Warrant Officer Michael McNeil completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan after serving with the Canadian Forces in other places such as Bosnia. But the 39-year-old veteran of dangerous overseas missions died by his own hand on a military base here in Canada.
Warrant Officer McNeil was one of three members of the Canadian Forces to die by suicide in the past week. All spent time in Afghanistan.
The trio of deaths could simply be tragic coincidence. But soldiers’ advocates, health researchers, and the families of the victims say many of the military men and women returning from that war are grappling with serious psychological disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and some say Canada is not doing enough to help them.
Certainly, the family of Warrant Officer McNeil, who spent 19 years in the army, feels that way. His body was found Wednesday at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, north of Ottawa.
“Basically, he didn’t get the help he needed or he would still be here. So something’s gone through the floorboards somewhere. Somebody is not looking after the guys at home,” his uncle, Frank McNeil, said in a telephone interview on Friday.
“Michael did commit suicide. He hung himself. But the thing is, where did that come from? From being overseas, from seeing what he’d seen,” Mr. McNeil said. “He’s not going to be recognized because he committed suicide but, as far as I am concerned, he’s a hero. He’s done his thing.”
The death of Warrant Officer McNeil followed those on Monday of Master Corporal William Elliott of the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry near Shilo, Man., and Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast of the 20th Independent Field Battery in Lethbridge, Alta.
Colonel Rakesh Jetly, a senior psychiatrist and mental health adviser to the Canadian Forces Surgeon-General, told reporters on Friday that the military is committed to ensuring its members receive the highest standard of care available – and that the suicide rate for soldiers is lower than that of people of comparable age in the general population.
But Col. Jetly also said the military recognizes a “significant minority” of its personnel will be psychologically affected by combat operations. Mental issues resulting from the Afghan conflict have steadily increased, he said, and that “number isn’t going to stop just because the combat has stopped, for years to come.”
A study this summer found that 13.5 per cent of soldiers who served in Afghanistan have mental issues related to their deployment, and those who were in Kandahar, where the Canadian Forces were based for five years, were six times more likely to suffer a mental disorder than those deployed to the United Arab Emirates or the Arabian Gulf.
Jamie Robertson, a spokesman for the Canadian Forces Ombudsman who spent 20 years in the Canadian Forces, said his office has consistently flagged the problems associated with PTSD in the military.
The military has improved how it deals with the issue since 2002, Mr. Robertson said.
But the Department of National Defence is not meeting its own targets for hiring mental-health workers, he said, a problem he attributed to bureaucratic impediments rather than a lack of funds or a dearth of trained personnel.
In addition, Mr. Robertson said, soldiers, sailors and airmen who are battling mental demons are often hesitant to get help because of the stigma and the self-stigma.
“In a warrior culture, to step forward to say you have a problem that’s an injury of the mind is a problem for soldiers.”