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Roméo Dallaire (Paul Chiasson/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
Roméo Dallaire (Paul Chiasson/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Brian Bergman

Roméo Dallaire: May the Zero Force be with him Add to ...

In The Globe and Mail's recent series on Canada's "underachieving" boys, there was a repeated lament about the lack of positive male role models in our schools and the larger society. But perhaps what we really lack is a full appreciation of the role models already in our midst - men such as Roméo Dallaire, a senator and a retired lieutenant-general.

Like many Canadians, I've followed Mr. Dallaire's career with interest and admiration. But I was reminded again of his potential as a positive role model after hearing from my 18-year-old son about an event he recently attended at Dalhousie University, where Mr. Dallaire launched his latest initiative: Zero Force, an effort to recruit a grassroots advocacy army, made up primarily of people 25 and under, to work toward eradicating the use of child soldiers.

According to Mr. Dallaire, there are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in various war zones. These children are typically abducted from their families and subjected to forcible confinement, torture, rape and brainwashing. About 40 per cent of them are girls, who are often forced to be sex slaves as well, bearing the next generation of unlucky recruits even as they engage in combat.

Mr. Dallaire is using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as talks at universities and high schools, to tell young people how their peers are being used and abused as weapons of war. He has also written a new book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children.

His goal is to mobilize 2.5 million young activists (10 times the number of child soldiers) to take on the cause. My son was sufficiently impressed by his presentation in Halifax to plunk down a $10 membership fee and become one of them.

Mr. Dallaire, of course, knows first-hand about the horrors of war and the disturbing role children increasingly play in global conflicts. As commander of the United Nations forces in Rwanda, he witnessed the slaughter of more than 800,000 Rwandan civilians by their fellow countrymen in the space of 100 days in 1994. He tried in vain to focus the world's attention on the unfolding genocide. While the UN rejected his pleas for more troops, Mr. Dallaire and his small contingent saved thousands of lives. But that was scant comfort as they helplessly watched the murder, rape and mutilation of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans.

Mr. Dallaire returned to Canada bearing the latent symptoms of a psychological injury, later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1999, he experienced a mental collapse and left the Canadian Forces the following year. With therapy and medication, he got better. In 2005, he was appointed to the Senate.

In addition to his campaign against child soldiers, Mr. Dallaire has become an outspoken advocate on the need for the military to deal compassionately with personnel who struggle with PTSD - and the need for all of us to do more to combat the stigma still associated with mental illness.

A couple of years ago, I covered a speech Mr. Dallaire gave to an Alberta mental health research conference. One of his central points was that psychological injuries among combat soldiers are on the increase - in part, because of some of the impossible choices they are forced to make in the morally ambiguous world of modern warfare and peacekeeping.

He gave a chilling example from his Rwandan experience, one that also reflected the role of child soldiers. A UN patrol was trying to protect about 100 civilians huddled in a chapel when about 30 youths opened fire. Then, from the other side of the village, about 20 girls, some visibly pregnant and others as young as 9, served as a human shield behind which other child soldiers shot at the patrol and the civilians.

The patrol had little choice but to return fire - and Mr. Dallaire went on to describe how that decision affected one soldier. Despite receiving medication and therapy, he said, "there are days when the young man all of a sudden hears the sergeant giving the order to fire, he feels his finger going to the trigger and he sees - digitally clear and in slow motion - the cartridge flying out and, through the gunsight, sees the head of a child exploding. How many times can a father of two or three kids shoot other kids before he himself becomes a casualty?"

After his talk, I spoke at length with him. I was struck by his eloquence and determination to help others even as he still struggled with his own psychological injury. I asked him whether giving talks such as this helped heal that injury.

"No, I never saw this as therapeutic," he replied. "Because every time I do it, I feel like I'm going back to hell. All we're able to do is build this mental prosthesis, which allows us to cope. But I never feel I am free of this - as if my arm has grown back."

If we're searching for role models for our young men to emulate, I couldn't think of a better example than Roméo Dallaire. He exhibits mental discipline and toughness - you don't get to be a lieutenant-general by being a wimp -tempered with compassion and a sense of social justice. May the Zero Force be with him.

Brian Bergman is a Calgary-based writer and editor.

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