Denise Stark took a deep breath after a moment of silence inside a stately downtown Hamilton church. It’s the same church in which she and her family said goodbye to her young son nearly five years ago.
At the age of 22, Corporal Justin Stark was already a veteran of the Afghanistan war. More than six feet tall and built like an Olympic swimmer, Cpl. Stark had wanted to make the military his career. But 10 months after returning from the explosives-laden battlefront, he took his own life inside the Hamilton armoury while his fellow soldiers slept ahead of a training exercise.
Cpl. Stark’s parents always believed their son’s suicide was connected to his traumatic experiences in Afghanistan, but a military board of inquiry disagreed, seemingly closing the door on officially recognizing his sacrifice and their loss.
The inquiry’s conclusion infuriated many military advocates, and a groundswell of family supporters emerged. Local bikers, soldiers who had served with Cpl. Stark, mothers and fathers who had lost sons in Afghanistan and military members struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder all signed a petition calling on then-prime minister Stephen Harper and his ministers to grant the Stark family the Memorial Cross.
It took time, and a change in government, but on a rain-soaked Saturday, the Stark family finally received the honour. Before hundreds gathered in Central Presbyterian Church, Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell presented three members of Cpl. Stark’s family – his mother, his father, Wayne, and sister, Jennifer – with the medals, commonly known as the Silver Cross. Five other family members, including his brother, received Memorial Ribbons.
The Stark family did not speak to the media after the presentation. In a statement, Ms. Stark thanked her son’s regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, and the family’s advocates across the country. She said their support has “helped us on our healing journey to bring about some peace and degree of closure.”
She hoped her son was resting in peace, “as your sacrifice to Canada will never be forgotten.”
Cpl. Stark, who died on Oct. 29, 2011, is one of at least 62 military members and veterans who have killed themselves after deploying on the Afghanistan mission, a continuing Globe and Mail investigation has found. Some of their families have received the Memorial Cross. But many have not, even though they believe their loved one’s suicide was connected to the Afghanistan mission. The Globe and Mail will tell their stories this fall.
The Memorial Cross was created in 1919 to commemorate Canadian soldiers killed in the First World War. In 2007, during the Afghanistan operation, rules governing who is eligible for the medal were revised to include all service-related deaths, not just overseas mission casualties. The change opened one of the military’s most recognized honours to those who died in training mishaps and by suicide linked to service.
A military board of inquiry into Cpl. Stark’s suicide found that “no definite link could be established between” his death and his Afghanistan tour, according to a heavily censored copy of the inquiry report obtained through Access to Information legislation. His parents, though, saw profound changes in their son after he returned from Afghanistan in December, 2010. He became withdrawn, easily agitated and had trouble sleeping at night. He wouldn’t share much about his deployment and did not seek medical help.
Because he was a reservist, Cpl. Stark was not in regular contact with the regular-force members he served with in Afghanistan. That isolation took a toll on their son, the Starks told The Globe in an interview in August. They believe he was also frustrated by a lack of full-time opportunities in the Canadian Forces, which had started to wind down combat operations in Afghanistan.
A spokesman with Veterans Affairs, which is involved in commemorating military members, said he could not comment on why the Stark family received Memorial Crosses because of privacy reasons. However, he noted that Veterans Affairs will offer an “opinion” on a military member’s death when asked by the Canadian Forces.
“To arrive at our opinion, we look at relevant information, which may include results from board of inquiry, service-health records and applicable legislative tests,” Zoltan Csepregi said in an e-mail.
Cpl. Stark has also been posthumously awarded the Sacrifice Medal, created in 2008, and his name has been added to the Seventh Book of Remembrance, kept in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.
After the medal presentation on Saturday, biker Keven Ellis reflected on the family’s long fight. Mr. Ellis is president of the North Wall Riders Association-Steel City, a military-support group that led the petition drive. He hopes the recognition of Cpl. Stark will encourage other families to push for commemoration.
“This young man took his own life but through service to our country, and it’s our responsibility to remember them and stand up for them,” Mr. Ellis said.Report Typo/Error