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.
An advocate brought in to advise Ottawa on veterans' mental health says the Trudeau government lacks urgency dealing with a growing suicide crisis.
Michael Blais, the founder of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, was named to a mental-health advisory committee struck by Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr. Mr. Blais, himself a wounded army veteran, says they've held four meetings and progress is proceeding at a snail's pace.
"We've discussed peripherally that suicide is a problem but nothing substantive has been done," Mr. Blais said Friday. "There's no sense of urgency whatsoever from the department or the minister."
A Globe and Mail investigation has revealed that at least 70 veterans of the war in Afghanistan have died by suicide after returning home. In 31 cases, family members told the stories of their loved ones and revealed details about their treatment and how they died.
In many cases, soldiers avoided seeking treatment for fear their military careers would be over. Others were on waiting lists or were shunted among treatment providers without getting consistent care, or seemed to slip under the radar completely. Mr. Blais said he learned more from the launch of The Globe investigation than he has from Veterans Affairs so far.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said improved mental-health treatment is a top priority for an continuing defence policy review, along with a joint effort with Veterans Affairs to create a suicide prevention strategy. The mandate letters delivered to the two ministers by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasized better care for soldiers and veterans.
Mr. Sajjan, himself a retired soldier who struggled at times with adapting to life in Canada after three tours in Afghanistan, pledged more action is coming. "We are not going to leave any stone unturned. We're not going to put a resource limit on things," he said. "Regrettably, some of these initiatives are going to come too late."
Mr. Sajjan described how the government must smooth the transition between the Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs, where many soldiers suffering from occupational stress and other mental-health disorders fall through the cracks.
Mr. Hehr said filling the gap between the two systems is a top priority. They cannot wait for long-term reviews and research studies under way before making improvements, he said in a written statement. "Make no mistake, it is difficult for me, it is difficult for our departments, and it's difficult for Canadians when we hear of a military man, woman or veteran who has taken their own life," he said.
Military Ombudsman Gary Walbourne urged the Forces to improve how they handle members slated for medical discharge. He said no soldier should be released until all their veterans' benefits and services are in place. "If we can start closing off some of these gaps, I think we can start fixing some of the issues that we have," he said.
Five of the 31 fallen profiled by The Globe had been discharged from the military and another three were scheduled for release, including Sergeants Paul Martin and Doug McLoughlin. Both soldiers told their families that they were frustrated with Veterans Affairs over disputes about benefits. Opposition critics who spend a lot of time hearing complaints from soldiers, veterans and their families say they sense a lack of priority around the military mental-health issue. They also point out the government made a lot of promises to veterans that have yet to be delivered, including the restoration of lifetime pensions.
"One thing I hear from veterans is the lackadaisical attitude of the government on veterans' issues," said John Brassard, the new Conservative veterans-affairs critic.
Irene Mathyssen, the NDP critic, said the Liberal pace of enacting change matches the "glacial speed" of mental-health-care improvements under the Conservatives. She said the most immediate change the government could enact would be to stop medically discharging soldiers from the military before they have a full support system in place.
"That means training, mental-health treatment, making sure they have a family doctor, making sure they are ready to take on civilian life," Ms. Mathyssen said. "We have a sacred obligation," she added, echoing the words used by Mr. Trudeau one year ago in his marching orders to Mr. Hehr.
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