© Times-Herald photo by Nathan Liewicki
Steve Hartwig, left, and Jason McKenzie march along Thatcher Drive East, near the Trans-Canada Highway on Tuesday. The former Canadian soldiers are marching across the country to raise awareness for Post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hartwig aims to end stigma around illness
When Steve Hartwig, 44, smells gasoline, he has flashbacks to an incident that occurred in the former Republic of Yugoslavia.
“For 20 years I would smell gasoline and sometimes I would think of Scott,” the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) veteran told the Times-Herald during a stop in Moose Jaw on Tuesday.
While his regiment was on the battlefield, Hartwig put out a fire. However, it was not an object that was on fire, but a person.
Thanks to Hartwig’s quick actions, Scott McFarlane’s life was saved.
Years later, and still traumatized by the incident, Hartwig, who now lives in Vancouver, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He recalled electing to refer to McFarlane by other names because it was too difficult to come to terms with the realization of what he saw and what happened in 1993.
“I didn’t access my emotions – twenty years of a steel box,” said Hartwig. “I put them in there and left them. I was very cold and very straight because I didn’t want emotional feelings.”
It’s only been in the last year that Hartwig’s therapy has helped reacquaint him with his emotions. And only a few weeks ago did he finally see McFarlane for the first time since he was medevaced from the scene in Yugoslavia.
Now Hartwig, McFarlane and Jason McKenzie, another CAF veteran who marched his first 32 kilometre leg on Tuesday, are marching from Victoria to St. John’s to help raise awareness for PTSD, which all three men have been diagnosed with.
Hartwig wanted to do a march lasting five or six months, but settled on a 10-week march because that was the timeframe he had to work with.
“We’re out of the forces because we have PTSD,” said McKenzie, 41. “You can’t stay in the forces with an injury like that.”
Hartwig said he sometimes wishes he could still represent his country, but realizes he is raising awareness for a much more pertinent issue.
“Canadians are reserved in many ways, but I think this topic – right now – needs the spotlight,” said Hartwig. “I'm hearing that everywhere and I never expected to have people stop, get out of their vehicles and shake my hand.”
He added that he becomes emotional when realizing that his PTSD is in some way connected to the PTSD experiences of others.
“Having this type of connection with people makes me so emotional and feel proud that this connection with other Canadians is building,” said Hartwig.
As the Into No Man’s Land PTSD Awareness March Canada continues to gain support, Hartwig hopes his message – that PTSD is not a sickness or a disease, but the result of being exposed to trauma that can be aided by support – will continue to touch more people.
He wants to help end the stigma that is attached to the veil of PTSD – one that affects more than just former combat soldiers, but everyday individuals.
Nathan Liewicki can be reached at 306-691-1256 or follow him on Twitter @liewicks.