Former soldier on the march to raise awareness about PTSD

A former Canadian soldier who’s marching in every province to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder receives regular shows of support from Alberta motorists.

Former soldier Steve Hartwig is marching to draw attention to post-traumatic stress disorder.

A former Canadian soldier who’s marching in every province to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder receives regular shows of support from Alberta motorists.

A few even turned their vehicles around, rolled down their windows, and expressed their personal appreciation for Steve Hartwig’s cross-country crusade. “They shake my hand and say ‘Thank you. The same thing happened to my partner,’ or my brother or sister or mom and dad,” said the former infantry member and paratrooper.

Hartwig carries a 35-pound pack on his back to represent the emotional burden borne by many returning soldiers, a white wooden cross symbolizing the loss of friends to suicide, and a tall Canadian flag.

“I’m overwhelmed by how many people are sharing their stories,” added Hartwig, during a brief rest stop at the Tim Hortons in Gasoline Alley on Wednesday.

Unsurprisingly, some of his biggest boosters have been other soldiers, police officers, firefighters and paramedics, or their relatives, who best understand the perils of post-traumatic stress disorder. Ironically, a few who have shown the least support are also soldiers.

Hartwig believes they don’t like being portrayed as “broken,” mentally ill, or weak. But the point of his Into No Man’s Land awareness march is to dispel such views.

“This is not an illness or a sickness. This happens to ‘normal’ people — moms and dads and coaches and employees,” he said. “We are not ‘broken.’ It’s our behaviour that’s inappropriate.”

And Hartwig knows all about it — his angry outbursts cost him his marriage.

The now divorced Surrey, B.C. resident realized something was deeply wrong with his psyche immediately after returning from a 1993 peacekeeping mission to Yugoslavia. He broke into uncontrolled sobs at seeing his parents for the first time — and was among a dozen soldiers who automatically hit the ground when a truck backfired during a Remembrance Day ceremony.

As there were no de-briefings or counselling sessions provided for returning soldiers at the time, he tried to suppress these raw and frightening emotions as best he could.

The father of four, who had been injured in Croatia and witnessed various atrocities, said he began to “self medicate” after leaving the army with alcohol, recreational drugs and by running, but discovered it wasn’t enough to stop the horrible dreams that would leave him shaking under a blanket.

The 44-year-old battled rage, depression and suicidal feelings before finding a counsellor who was experienced in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He also derived help from attending aboriginal sweat lodges.

But it’s a long process and Hartwig isn’t home-free yet. He believes the many years he went without help have extended his recovery.

For that reason, he’s pleased that the military now provides more timely support for stressed soldiers. Despite the greater recognition for post-traumatic stress disorder, he noticed government funding was recently cut for some anger management classes and therefore believes more can be done.

Among his most important reasons for marching, he said, is hearing the two oldest of his four children admit they were afraid of him.

Hartwig started walking from Victoria, B.C. on June 23 and is taking 10 weeks off from running his own karate school to cross the country. He averages 32 km a day on foot between various centres, and sometimes gives public talks on post-traumatic stress disorder.

Former soldier Scott McFarlane accompanies him, and sometimes drives Hartwig between locations to stick to the schedule of making it to Newfoundland by September. “I’d march across the world for this man,” said McFarlane, who believes Hartwig’s mission is vital.

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