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Honours delayed for veterans and soldiers who are dying by suicide

Denise Stark, mother of the late Cpl. Justin Stark, exits Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ont., with a member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after receiving the Memorial Cross on Sept. 17. The Memorial Cross is awarded to mothers or widows of Canadian soldiers who were killed or died in active duty, or whose death was attributed to such duty. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Lynett

Aaron Lynett/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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.

In front of a century-old church in mid-September, Denise and Wayne Stark waited under overcast skies for bagpipers in kilted military uniforms to march toward them and salute. The procession drew curious residents to their stoops and dozens of dignitaries and soldiers to the church's dark wooden pews.

Five years ago, the Stark family was at this very same church, saying goodbye to their son, Corporal Justin Stark. He had been to the Afghanistan war and back, but the battlefield never left him. The 22-year-old reservist took his life on Oct. 29, 2011, while at the Hamilton, Ont., armoury for a weekend exercise with his reserve regiment.

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His parents had no doubt that he was a casualty of the Afghanistan war, but a military inquiry determined otherwise – a conclusion with potential repercussions for how Canada would remember the young soldier.

Read more: Ottawa lacks urgency dealing with suicide crisis: veterans advocate

Read more: The Unremembered: Suicide toll reveals how system failed Canada's soldiers and veterans

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

Death by suicide is supposed to be treated no differently than a death on the battlefield or in domestic operations. If a death is connected to military service, families are presented with the Memorial Cross and Sacrifice Medal, and their loved one's name is added to the Canadian Virtual War Memorial and inscribed in the Books of Remembrance, which lie in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

But in reality, not all military deaths are treated the same.

The Globe and Mail spoke with 31 families who lost a loved one to suicide after serving on the Afghanistan mission. Many of the fallen military members were traumatized by their experiences at war, but only eight of their families have been awarded the Memorial Cross and Sacrifice Medal.

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The military is now reviewing the other cases in the wake of The Globe's inquiries. The excluded include:

  • Private Thomas Welch was the first Canadian soldier to die by suicide after serving in the Afghanistan war. He perished more than a dozen years ago, on May 8, 2004, but his name is absent from the Books of Remembrance and no medals have been bestowed on his family. His mother believes her 22-year-old son, who was based in Petawawa, Ont., was suffering with post-traumatic stress.
  • Sergeant Paul Martin was a long-time infantry solider based in Gagetown, N.B. Diagnosed with PTSD and facing release from the army, he died by suicide on Sept. 8, 2011. His death was connected to his military service, according to a board-of-inquiry ruling, yet his widow has not received the Memorial Cross and Sacrifice Medal.
  • Captain Brad Elms, a veteran of tours in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and Afghanistan, died by suicide two years ago. A military inquiry determined in the summer of 2015 that his death was service-related, but his family hasn’t received medals, either. He had been diagnosed with depression and was showing signs of PTSD.

His widow, Sherri Elms, is disappointed by the delayed recognition. To her, it signals suicide is different than other military deaths.

"It's almost like it's still stigmatized," Ms. Elms said. "If he had been killed in Afghanistan and was repatriated to Trenton on the Highway of Heroes … people would have been tripping over themselves to award those medals."

Capt. Elms' suicide occurred just days after Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent were killed in separate attacks in October, 2014. The Memorial Cross and Sacrifice Medal were presented to the families days after the soldiers' high-profile deaths. Cpl. Cirillo was gunned down while standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa; WO Vincent was intentionally rammed by a car in a shopping centre parking lot in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.

For Pte. Welch's mother, Anita Cenerini, the lack of recognition of her son's military service has been crushing. He took his life only three months after returning from Afghanistan in February, 2004.

"It's so important for me to have the country respect him and honour him, and acknowledge that his death came because he had gone to war for us," Ms. Cenerini said through tears. "I want people to know how much he gave of himself. He gave so much of himself that he couldn't survive."

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When asked about the delays in awarding the Memorial Cross and Sacrifice Medal, Canadian Forces spokesman Lieutenant Kelly Boyden said in an e-mail that research is currently being done on open cases to clarify if a ruling has been made and to issue medals "as soon as possible where applicable."

To speed up the process in the future, National Defence and Veterans Affairs recently signed an agreement to clarify each department's roles and responsibilities to ensure rulings are made and medals are presented to families in a timely manner, Lt. Boyden added.

He noted that when a death is obviously related to service, the Memorial Cross, also known as the Silver Cross, is awarded immediately. But when it's not clear, the medal is only presented once it has been officially determined that the death was connected to service.

In cases where a board of inquiry concludes a death is not attributable to military work, the Forces may seek an assessment from Veterans Affairs. In these instances, Veterans Affairs provides an opinion based on service health records and legislative tests.

The Stark family was on the list of the excluded until military advocates fiercely lobbied the federal government to recognize Cpl. Stark. That's how they got to this moment at the Hamilton church, where a Memorial Cross ceremony was held on Sept. 17.

After a lone bagpiper played Amazing Grace, Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell presented three members of Cpl. Stark's family – his mother, father and sister, Jennifer – with the medals. The ceremony meant a lot to the family, but they also want further recognition of Cpl. Stark and the other Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide.

The Starks would like to see their son's name added to Afghanistan war monuments, alongside the 158 soldiers who died on the mission, including six who took their own lives.

"It means he would be recognized for what his contribution was. Being over there, that was directly related to his death," Mr. Stark said. "Just because you come back, it doesn't mean you're finished paying the price."

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

Veterans Affairs spokesman Zoltan Csepregi said the department is working with Canadian Heritage on a national memorial to Canada's mission in Afghanistan. A design for the memorial has not yet been determined, and more information about the commemoration project is expected in the coming months, he added.

"In the past, the names of individuals have not been included in national war memorials," Mr. Csepregi noted. "However, this memorial will recognize the commitment and sacrifice of all the Canadian men and women, both military and civilian, who served in Afghanistan, as well as the support provided by Canadians at home."

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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About the Author
National news reporter

Renata joined The Globe and Mail's Toronto newsroom in March of 2011. Raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Renata spent nine years reporting in Alberta for the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, covering crime, environment and political affairs. More

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