This article is part of The Unremembered, a Globe and Mail investigation into soldiers and veterans who died by suicide after deployment during the Afghanistan mission.
An information vacuum, bureaucratic intransigence and a lack of leadership are stalling action to combat a growing suicide problem, several former soldiers serving as mental health advisers to the Veterans Affairs Minister say.
After one year, the Trudeau government is using consultation as an excuse to delay reforming care for veterans, according to the retired soldiers, who were asked to advise Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr on how to improve care for such mental illnesses as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We want this committee to be used as originally intended, and that’s not crystal clear right now,” said Brian McKenna, a Vancouver-based veteran on the board. “It needs to be shown to us this committee is going to have some bite and it’s not just going to provide top-cover to this government to do nothing and be able to say, ‘Look, we consulted the veterans.’”
Research conducted by The Globe and Mail shows at least 70 soldiers who served in Afghanistan took their own lives after returning to Canada, including 14 who had left the Canadian Forces and would have been under the jurisdiction of Veterans Affairs. Not every veteran seeks help from the department, and a new system to track suicide will only report for the first time at the end of 2017.
Members of the committee say they have recommended that the government make it easier for veterans to access benefits and improve the process of transitioning to civilian life.
Some former and current soldiers on the group say a public inquiry into the suicides of soldiers and veterans may be needed. Advocates have been trying to get data on military suicides from the government for two years. Three of the advisers say an inquiry would bring out this information and may help spur action, but two others argue it would just cause delay or be seen as an excuse to stall.
Brian Harding, an Afghanistan veteran who does suicide-prevention work with former military members, said an inquiry could identify patterns and gaps in the system. “Each suicide is someone who did not receive the care they needed,” Mr. Harding said. “We need hard data in order to determine the exact scope of the problem.”
Mr. McKenna said an inquiry is not needed yet. “It’s a good way for lawyers to make money and gives the government the path to do nothing while the inquiry goes on.”
Most of the veterans on the board agreed they are being stonewalled in getting information from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Three of them say Mr. Hehr needs to take control from his senior bureaucrats.
Mr. Hehr responded in a statement stressing the work his department has done to improve early intervention and to ease transition out of the military for veterans with operational stress injuries.
“We have taken concrete steps but we must continue to do better,” he said. The advisory group and others “will augment my direction from the Prime Minister and I look forward to our continued constructive collaboration.
“I am proud of the work we have done over the past months but much more needs to be done. We are working hard to do better and value the input of advisory groups, veterans and Canadians.”
The statement did not mention suicide.
Afghanistan war veteran Aaron Bedard said he and other vets have been pushing Veterans Affairs for suicide data and analysis since a committee meeting in July, 2015, with then-minister Erin O’Toole. But they have yet to receive any detailed information from the federal government or the Canadian Forces.
“You [The Globe] did more for us than they have done in two years,” Mr. Bedard said.
A combat engineer, Mr. Bedard was diagnosed with PTSD and has struggled with suicidal thoughts. He does not think the Forces and Veterans Affairs take the suicide issue seriously enough. He said the mounting toll and The Globe’s stories of 31 Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide should spur immediate action.
“The stories should be lighting a fire under the bureaucracy and especially the elected officials that this needs to become a priority. You can’t allow the [Veterans] ministry and the Department of National Defence to keep kicking this can down the road. We need to start saving lives now,” Mr. Bedard said.
“As your research has reflected, there are some real flaws in the current system.”
Mr. McKenna called for an overhaul of the Veterans Affairs department, which is based in Prince Edward Island and, he said, is insulated from the scrutiny and the personnel turnover that keep other senior federal bureaucrats motivated and responsive. “It’s hard to imagine the people who designed this problem are going to be the ones to design the solution,” he said. “There needs to be a cull at the top.”
Glynne Hines, a retired major-general, was more optimistic, saying he believes the government is poised to act on suicide prevention this winter. “The next three or four months will tell,” he said. “Attention is being given to this by both (National Defence and Veterans Affairs) departments.”
He said Veterans Affairs overall “could do a better job trimming red tape” in all aspects of how it delivers services.
Retired general and psychiatrist Ruth Lanius said improved systems are needed to assist with the transition out of the military. Among the 31 cases The Globe examined in-depth, five were out of the military, three were scheduled for release and several knew their military careers were near an end.
“It’s personalized care, helping people to transition into civilian life, help for family members, taking a holistic approach is very important I think,” said Dr. Lanius, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Western Ontario.
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