A Canadian Forces report on lessons learned from reviewing military suicides in 2014 highlights relationship status, financial troubles and method of death, but is puzzlingly silent on the impact of the Afghanistan war.
The omission stands in stark contrast to the military's acknowledgment Tuesday that deployment may be emerging as a risk factor for suicide, particularly trauma and mental illness connected to the 13-year Afghanistan mission. The Forces had previously said it had not found a consistent link between serving overseas and increased suicide risk.
A Globe and Mail investigation, along with recently released military data, reveals that at least 59 soldiers and veterans have killed themselves after serving in the Afghanistan operation – more than one-third the number of Canadian troops who perished in the war itself.
Of the 19 suicides of active-duty members last year, it appears as many as 11 had deployed to Afghanistan, according to a military update provided to The Globe last week. The newspaper identified an additional three Afghanistan war vets who took their lives in 2014 after leaving the army. There could be more. The federal government does not regularly track veterans' suicides and has incomplete data on reservists.
The Forces could not immediately explain the deployment omission in its lessons-learned report or confirm how many of last year's military suicides had served in Afghanistan. (Remembrance Day is a federal statutory holiday.)
The report was part of a Surgeon-General suicide update released Tuesday after newly appointed Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan ordered Canada's top military leader to make suicide prevention a priority and examine why an increased number of soldiers have taken their lives in recent years. The Surgeon-General is the military's top health official.
General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, committed to doing the wider examination, but the scope of his review is not yet clear.
The report on suicides in 2014 is based on internal military medical reviews conducted after members take their lives. The reviews, which have been done since 2010, are separate from boards of inquiries and are designed to help the Forces identify trends as well as gaps in its care and its suicide-prevention program. The findings of individual reviews are kept from families and were not accessible to The Globe through the Access to Information Act.
The report on military suicides in 2014 offers details on 15 of the 19 death reviews. Nine of the members were married, although four were not living with their spouse due to relationship issues.
Nearly half of the 15 were facing career reviews or legal or disciplinary proceedings at the time of their suicides. Two-thirds had sought medical or mental-health care in the 30 days before their deaths. The report notes that more than half were struggling with depression, and three had been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. Two members had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Yet the soldiers' deployment history, including service in Afghanistan, is not mentioned in the report.
The medical reviews led to 29 recommendations, including proposals to improve medical documentation and boost support for medical staff and military colleagues after a member's suicide or suicide attempt. The reviews, however, found "no evidence presented to indicate that any of the suicides were readily preventable."
One of the soldiers who died by suicide in 2014 was Corporal Scott Smith. Married and a father of two young boys, Cpl. Smith took his life two years after returning from Afghanistan. His family believes he was suffering with PTSD, but he was afraid that seeking treatment would torpedo his military career.
His mother, Connie Smith, wants Gen. Vance's suicide-prevention review to lead to several changes, including making counselling mandatory and ongoing for military members who were in combat. She said a PTSD diagnosis should not affect their careers, nor be disclosed to other members. She also wants the military to do regular check-ins with spouses and children of soldiers who die by suicide to make sure families have the help they need.
"On a grand scale, the military culture must have a total mind shift," Ms. Smith said in an e-mail. Addressing the impact of combat on mental health should be a greater priority, she added.
"This is not new," she noted. "Military families have suffered the effects of war since time began."
Are you a member of a military family with a similar story? E-mail Renata D'Aliesio at email@example.com as she continues to bring attention to this important issue.