UPDATED: Retired peacekeeping vets marching for PTSD awareness

Colin MacLean
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Retired soldier and PTSD sufferer Steve Hartwig marched into Summerside Tuesday with two of his comrades to spread awareness of the condition. Their march across Canada is called Into No Man's Land. Colin MacLean/Journal Pioneer

SUMMERSIDE – Just before boarding a plane to what was Yugoslavia, Jason McKenzie was stopped by a CBC reporter for an interview.

He used all the words a soldier heading to a war zone usually says:

Pride. Determination. Resolve.

After his tour, as he and his comrades landed in Regina, Sask.,  McKenzie was approached again by that same journalist.

But he couldn’t do it – he just couldn’t talk about what he’d seen.

“I wasn’t aware of it at the time but there was definitely a change, where I wasn’t the same person coming home,” said McKenzie.

“I was young, in my 20s, and I didn’t really know what was going on. So it took me a few years to kind of figure out that there was something that had changed in me and I needed help.”

It took years of alcohol abuse and a few hard knocks along the way for McKenzie come to terms with the fact that he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But he did eventually come to terms with his condition, and has been on the road to recovery ever since.

Part of that recovery has even put him on a literal road.

McKenzie, from Saskatchewan, is one of three Canadian Forces veterans who are running and walking across Canada to raise awareness about PTSD. The other two men are Steve Hartwig and Scott McFarlane, both from B.C.

Hartwig is marching every day, while McFarlane and McKenzie are taking turns driving a support vehicle and walking.

They called their campaign Into No Man’s Land and are using their march to open a national dialogue about PTSD, speak with fellow sufferers of the condition and shine a light on the current level of treatment available for soldiers and civilian emergency personnel who suffer from it.

All three men have known each other for many years and all served together as United Nations peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1993.

They started their journey together in Victoria, B.C., on June 23 and hope to finish in St. John’s, N.L., in late September.

It’s been an incredible experience so far, said McKenzie.

“Hopefully we can reach some people out there who so far haven’t felt comfortable talking about their PTSD. They’ll see us in the media, they’ll see us walking down the highway … and hopefully they go forward and get help.”

“If that happened, it would be unbelievable.”

The mental health of the members of Canada’s military forces has been making headlines of late, though not for the reasons McKenzie, McFarlane and Hartwig would like.

A recent Statistics Canada survey, released to the public in early August, showed that the number of soldiers who’d experienced PTSD symptoms within the past year had doubled from the rates in 2002. They went from 2.8 per cent of those surveyed to 5.3 per cent.

A spat of recent soldier suicides have also served to highlight the problem.

These numbers and events are heartbreaking, but it’s important to remember that progress is being made, said Hartwig.

Back when they returned home from their tour in the early 1990s, the general public didn’t know about PTSD and sufferers avoided talking about it, mistaking their condition for weakness or something other than what it was.

Today, he said, people know about PTSD, they know it’s a condition that can be treated and more sufferers than ever are seeking help.

With Into No Man’s Land, these former soldiers hope to continue that positive trend.

“There’s a pilgrimage in this,” said Hartwig.

“A lot of people with PTSD hold it so tight, they hide it. They feel like it’s a lonely road when in reality there’s thousands of people. So the journey itself has had many many moments of – I can’t say anything other than grace,” he said.

Anyone who’d like to know more about Into No Man’s Land is invited to check out their website at www.intonomansland.com.

On Wednesday, Sept. 3, the group is starting their march from Cornwall and heading for Province House in downtown Charlottetown for a reception. All are welcome.

Colin.MacLean@journalpioneer.com

@JournalPMacLean

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