Military members who have died by suicide will be remembered at candlelight ceremonies in four provinces on Sunday – part of a grassroots effort to ensure these men and women are not forgotten.
The annual ceremonies, organized by a small group called Honour our Canadian Soldiers, began with a single event in February of 2013, drawing about 15 people to Pembroke in Eastern Ontario. Group founder Lise Charron hopes to attract more than 200 people to this year's "Soldiers of Suicide" commemoration at Royal Canadian Legion branches in Thunder Bay, Waterloo, Que., Oromocto, N.B., Debert, N.S., and at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa, where a red oak tree and a simple bronze plaque memorialize the nation's hidden military casualties.
"They served our country like any other soldier," Ms. Charron said. "They should be remembered."
A dozen names will be read out at Sunday's public ceremonies and a candle will be lit for each. The Last Post will be played in honour of these soldiers and many others.
The fallen include several who fought in the Afghanistan war, such as Frédéric Couture, Stuart Langridge, Stéphane Legendre, Jamie McMullin, Anthony Reed, Justin Stark and Thomas Welch, as well as soldiers who didn't, such as Adam Eckhardt, Victor Rémillard, Shawna Rogers and Bobby Saulnier. An American solider, Joshua Fueston, will also be recognized. Their families have granted the Honour our Canadian Soldiers group permission to publicize their loved one's names.
Many other military members have died by suicide, some of them as they struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illnesses. A continuing Globe and Mail investigation has revealed that at least 62 Canadian soldiers and veterans who served in the Afghanistan mission have killed themselves after returning home. This suicide toll, however, is not the whole picture. Suicides of former soldiers are not regularly tracked and data on reservists are incomplete.
During the 13-year NATO-led combat mission – Canada's longest military operation – 158 Canadian soldiers died in theatre, including six who took their lives. Their names are included in Canada's Afghanistan war memorials.
Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr pledged on Remembrance Day to find a way to commemorate military members who died by suicide after returning from Afghanistan.
On Friday, his press secretary, Sarah McMaster, said Veterans Affairs remains committed to exploring ways "to better recognize and commemorate all those who have fallen, including those who may have taken their own life."
She added that the federal government "respects all veterans and we will commemorate and honour their extraordinary service and sacrifices."
Ms. Charron, a Quebec resident who had been creating online tributes for Canadians killed in Afghanistan, was spurred to remember those who died by suicide after hearing from the mother of a young soldier who took his life after returning from the war. The grieving mother was worried her son would be forgotten.
But publicly commemorating military members who kill themselves is still a delicate subject. Ms. Charron did not organize the ceremonies for Remembrance Day because she wasn't sure how they would be embraced.
Canadian Forces veteran Beverly Saulnier is helping to organize the candlelight ceremony in Debert, N.S. Her son, a military weapons technician, took his life in November, 2011.
"It knocked the foundation right out of the whole family," she said. Her son was posted in Trenton, Ont., but spent much of his career based in Gagetown in New Brunswick. He was athletic and outgoing and seemingly loved his military work. Ms. Saulnier has struggled to understand why he took his life.
At first, she was reluctant to tell people that he had died by suicide. But staying silent, she soon realized, was part of the problem.
"People didn't talk about suicide," Ms. Saulnier noted. She wants the military to talk more openly about suicides and about preventing these types of deaths. "As long as it's on the back burner, not out in people's faces, they don't have to acknowledge it."