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.
The mental-health system for treating military personnel and veterans will undergo a sweeping overhaul to better care for them from boot camp through their retirement years, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has revealed.
Top-ranking officials in Defence and Veterans Affairs are looking at “creating a new structure that’s going to not just look after the veteran at the end but start with keeping our soldiers healthy when they’re in the military,” Mr. Sajjan said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
The minister was not prepared to go into detail on what the overhaul will look like, but he did say he hopes to have a detailed plan in place in 2017. The Trudeau government promised a joint suicide-prevention strategy for veterans and soldiers when it came to office last year after a Globe investigation revealed 54 Afghanistan war vets took their own lives. That toll is now up to 71.
Critics have long complained of a major gap in services between the Canadian Armed Forces and civilian life where veterans mainly rely on patchwork provincial systems and where Veterans Affairs falls out of contact with the majority of retired soldiers. Many soldiers and veterans have also criticized the slow pace of reform.
A Globe investigation this month into 31 of the 71 confirmed suicide cases of soldiers who served in Afghanistan shed new light on some of those failings. Their families reported incomplete screening, delayed care, ineffective treatment and insufficient support. Most soldiers also expressed dread at the prospect of leaving the military before they died. The 31 accounts are the most comprehensive public record of Canada’s Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide.
About 27 per cent of veterans face financial, employment, mental or physical health issues when they leave the Canadian Armed Forces, according to Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr. “We are setting up our department to chip away at that number by giving them a road map when they leave the Canadian Armed Forces to find their new normal,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Hehr doesn’t see the creation of any new structure from his side, however, suggesting a more gradual approach boosting Veterans Affairs involvement when military personnel depart the armed forces. “We’ll work with existing structures to have a real closing of the seams,” he said.
Mr. Sajjan seems intent on a bolder plan, including a long-awaited overhaul of the Joint Personnel Support Unit that was established in 2008 and was meant to help soldiers recover from physical and psychological wounds and ease transition out of the military.
Many former soldiers and their families describe it as little more than a way stop on their way out. The recent Globe investigation showed eight of 31 suicide cases were attached to JPSUs. On Nov. 12, a ninth soldier whose last post was at the JPSU killed himself, the Globe has confirmed.
“I would not call it a failure,” Mr. Sajjan said. “When it was created it met the need it was trying to meet. But it needs to evolve. We’re looking at the entire system and how the JPSU is structured is going to be part of it.”
Retired sergeant-major Barry Westholm, who quit the Eastern Ontario JPSU and the Forces in 2013 because of chronic staffing shortages and insufficient training, said reviews of the unit are taking too long and no tangible improvements have yet been made, despite repeated pledges to fix the broken soldier-support system. He noted long-standing problems at the JPSU have caused a lot of heartache.
“They’re releasing these poor people in terrible states knowingly and causing, I believe, ultimately suicides,” said Mr. Westholm, who was a founding member of the JPSU. He joined the casualty support unit in 2009 because he believed in the concept and wanted to help battered soldiers returning from Afghanistan. He still believes in the JPSU, but said significant improvements are desperately needed to help ill and wounded military members.
“We knew in short order the troubles that the unit faced,” said Mr. Westholm, who spoke about the JPSU before the Veterans Affairs Committee this past May. “We knew by 2010 we were in trouble. And the entire time, between now and then, it’s been the same. No change. They have just been dragging their feet, for whatever reason. I would really love to know the reason.”
Both ministers insisted they feel a sense of urgency to fill cracks in the system between military and civilian life. Mr. Hehr would like to reinforce new initiatives such as including Veterans Affairs staff in the military release process and conducting exit interviews with soldiers.
Mr. Sajjan, a former soldier who served three times in Afghanistan, suggests more expansive measures.
A wounded soldier “leaves and then goes on to Veterans Affairs to deal with the file and [the veteran] has to convince Veterans Affairs of what actually happened,” Mr. Sajjan said.
“That piece is going to be sorted out. … It can’t just be remaking the way the system was.”
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