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Canada Military memorial commemorates Canada’s ‘soldiers of suicide’

A plaque honouring soldiers who die by suicide is seen at the National Military Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

To read the story behind the Globe's unprecedented, far-reaching investigation into soldier suicides, please click here.

At the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa, amid a sea of tombstones honouring those who served in peacetime and in war, a single red oak tree and a simple bronze plaque commemorate the nation's hidden casualties.

This humble memorial is, as inscribed, "dedicated to the memory of soldiers of suicide." A small grassroots group erected it two years ago, as Canada was nearing the end of its involvement in the 13-year NATO-led Afghanistan war.

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The group, named Soldiers of Suicide and founded by Quebec resident Lise Charron, was born out of the anguish of an Ontario mother whose young son took his life after serving in Afghanistan.

"The mother told me she was afraid we will forget her son," recalls Ms. Charron, who had been posting photos online of Canadian soldiers killed in theatre as a way to recognize their sacrifices. Soon, she and a small band of others turned their attention to remembering the unremembered.

"It's a mentality of our society to not talk about suicide," Ms. Charron says. "But they served our country with passion. They served our country as any other soldiers, so why do we keep that a secret?"

This question is increasingly being asked as the number of military members who have killed themselves after serving in the Afghanistan war mounts. A Globe and Mail investigation found that at least 54 soldiers and veterans died by suicide after returning from the mission – more than one-third of the number of Canadian troops who perished in the war itself. On Monday, the military provided The Globe with an updated suicide count, which brings the toll to at least 59.

These 59 fallen are not recognized in the same way as those who died in the operation. The Canadian Forces and federal government commemorate the country's 158 mission deaths in online tributes and in the Afghanistan Memorial Vigil – to be permanently installed, along with a battlefield cenotaph, in Ottawa around 2017. These memorials include six soldiers who killed themselves in theatre. Yet, the names of the 59 military members and vets who took their lives after returning from the war are absent.

Indeed, most are unknown to Canadians, their postwar struggles with mental illness, insomnia and addictions largely shielded from public sight. They are not mentioned in the Forces' online list of "Fallen Canadians," which is dedicated to those "who gave their lives in service to Canadians." The 13-year-old list includes military members killed in Afghanistan and those who died on home soil, in training accidents and homicides.

But shouldn't the country also recognize those whose minds and lives were permanently fractured by war?

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"They didn't die at the war, but they still died after it. It's still the same," says Fredericton high-school student Élody Martin. Her father, Sergeant Paul Martin, took his life in September, 2011, two and half years after returning from Afghanistan.

While many believe the sacrifices of these soldiers and veterans should be remembered, how best to recognize military suicides is a difficult question.

Canadian Forces spokeswoman Major Indira Thackorie says the military and National Defence do not plan to alter the Afghanistan battlefield cenotaph because "it is considered an artifact of war and deemed to be final once Canada left the theatre of operation." She notes that plaques of soldiers from the Afghanistan Memorial Vigil will be reintegrated with the cenotaph. The memorial includes civilians who died in the operation, as well as more than 40 American soldiers who were under Canadian command.

Former Liberal senator Roméo Dallaire and veterans advocate Michael Blais want the country to commemorate military members who served in war and then died by suicide, particularly if the Forces determines their deaths were attributable to service and their families want names made public.

"There must be equality in recognition of national sacrifice," Mr. Blais says.

Mr. Dallaire, a retired lieutenant-general, adds: "It really burns me on Nov. 11, when we recognize, as we must, those who were killed in action and those even who committed suicide while overseas … but there is absolutely nothing that is said about the horrible sacrifices and cost to the families of those who killed themselves after the mission due to the injury of the mission."

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In suicides that the military determines were attributable to service, mothers and widows are presented with the Memorial Cross. Better known as the Silver Cross, the medal is awarded whenever a military death is linked to army, navy or air-force duties.

The names of these military members can be added to the Books of Remembrance, which lie in the memorial chamber of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Janice Summerby says the deaths must have occurred during service or within two years of being honourably released from the military.

Jane Byers and Maureen Eykelenboom are both Silver Cross mothers. Their sons were killed in combat in Afghanistan. Corporal Andrew Eykelenboom died in a suicide attack in August, 2006. Private David Byers and three other soldiers were killed a month later, when targeted by a suicide bomber on a bicycle.

Both women believe that soldiers who took their lives after serving in the Afghanistan war, and whose deaths were connected to their service, should be recognized in some way.

"I think that they should be held in honour just like anybody else's son was," says Ms. Byers, who lives in the Northern Ontario community of Espanola.

Ms. Eykelenboom says all soldiers traumatized by war deserve the nation's compassion and their families deserve the public's support.

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"I don't think we have the right to judge how they died," the Vancouver Island resident says. "They're gone. Their families don't have their sons or their daughters. And that's a loss that I think the rest of the country needs to recognize – that there is a cost of doing war."

Are you a military family with a similar story? E-mail Renata D'Aliesio at rdaliesio@globeandmail.com as she continues to bring attention to this important issue.

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