Anne Marie Sorbie was shocked when her strapping 46-year-old soldier husband, a veteran of multiple overseas deployments, collapsed and died of a heart attack during a fund-raising run on his military base in 2006.
She was also shocked at the delays and roadblocks she has encountered in trying to wrest a report about his death from the Canadian Armed Forces' bureaucracy. The last she heard, it was sitting on a desk somewhere in Ottawa.
Ms. Sorbie's frustrations were highlighted along with six similar cases by Pierre Daigle, the Canadian Forces Ombudsman, in an open letter he wrote on Thursday to Defence Minister Peter MacKay to complain about the government's treatment of military families who have lost a relative during service.
The families are not getting timely information about the death of their loved ones and are not permitted to take an active role in any inquiry that follows a death or serious injury, said Mr. Daigle. Nor does the Canadian Forces have a national policy for support to families of its deceased members.
"Instead of being cared for respectfully and compassionately, some military families are being forced to fight for their loved ones - loved ones who died for their country," said Mr. Daigle.
Although he has repeatedly outlined these problems in letters to Mr. MacKay, the Ombudsman said the minister has provided only "disappointing" and insignificant bureaucratic responses expounding on what the government has done for bereaved families of Canadian soldiers.
None of soldiers mentioned in his letter died during combat in Afghanistan, although some of the deaths may have been related to post-traumatic stress after deployment.
But "whether that person died in combat in Afghanistan or died later on because of psychological injury after having serving in Afghanistan or died in service in Canada, the common denominator here is that a member of a family, who was in uniform, who was serving his or her country, died while serving the county," he said. "The family of that member of the forces should receive all the help, care, support and information from the institution that the member of their family served."
Mr. MacKay said on Thursday he has asked his department to address the Ombudsman's concerns.
"This is not just another report," he said of Mr. Daigle's letter. "This is the expression of the Ombudsman on behalf of the families that they continue to want to see resolution of these issues, which obviously we do as well. Obviously, the Canadian Forces have tremendous compassion for their pain."
Mr. MacKay has designated Colonel Gerry Blais as a single point of contact for the six families indicated by the Ombudsman.
Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, Vice Chief of Defence Staff, said the military takes full responsibility for the treatment that it gives families.
If the Forces have failed in that regard, Vice-Adm. Donaldson said, "I apologize. And we will engage where we can to get better at this. It's been a tough few years for the Canadian Forces and we've had a series of tragic events that are well beyond what we're used to responding to, but we're learning as we go along."
Ms. Sorbie just wants the report on the death of her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Joel Sorbie.
"They're waiting for signatures," Ms. Sorbie said in a telephone call from her home near Belleville, Ont., on Thursday. "So sign it. It's been four years."
The delays sometimes make her wonder if the military is trying to hide something.
"They did everything in their power to save him. It's not a question of me thinking that they held back anything. It has nothing to do with that. It's just, get these reports out to the families," she said. "I just want to be able to go over it and go, 'oh, okay, that's what happened.'"
Here are some of the problems faced by bereaved military families that the Canadian Forces Ombudsman says have been raised repeatedly with the Minister of National Defence:
- Sheila Fynes has been waiting for two-and-a-half years to get responses to her concerns about the death of her son, Corporal Stuart Langridge, who committed suicide in March 2008, after returning from Afghanistan. A report was completed in May 2009, but the family has not been able to obtain a copy.
- The family of Master Corporal Mark Allen, who died of a heart attack while on sick leave in August 2008, is still waiting for a copy of the summary investigation report that was submitted to the Air Force in June 2009.
- The family of Corporal Stephen Gibson, who was killed in a traffic accident while on military duty in September 2003, was not provided with a report until June 2008. The family has been unable to obtain the annexes of evidence to which the report referred, despite repeated requests.
- Rob Grozelle, whose son Cadet Joe Grozelle was killed the fall of 2003 while attending the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., was provided with a copy of the Board of Inquiry report into his son's death only after repeated interventions of the military Ombudsman. Mr. Grozelle has been unable to get further updates on the investigation.
- Bombardier Jérémie Ouellet died in Afghanistan in March 2008, while waiting to be returned to Canada after an ankle injury. A Board of Inquiry set to start in October 2010 was halted at the last minute because the board president had a conflict of interest. When a new president was assigned, the Ombudsman's office asked if that person was bilingual - the Ouellet family speaks only French. That caused the inquiry to be rescheduled a second time.