War buddies reunite for cross-Canada PTSD trek

Jim Moodie, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:54 AM ET

SUDBURY, Ont. — For two former soldiers strolling alongside Ontario’s Hwy. 17 on Tuesday, the blast of a tractor-trailer's horn briefly felt like incoming artillery fire.

"Jason (McKenzie) and I squatted, stuck out our hands," Steve Hartwig said. "Then we had a good laugh about it."

That the pair, who both served as peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia in 1992, could chuckle about their spooked reaction speaks to progress they've made in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Twenty-two years after their tour of duty, they still flinch at sharp noises, but they don't live in isolated, darkened rooms, sealing themselves off from any potential trigger.

Instead, the two are currently marching across Canada, along with colleague Scott McFarlane to confront their issues head-on, challenge some of the stigmas associated with PTSD, and engage with people they meet along the way.

Steve Hartwig (pictured) and a couple of his comrades are marching across Canada to raise awareness about PTSD. The men stopped in Sudbury, ON. on Tuesday, July 29, 2014.JOHN LAPPA/QMI AGENCY

The epic trek "is a representation of the physical and emotional exhaustion people with PTSD have," Hartwig said."It's an example in that you're tired every day."

The Surrey, B.C., resident set out from Victoria on June 23. He was accompanied in Kamloops, B.C., by McFarlane, who drove a support vehicle and put in hiking stints of his own while Hartwig took a break.

McKenzie made it a trekking trio when he left his home in Buena Vista, Sask., to lace up his boots in Regina.

Dubbed the Into No Man's Land expedition, the idea is to draw attention to the issues faced by PTSD sufferers and show that the disorder doesn't have to overtake your life.

"When I came back from Yugoslavia, there wasn't much of a support structure," Hartwig said.

"That leads to lot of self-medication and isolation. The deeper it grabs you, the smaller your world becomes."

Hartwig was injured just two weeks into his tour when his personnel carrier struck a string of anti-tank mines.

"I fractured my arm, my knee required surgery, and I suffered hearing loss," he said. "I still get ringing in both ears."

For the next six months he was "working through shootings, seeing mass graves, just the general stress of being in a combative environment."

In an accident at a checkpoint, McFarlane became doused in fuel near a burn barrel and went up in flames.

"It was basically an explosion, and my ammunition was close to cooking off," said McFarlane.

Hartwig jumped to his rescue.

"He removed his flak jacket and smothered me," said McFarlane. "Steve saved my life."

The two were separated after McFarlane was airlifted for medical care, however, and were only reunited this summer because Hartwig began making his plan to march across the country public.

In part, the two hadn't sought one another out previously because each was trying to avoid anything that triggered their memories of combat and made their conditions worse, Hartwig said.

At this point, however, sharing their experiences and supporting one another on such a demanding expedition offers powerful camaraderie and helps them move forward — literally, as well as emotionally.

 


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