Cross-country walk raising awareness of PTSD

Three soldiers who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the former Yugoslavia crossing the country

Ryan Ross
Published on September 4, 2014

Scott McFarlane, left, Jason McKenzie, centre, and Steve Hartwig take a break on the side of the highway in Cornwall Wednesday during their cross-country march to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder.

©Guardian photo by Heather Taweel

When an armoured personnel carrier Steve Hartwig was in hit a string of anti-tank mines in the former Yugoslavia, it left him with serious physical injuries that forced him out of the military.

His post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wasn’t as noticeable, although he said it only took him a few days after he got home to realize something was wrong.

“Within the first day or so, I just totally felt alienated,” he said.

Former soldiers Scott McFarlane and Jason McKenzie joined Hartwig in P.E.I. this week as part of a cross-country march to raise awareness of PTSD.

Hartwig started the march in Victoria, B.C., in June with the other two joining him along the way to walk 32 kilometres each day. They expect to finish Sept. 14 in St. John’s, N.L.

Each of the men suffers from PTSD after spending time in the former Yugoslavia during a peacekeeping mission in the 1990s. It has been more than 20 years since they were diagnosed with PTSD from that mission.

Hartwig said one of the reasons for the march was to create an open dialogue so people become more accepting of people with PTSD and to show they can be successful in their lives.

“It’s not just a suicide or an angry rampage.”

As the men marched along the side of the Trans-Canada Highway wearing backpacks Wednesday morning, Hartwig carried a Canadian flag hanging from a pole strapped to his pack. A white cross slung across his back had the words “into no man’s land PTSD awareness march Canada” printed on it as drivers honked in support along the busy road.

Thinking back to his struggles with PTSD, Hartwig said it took him four or five years to think about getting help.

“Seeing it in my children’s faces, in particular, that really prompted me to get effective care and a longer-term plan.”

For McKenzie, he said he has had moments where he had to reach out for help and found himself spiraling down what he called the “PTSD hole — It’s a battle that never goes away.”

McKenzie said part of the reason they were wearing heavy packs on the long walks was because it wore them down, which was something people could see.

“We’re all suffering from PTSD but a person doesn’t ask you about your PTSD because it’s not a visible injury,” he said.

Walking 32 kilometres a day isn’t an easy feat with the three men suffering through blisters, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis and other physical issues.

The toll it took on the former soldiers was evident on McFarlane who grimaced as he rubbed his knee on the side of the highway in Cornwall.

The pain in his knee started a few days before the trio hit P.E.I. and while he didn’t know what was causing it, McFarlane said he was dealing with it.

“The reason is bigger than my personal suffering and my story.”