By Kira Yager
The Hudson St. Lazare Gazette
Carlos Steiner doesn’t fit the image most of us have of war vets. Diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following his return from the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, Steiner is on a relentless personal crusade, pressuring Veteran’s Affairs Canada (VAC) to ensure adequate treatment of PTSD and other post-combat conditions on behalf of a new generation of veterans.
On a more personal level, he’s seeking closure to the cascade of events he says led to his high-profile arrest, trial and imprisonment a decade ago.
So two weeks ago, Steiner went back to the place where it all began — Srebrenica, Bosnia, the scene of one of this bloody conflict’s most horrific genocides shortly after he and his Royal 22nd Regiment battalion were pulled out in 1993. His visit made local headlines as he reconnected with civilians he’d befriended during his mission there.
The West Island resident still recalls the self-loathing he felt following the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.
“Canada left Srebrenica in ‘94,” Steiner recalls. “I left in November of ‘93. The UN decided, for some reason, that Canada didn’t have to be there any more. Then all hell broke loose — then the Serbs just went in and murdered everyone.”
The Serbians, led by a cadre of officers still on trial for war crimes 16 years after the fact, murdered 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in July, 1995. The phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ can’t begin to convey the images of women and girls raped, old men and little boys shot and tossed into mass graves.
“It killed me,” Steiner says. “It broke my heart. I suffered so much. The flashbacks, the hating myself, for years, because I abandoned those people.”
Steiner was fresh out of high school when he joined the Canadian Army. In 1993 he was a Master Corporal with the 2nd battalion Royal 22nd Regiment and was sent to Bosnia on a peacekeeping mission as part of the United Nations peacekeeping initiative agreed to by the Canadian government during the Bosnian war (1992-1995). In Bosnia, he was stationed at Observation Post Charlie in Srebrenica.
“We were right up where the Serbs were closest to the civilian houses,” he remembers. “Our job was to protect the people who lived in these houses. We could see them [Serbs] in their trenches, they were that close. If they fired in the area we were protecting, we fired back.”
When Steiner returned to Canada in 1996, friends and family noticed something was different, that he wasn’t the same person. “Going to Bosnia wasn’t for me,” he says. “It put this sadness inside of me.”
For years, he lived in a strange state of mind, never quite able to put his finger on what was wrong, and just going through the motions of life. He drank and got high to block out the memories of being shot at in Bosnia, and of the people he was assigned to protect. “Severe PTSD, it’s like you basically die on the inside.”
Steiner lived with PTSD for 14 years before he was finally diagnosed in 2007. His wakeup call came in the early morning of April 21, 2000, when he struck and killed two young women who were walking along Cartier in Pointe Claire. After a long trial and a pillorying by a hostile media, Steiner was charged with leaving the scene of an accident whereby death or injury had occurred. He served four months in prison and had his driver’s license revoked for 10 years.
Media accounts said he fled the scene because he knew he would fail a breathalyzer test, but Steiner insists he wasn’t drunk when he struck and killed Amber Doughty and Dahlia Sinclair. He says his reflex to flee was due in part to his shell-shocked state and wonders whether the outcome might have been different if he had been diagnosed earlier with PTSD.
“The accident permitted me to seek out psychological and emotional help and it eventually became clear that I had been suffering from PTSD.”
And because he feels he was not properly diagnosed in time, nor is he currently being adequately treated for his condition following his service with the Canadian Armed Forces, Steiner has filed a complaint with Veteran’s Affairs.
He wonders why, during those 14 years, Veterans Affairs didn’t think to check up on him. “I suffered from 1993 to 2007 untreated. The troubles started in 1995, when I learned of what happened in Srebrenica.”
Steiner isn’t the only veteran who feels neglected and abandoned by Veterans Affairs. Last Saturday, thousands of Canadian veterans gathered on Parliament Hill and other meeting points across Canada to rally against $226 million in proposed VAC budget clawbacks.
That same day, Pascal Lacoste, who, like Steiner, served in Bosnia in the 1990s, began a hunger strike in front of Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney’s office in order to protest the department’s refusal to grant him treatment for poisoning from the depleted-uranium armour-penetration rounds being used in that theatre.
Steiner says more cutbacks in the aftermath of the 2006 New Veterans Charter will serve only to insult and ostracize the new veterans of Canada’s military missions in Bosnia, Persian Gulf and Afghanistan.
“It’s been chaotic for so many different veterans. To claw back on something that is every veteran’s given right and to turn around and say well, ‘you are a different class of veterans’. No way, every veteran has faced the same dangers, the same risks.”
He says thousands of veterans are suffering in silence, untreated and undiagnosed. “It’s horrible what’s going on,” says Steiner, who is no longer being treated for PTSD at the Veteran’s Hospital in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, where one of Canada’s 10 VAC Operational Stress Injury clinics is located.
“That’s not just bad news for me, but for hundreds of other guys like me who were being seen there,” he says of the Veteran Hospital’s downsizing. “They have forgotten all of us guys from Bosnia. They’re cutting and cutting, and we are the last people who deserve to be cut.”
Because the hospital ownership is being transferred to Quebec, his file has been transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital. He questions whether the staff there are equipped to properly treat veterans.
Much of Steiner’s experience in Bosnia is documented on his Facebook page. Old photographs of Steiner in the early ‘90s show him in army fatigues, standing guard, rifle in hand, on the outskirts of a Bosnian camp where poverty was rampant and life fragile. His own life, and that of other veterans who now live with PTSD and other related illnesses, it turns out, are just as fragile.
And as the world back home is slowly coming to realize, their untreated illnesses can end up affecting us all.