The military’s top commander is applauding the Royal Canadian Legion’s decision to appoint, for the first time, a parent who lost her child to suicide as the country’s Silver Cross Mother.
The Legion announced on Thursday that it had selected Anita Cenerini to fill the year-long national role, which was created in 1936. Her son, Private Thomas Welch, was a 22-year-old rifleman with the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment in Petawawa, Ont. He departed for his Afghanistan tour in August, 2003, and ended his life on May 8, 2004, only months after returning home.
His mother suspected that he was suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, but he never received treatment. The Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs reviewed his case after a Globe and Mail investigation and reclassified his death last year, concluding Pte. Welch’s suicide was attributable to his Afghanistan deployment.
The Silver Cross medal, also known as the Memorial Cross, is presented to mothers and other family members who have lost a solider due to military work. From this group, the Legion chooses one mother each year to represent all mothers of fallen soldiers On Remembrance Day in Ottawa, she will place a wreath at the National War Memorial. This year, the Legion decided it was time to recognize service-related suicides.
“I applaud the Royal Canadian Legion’s decision to name Anita Cenerini as this year’s Silver Cross Mother,” General Jonathan Vance said in a statement to The Globe. “This is an important recognition that demonstrates how the ultimate sacrifice is not always attributable to physical wounds, but invisible ones as well.”
Gen. Vance encouraged those who are struggling with mental illness to reach out for help. Last year, the Forces and Veterans Affairs released a joint suicide-prevention strategy that aims to improve training and mental-health services.
Pte. Welch was the first Canadian solider to die by suicide after returning from the Afghanistan war, The Globe investigation found. He is among more than 80 Canadian soldiers and veterans who worked on the Afghanistan mission and killed themselves in the months and years after their return home. Many were grappling with PTSD, depression and chronic pain.
In the fall of 2016, The Globe told the stories of 31 of these fallen soldiers. At the time, only eight of their families had been awarded the Silver Cross medal, even though suicide that is ruled connected to military work is supposed to be treated no differently than a death on deployment or in domestic operations.
The Forces ordered a review as a result of The Globe’s findings. Military spokesman Derek Abma said 17 families have now received the Silver Cross medals and nine more will receive the honours by Nov. 11. The other suicides remain under review.
Former veterans affairs minister Erin O’Toole has led a years-long effort to commemorate Sam Sharpe, an MP who fought in the First World War and died by suicide just days after arriving back in Canada in May of 1918. The Lieutenant-Colonel had been hospitalized for what was then called “nervous shock.”
Lt.-Col. Sharpe’s military service went largely unremembered while another fallen MP was honoured. In 1924, Parliament unveiled a statue of Lt.-Col. George Baker, who died as a result of the same war as Lt.-Col. Sharpe, although Lt.-Col. Baker’s death was on the battlefield.
The statue of Lt.-Col. Baker stands in the foyer of the House of Commons. This week, a plaque is expected to be unveiled in Parliament’s Centre Block to commemorate Lt.-Col. Sharpe. Inscribed on the plaque: “Not all wounds are visible.”
Eighty-six years separate the suicides of Lt.-Col. Sharpe and Pte. Welch. This Remembrance Day, they will both be remembered.
“We have to be responsible about how we talk about suicide, but we also have to make sure that people know that there are physical and mental injuries from service,” said Mr. O’Toole, a Conservative MP who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. “You have to have the conversations and you have to recognize that there will be some people who are not able to get assistance for their mental injuries, the mental scars of war.”