Sharing war experiences helps soldier

Daniel Lafontaine's accounts of life in war-torn Bosnia send chills down the spines of his listeners.

His first-hand account of life as a hostage reminds his audience of the perils that soldiers must face in a combat zone, while his descriptions of city streets piled high with corpses paint a devastating mental picture of what havoc a battle can cause.

Lafontaine has spent the past nine months sharing stories of wartime horror with students near his home town of Quebec City.

His words may help future generations remember the devastating effects of war, but they also help him to forget.

Lafontaine, 47, has found that sharing his experiences has been a crucial part of his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You always keep it in silence inside of you. Now I'm able to liberate all the bad things that I had in the back of my mind," the retired sergeant said in a telephone interview. "I can't control it, but I can accept the problems I have now."

Confronting those emotions was a long and nearly deadly process for Lafontaine, who said he showed no symptoms until years after he left the army in 2003.

When he began experiencing irritability, aggression and anger, he never attributed his shifting moods to the traumas he witnessed during his two tours of duty in Bosnia.

Only after a suicide attempt in 2009 did Lafontaine begin receiving help for PTSD and other anxiety disorders. He soon found sharing memories with his psychiatric team was not enough, he said, adding he felt it was important to ensure others learned of the sacrifices made by soldiers every day.

The fact that Lafontaine finds his public speeches healing comes as no surprise to Katy Kamkar of the psychological trauma unit of Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Sharing stories with a sympathetic, captive audience is an extension of the sort of treatments PTSD sufferers undergo in individual therapy, she said.

Victims often start treatment by avoiding potentially difficult subjects, only to find their reserve crumbles as psychologists urge them to discuss their trauma in detail.

Veterans who voluntarily take that step in front of a group of strangers, Kamkar said, have successfully navigated a crucial turning point.

"We always encourage conversation to reduce avoidance," she said. "The fact that yes, they have gone one step forward and are talking about it, definitely is very beneficial."

Remembrance lectures have the added benefit of great personal significance to former soldiers, she said, adding PTSD patients who involve themselves in a meaningful cause also improve their odds of recovery.

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