The country’s Silver Cross Mother this year will, for the first time, be a parent whose child died by suicide that was ruled connected to military service.
Anita Cenerini was chosen by the Royal Canadian Legion to fill the year-long national role, which dates back to 1936. Her son Thomas Welch was a 22-year-old private with the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment in Petawawa, Ont., when he ended his life on May 8, 2004, only months after coming home from his Afghanistan tour.
Nicknamed L’il Trooper, Private Welch was the first Canadian soldier to return from the Afghanistan war and take his own life, a Globe and Mail investigation uncovered. But it took 13 years for the military and federal government to recognize that his suicide was attributable, in part, to his experiences on deployment and to present his mother with the Silver Cross.
The medal, also known as the Memorial Cross, is bestowed on mothers and other family members who have lost a soldier due to military work. From this group, the Legion selects one mother each year to represent all mothers of fallen soldiers and place a wreath at the National War Memorial on Remembrance Day.
Previous Silver Cross Mothers had lost their children in overseas firefights and bombings, and in training exercises at home.
But never to suicide.
It was time to change that, said Brad White, the Legion’s national executive director. He hopes the selection of Ms. Cenerini and Pte. Welch helps reduce the stigma of suicide and shows soldiers, veterans and their families that “they are not outcasts of the military.”
“There are still a lot of people who are suffering from mental illness – invisible injuries – and we thought it was time that we recognize those individuals,” Mr. White said.
Ms. Cenerini, 56, wants those soldiers to know that they matter to Canadians.
“There are a lot of soldiers out there who have fallen in the cracks and we’re not reaching them and they have to matter,” she said over the phone from her Winnipeg home. “I want them to matter, because for 13 years Thomas’s death didn’t matter. Thomas’s death didn’t matter to anyone except our family.”
Ms. Cenerini had long felt like an outcast, forgotten by the Canadian Armed Forces, she said. The military investigated her son’s suicide, but kept its findings from the family until The Globe began pressing for answers.
The investigation report, provided to the family last year, showed that a full military inquiry was never ordered and family members were not interviewed. Had military investigators spoken with Pte. Welch’s family, they would have learned that the young rifleman’s mental health had deteriorated dramatically after he was deployed to Afghanistan in August, 2003. His mother says she believes he was grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pte. Welch’s suicide is among a tragic count that continues to rise. In 2015, a Globe investigation revealed that 54 military members and veterans who worked on the Afghanistan mission had killed themselves in the months and years after their return home.
That toll now stands at more than 80, according to new statistics provided by the Forces and an analysis conducted by The Globe. Another 154 soldiers died during the mission, which was Canada’s longest military operation. Six of the 154 took their own lives.
Last year, the Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada unveiled a joint suicide-prevention strategy, committing to overhaul how mental-health risk is handled during deployments and how seriously ill members and their families are supported at home.
Several new initiatives have resulted from the strategy, including a clinician handbook on suicide prevention that was developed with the Canadian Psychiatric Association and released in October. The guide provides military health workers with a standard approach for identifying, screening and managing patients at risk for suicide. The Forces have also improved mental-health support services for families, a military spokesman said.
In less than two weeks, on the day before a national Remembrance ceremony in Ottawa, Ms. Cenerini will be taken on a tour of Parliament and brought to the Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower to see her son’s name inscribed in the Books of Remembrance, created to commemorate soldiers who made the “ultimate sacrifice.” There are seven books in all, recognizing casualties of the First and Second World Wars as well as soldiers who perished in more recent missions, such as to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan.
At the Remembrance ceremony on Nov. 11, after Ms. Cenerini lays a wreath at the foot of the National War Memorial, she will stand next to Governor-General Julie Payette and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as troops march by. Later, the Governor-General and the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, will hold a lunch in her honour, Mr. White of the Legion said.
She is no longer forgotten.
Ms. Cenerini hopes her appointment as this year’s Silver Cross Mother sends the message that deaths by suicide should not be “shrouded in shame and hidden from the public eye,” and grieving families should not be cast into isolation.
“The emotional, psychological and spiritual injuries our soldiers endure in service to their country may be injuries we have difficulty understanding or accepting,” she said, “but we can no longer allow fear and ignorance to deny these soldiers the honour they deserve in their deaths, and the dignity and respect for the families left to mourn.”