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A Canadian soldier stands guard during a mission in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, in 2009. General Jonathan Vance says increasing suicide rates among soldiers released from service is a significant concern.

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

The head of the Canadian Forces says fixing a casualty-support unit remains an "overriding concern," along with significantly improving the assistance offered to military members slated for release, many of whom are coping with serious injuries and mental-health issues.

A Globe and Mail investigation, which included accounts of 31 soldiers, airmen and veterans who died by suicide after returning from the Afghanistan mission, found that eight of them had spent time in the Joint Personnel Support Unit, which has long lacked sufficient staff and resources to properly aid many of its vulnerable charges.

General Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, ordered a review of the JPSU last year and a new unit commander was installed in August, but understaffing remains a problem and many changes are still being contemplated.

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Read more: Canadian soldiers in combat roles at higher risk for suicide: Military report

Read more: Investigation reveals 54 Canadian soldiers died by suicide after war in Afghanistan

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

"It is an overriding concern for me. People are my top priority," Gen. Vance told The Globe in an interview Friday. "There is a long way to go in [fixing] the JPSU construct."

Gen. Vance said he's confident that good building blocks have been put in place at the JPSU. But, he added, the Forces must develop a stronger system over all to assist releasing soldiers, sailors and air-force personnel. He noted that the Forces spends a lot of time training and monitoring recruits, but doesn't provide its service members with anywhere near the same personalized attention when their military careers near an end.

"We have to invest in that," Gen. Vance said. "I need to professionalize the way we transition people," he added. "I don't think we do that well enough."

Some soldiers have struggled after their discharge. The Globe's ongoing investigation has revealed that at least 71 military members and veterans who served in the Afghanistan war have taken their lives. Of those suicides, 15 had been released from the Forces.

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New research released earlier this week from the Surgeon-General, the military's top medical official, shows that the army's suicide rate climbed during the Afghanistan mission. Those in combat-arms trades, such as the infantry and armoured corps, were the most at risk for suicide.

Gen. Vance said the increase is a "significant concern" and the Forces are "seized on the matter." He noted that suicide has affected those who deployed and those who haven't, and he said a lot more information and science are needed to better understand how to prevent suicides and to improve mental-health treatment for illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Between 2002 and 2015, 161 regular-force males were lost to suicide. It's unclear how many of them had deployed on overseas tours. Gen. Vance said about half were receiving mental-health treatment – a sign, to him, that new tools are needed to prevent these deaths. "We've got to find out how better to do this," he said.

National Defence and Veterans Affairs are working on a suicide-prevention strategy and an expert panel is currently reviewing the Forces' mental-health programs and suicide-prevention efforts. The strategy was mandated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year, two weeks after The Globe's initial investigation on military suicides.

"I see there is a whole lot of things to do and we've got to get them done quickly," Gen. Vance said. "It's a bigger issue than just one single silver bullet."

The military's top commander said he does not know whether concerns about the anti-malarial drug mefloquine were identified in any of the 71 suicides of military members who served on the Afghanistan mission.

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"I got to tell you I don't know the answer to that question," Gen. Vance said. "But we'll take it under advisement. I got to tell you if there was a glaring link, we'd find it, but I'll ask."

The military's Surgeon-General is reassessing the use of mefloquine, which can cause serious psychiatric side-effects. Although other anti-malarial drugs are more commonly given to Canadian soldiers, mefloquine is still prescribed five times as often to Canadian military personnel as it is to their U.S. counterparts.

Waiting times for mental-health care are lower in the Forces' health system than in provincial medicare. Still, some soldiers fear asking for help will harm their army careers. That has to change, Gen. Vance said.

"I want to make certain that we have the right personnel policies in place that place a premium on getting someone into care while they're serving, without penalty, so that they can continue to have a happy, progressive life," he said.

Gen. Vance believes there are lessons to learn from soldiers who witnessed and experienced trauma in Afghanistan and have successfully coped with mental illness. He said for many military members, the Afghanistan mission was a high point in their career.

"There is human strength that comes as a result of operations," he said. "There is improvement in people's lives. It's not all bad for everyone."

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