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Sam Sharpe, who fought on the Western Front during the First World War, described the horrors he witnessed and the toll it was taking on his mental health in letters home. He was later diagnosed with “general debility,” before being placed on convalescence leave and dying by suicide. (Library of Congress)
Sam Sharpe, who fought on the Western Front during the First World War, described the horrors he witnessed and the toll it was taking on his mental health in letters home. He was later diagnosed with “general debility,” before being placed on convalescence leave and dying by suicide. (Library of Congress)

The Unremembered

When combat is over, the war continues inside Add to ...

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.

On May 25, 1918, Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Sharpe, a sitting member of Parliament who had commanded the 116th Battalion for 11 months on the blood-soaked Western Front, jumped to his death from a window of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal.

In letters home during the Great War, he spoke, with growing despair, of the horrors he witnessed and the toll it was taking on his mental health.

“I would soon become absolutely incapable of ‘Carrying on,’” Lt.-Col. Sharpe wrote to the widow of one of the soldiers under his command in October, 1917.

Soon after, he suffered a “nervous breakdown” and was diagnosed with “general debility,” before being placed on convalescence leave and dying by suicide.

That tragic tale, related in the Canadian Military Journal, is a sombre reminder that, as long as there has been war, there have been suicides of soldiers and veterans.

In fact, after the Great War, media reports of soldier suicides were commonplace.

Related: The eager doomed: The story of Canada’s original WWI recruits

Related: Where to get mental-health help in Canada

Many of these stories were sympathetic, but tiptoed around the issue of suicide because of the stigma; the deaths were invariably blamed on “shell-shock,” and highlighted the struggles that men faced after returning from the war, many of them with physical and mental injuries, in dire financial straits and unable to access help.

What has changed in the century since the War to End All Wars?

Not much, it seems.

In recent days, The Globe and Mail has resumed its grim catalogue of the suicide deaths of veterans of the Afghanistan deployment – of which there are at least 70.

Those stories are difficult to read; and, on Remembrance Day, when we should reflect on the lessons of history, they are a necessary read.

The language we use now – post-traumatic stress disorder instead of shell shock, and depression instead of malingering – is more precise.

Perhaps the stigma is a little less than decades ago, but there are still whispered suggestions that PTSD afflicts the weak, and reluctance among tough guys (and gals) to seek help.

Yet, the day-to-day challenges of returning soldiers remain the same, and are sometimes greater, especially trying to reintegrate into civilian life, struggling to process the trauma, and often feeling abandoned in a world that does not appreciate soldiers’ sacrifices. And help is still frustratingly difficult to come by.

As barbaric as the First World War was – it was fought in trenches, with volleys of gunfire, shelling and poison gases – today’s soldiers do not have it easy in the (relatively) sanitized theatres of war.

During the First World War, soldiers spent an average of 10 days a month in combat. It was not much different in the Second World War, where soldiers spent an average 40 days in combat during their deployment – though, to be fair, some fought for hundreds of days.

With the advent of more efficient transport, soldiers had less down time – in Vietnam, the average time in combat soared to 310 days annually. Today, wars are fought guerrilla style, the enemy has no visible uniform and uses surreptitious weapons such as roadside bombs so soldiers are on high alert non-stop, and the missions are open-ended.

That, more than anything, takes a toll on the psyche.

Consider, for example, that the Afghanistan mission lasted from 2001 to 2014, and personnel were rotated in and out in seemingly endless tours of duty.

In a sense, the war never ends.

In the words of former soldier Russ Lee, who continues to struggle with PTSD: “When the combat mission is over, the war is fought inside of us.”

What has not changed much, however, is the attitude of the military. For past wars, we simply have no data on soldier suicide; the combatants who died far from the battlefield were often left off the memorials.

Today, there are some efforts to document, study and learn from the suicides of soldiers and veterans, much of it driven by the media and families bravely coming forward to tell their stories of injustice, with pensions, rehabilitation and perception.

But there is still this lingering notion that deaths away from the field of combat are somehow less worthy of mourning and commemoration, a hurtful double standard.

If we send young women and men to war, we owe them as much respect when they return to civilian life as when they are in uniform – and doubly so if they are wounded.

We should be unwilling – or better yet incapable – of carrying on as we are now.

If you would like your relative included in the commemoration project of Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide, please e-mail remember@globeandmail.com

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