symptoms he described not as post-traumatic stress, but as what he coined ‘moral injuries.’
“I remember feeling mixed up like a bag of nails, having difficulty concentrating, having a very short temper, being impatient, because I thought everything here was so futile,” says Grenier.
“There were many, many false starts in my attempts to get help and seek help […] I was an equal part of the partnership of why it wasn’t working.” – Stéphane Grenier
During one incident, Grenier lost his temper when his daughter was playing outside and he was cleaning the remaining Rwandan soil off his army boots on the driveway. The water from the boots was running down the driveway towards his daughter, connecting two worlds he never wished to see brought together.
Another time, Grenier found himself veering towards a hydro pole while driving — an incident that led him to seek help the following day.
“I didn’t even know how to articulate what was going on with me,” he says. “I grew up in an era where mental health wasn’t on any human being’s radar, unless you were a psychiatrist or psychologist.”
As Grenier began his own journey through the mental health system, he took a greater interest on how the Canadian Armed Forces was taking care of its returning soldiers. In 2001, he developed and implemented a government-based national peer-support program for the Canadian military. In 2007, he was tasked with creating a Canadian Forces-wide workplace mental health education program.
“[People need to understand] that they’re not the only ones to ever experience this. It’s a very isolating journey to recover from, and while physical injuries will probably recover with or without hope,” says Grenier, “the mind doesn’t recover as easily if there’s no hope.”
Now retired from the military, Grenier continues his work by speaking about his story and running a private mental health consulting company. In 2009, he was awarded a national Champion of Mental Health Award by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. He continues to provide advice on peer support to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
“I think a lot of people go about their lives with carrying some baggage of some sort,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they can’t live a happy life, a productive life, an honest life.”
Photo from speakers.ca.