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Investigations 'I had to be strong': A father remembers the pain of losing his son, an Afghanistan war veteran who died by suicide

Corporal Brandon Shepherd (right) with sister Alisha and brother Shayler.

Photo courtesy Vincent Shepherd

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.

My son Brandon had an early interest in the military. There were frequent hikes with his dog and a weighted backpack to get in shape. Even before finishing high school, he joined the reserves with the 722 Communication Squadron. He also took part in every military exercise he could attend, and he did this while holding down a part-time job after school.

Brandon was transferred to Petawawa, Ont., to further his training. It was from there that he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. I was told a little of his time overseas, but not much. I wasn't told of the mortar attack while he was there nor the Service Excellence coin he received from the Minister of Defence.

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Petawawa wasn't where he wanted to be. He wanted to serve on the East Coast near his friends and family. Brandon was planning a trip with friends to Jamaica, and my last conversation with my son was about him coming home for Christmas for a good visit. It never happened. He took his life on Sept. 4, 2011.

Read more: The Unremembered: Corporal Brandon Shepherd, Royal Canadian Dragoons

Read more: The Unremembered: Remembering 31 Canadian Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide

At the military inquiry into his death, I heard from Brandon's friends that he had changed on his return to Canada from Afghanistan. One stated that Brandon could no longer stand to be in crowds, and another told me of his lack of sleep. Both are signs of post-traumatic stress disorder; I know, as I suffered from them too.

A parent can suffer from PTSD after the death of a child. My ex-wife, Brandon's mother, had taken the news very badly, and I had to be strong for our remaining children, Alisha and Shayler, so my health suffered. I could no longer do things I once enjoyed, like roaming through the Princess Auto store. If I met people in the aisles, a wave of anxiety would hit me – the feeling that things were closing in, the tightness in my chest, the "Oh my God, I can't be here."

At home, it was hard to complete tasks. I had a sailboat, a dream come true that needed work, and I forced myself to work on it. Actually it became my obsession – where I could hide.

Two years after Brandon's death, my girlfriend left me, and it all came crashing down. But I went for help and turned things around. The girlfriend is now my fiancée and I am enjoying life again. I had spent more time fixing my boat than myself, but would I play tough guy again and risk everything? You're damn right I would. My children were concerned about me, during this time, but they were glad to have a strong parent to turn to. Duty before self.

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I am certain that my son was suffering from PTSD. In half a year, he had gone from a great soldier to a soldier doing just enough to get by. At the inquiry, you could see this as the stories came together, nobody with the whole picture, but each with a piece. Brandon would never ask for help, as I hadn't for so long, and nobody could see inside him. All his friends and family missed the signs, as well as the military. The only difference is, his friends and family admit that they missed it.

Vincent Shepherd is the father Corporal Brandon Shepherd, Royal Canadian Dragoons.

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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