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Behind the story: How The Globe set out to commemorate Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide

Canadian army soldiers board a CH-47 Chinook helicopter as they leave forward fire base Zangabad in Panjwai district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, June 18, 2011.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

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.

On last Remembrance Day, newly minted Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr pledged to find a way to commemorate military members who served on the Afghanistan mission and later took their own lives. "They are part of our military family," he told The Globe and Mail. "A veteran is a veteran is a veteran."

Days before, a Globe and Mail investigation had revealed that at least 54 Canadian soldiers and vets had taken their lives after returning from their Afghanistan tours. Many of their suicides were connected to the perilous mission, but they were not counted in the war's toll of 158, which includes six who killed themselves in theatre. Nor were they recognized in military memorials to the Afghanistan mission, Canada's longest military operation.

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Since then, The Globe's continuing investigation uncovered the suicide count has climbed to at least 70. There is no word yet of any government or military plans to remember these fallen.

"They didn't die at the war, but they still died after it. It's still the same," teenager Élody Martin told The Globe last year. Her father, Sergeant Paul Martin, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Afghanistan in the spring of 2009. The military was about to cut the long-time soldier loose when he ended his life on Sept. 8, 2011.

Élody's sentiment was echoed by other heartbroken families, who feared their loved ones had been forgotten because their deaths occurred away from the battlefield. Could The Globe find a way to commemorate these war-battered soldiers, while also examining whether the military and Canada did enough to help them recover?

Before reporters Renata D'Aliesio, Les Perreaux and Allan Maki began reaching out to more families, The Globe consulted with mental-health specialists, suicide-prevention experts and veterans' advocates about its plans for a commemoration project. Telling stories of suicide was a long-held taboo in society and journalism. But social media has changed our conversations, and experts now advocate sensitive reporting of newsworthy deaths by suicide. On social media, rumours and inaccurate information about suicides are rampant. The Globe encountered several instances where suicide speculation in the deaths of soldiers and veterans turned out to be false, after confirming the circumstances of their deaths with families.

Suicide is complicated. Often, a cascade of factors is involved. In many suicides of Afghanistan war veterans, PTSD played a significant role in their deteriorating mental health, addictions and broken relationships. But it is possible their deaths could have been avoided. Mental illness is treatable and suicide is preventable. By not talking and writing about military suicides, we risk failing to understand how we can better help vulnerable soldiers and veterans, along with their families.

In Canada, there is no public list of military members who took their lives. The Globe's Afghanistan suicide count is based on military statistics initially obtained under access-to-information legislation, Canadian Forces' updates released since, and nationwide obituary searches that began in 2014.

The obituary searches were necessary to identify the names behind the suicide statistic. A Globe reporter came across Sgt. Martin's name by scouring more than a decade's worth of death notices published in online obituary hubs and on military, media and funeral home websites. Suicide is almost never disclosed publicly as a cause of death. The reporter searched the notices for suggestive words and phrases, such as military, tragically, unexpectedly, Afghanistan, Royal Canadian Regiment and PTSD, and for donation requests to programs such as Wounded Warriors Canada and Soldier On.

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Through these searches, a long list of possible military suicides was compiled. The Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs will not divulge whether a member died by suicide. Most medical examiners and coroners won't either. Only two provinces, Quebec and British Columbia, provide information on cause of death, which meant confirmations had to be done with family or close friends.

Upon the advice of mental-health specialists, The Globe drafted a letter that outlined the commemoration project for families. Where possible, Globe reporters confirmed cause of death before mailing and e-mailing the letters, which included a message of support from Roméo Dallaire, the retired lieutenant-general and former senator.

Several suicides involved Quebec soldiers. We reached out to their families in their mother tongue, collected francophone stories in French, and translated them into English.

(Read an example of the English letter and the French letter.)

The Globe looked into nearly 100 deaths of military members and veterans identified through obituary searches. Fifty-four turned out to be suicides of personnel who had served on the Afghanistan mission, which included Camp Mirage in Dubai. Others had died in road crashes, by heart attack, aneurysm, accidental overdose or other causes. There are at least 16 soldiers who killed themselves after returning from Afghanistan that we haven't found.

Thirty-one families agreed to share their stories for the commemoration project, many speaking publicly for the first time.

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Globe reporters travelled to five provinces to meet with them. Interviews were also conducted by phone. The reporters asked them a series of questions for profiles and data analysis. Families spoke because they believed their loved ones' military service should be honoured and remembered. They want to shine a light on serious gaps in mental-health care and military policies. And they hope their painful stories will spur improvements to aid other soldiers and veterans struggling with PTSD and other mental illnesses.

Not all families wanted to participate. Some declined because they didn't want to reopen painful wounds. Others said they preferred to remember in private or were worried their young children would find their father's profile online before learning how he died from a family member. And some had hidden the cause of death from relatives, because suicide still carries a stigma.

The Globe is grateful to all the families. These stories were extremely difficult to share. They are difficult to tell and they are difficult to read. But we must remember. We will continue to tell more stories of military members who served in the Afghanistan war and later died by suicide. If you would like your relative included in the commemoration project, please e-mail remember@globeandmail.com.

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