When Rob Martin was discharged from the Canadian military eight years ago, he was in a crisis.
He had recently returned from the Afghanistan war, where he was a senior signals intelligence officer charged with intercepting enemy communication. Twenty-five Canadians died during the tour and Mr. Martin couldn't shake the feeling he was responsible for their deaths. As his mental health unravelled, his marriage fell apart. He then lost his military family, and the long-time soldier began contemplating taking his own life.
"I was released at the height of my injury and everything was collapsing," the retired lieutenant-colonel, who has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), told senior military health officials gathered Saturday in Toronto for the Warrior Care conference, held ahead of the Invictus Games.
"It is not easy when you lose your identity because you lose your purpose in life," he said. "You look in a mirror and you don't know who you are. You ask some pretty existential questions, especially when you're sailing down into the abyss with no bottom."
Intensive therapy, veterans' support programs, mentors and his desire to help others have helped pull Mr. Martin out of the abyss. But his recovery is an continuing journey, as it is for many of the 550 athletes from 17 countries who are competing in the Invictus Games.
Created three years ago by Prince Harry, the Games bring together wounded, ill and injured military personnel and veterans for a week of sports competition. The event begins with opening ceremonies on Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. About 90 Canadians will be competing.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said he hopes the athletes' tenacity to overcome their physical and mental challenges will inspire others.
"The Invictus Games are about setting an example, not just for other service members, but I think for all of our citizens," he said after his speech at the conference.
Earlier this week, Mr. Sajjan met with the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, and the new Veterans Affairs Minister, Seamus O'Regan, to talk about mental-health issues confronting the nation's soldiers and vets. National Defence and Veterans Affairs are expected to soon release a new joint suicide-prevention strategy.
Mr. Sajjan said the strategy will focus on building resilience in military members and ensuring support services don't follow a one-size approach and are catered to a soldier's specific situation and needs.
"When you put the uniform on, we are asking a lot as a nation," the Defence Minister said. "When somebody comes in, we want them to see a system that is going to look after them, look after their mental and physical well-being."
But there are fissures in the system that first need to be sealed. Many of the vets that Debbie Lowther and her team of volunteers at Veterans Emergency Transition Services Canada encounter have fallen through those cracks. The non-profit organization helps vets who are homeless or at risk of losing their home.
Ms. Lowther, who was part of a conference panel, hopes the new suicide-prevention strategy includes a mentoring program that partners veterans who have successfully adjusted to life outside the military with newly released soldiers.
"There needs to be a check-in and followup to make sure they're okay," she said. "So that we know who the people are who are struggling. So they're not struggling in silence in their basement."
Military statistics show that the suicide rate has increased in recent years in the Canadian army, which shouldered the bulk of Canada's combat operations during the international Afghanistan mission. The army suicide rate among regular Forces males was 33.32 per 100,000 from 2002 to 2015, nearly 2.6 times higher than non-army branches, such as the navy and air force.
A continuing Globe and Mail investigation has found that more than 70 Canadian military members and vets who served on the Afghanistan mission have killed themselves after returning home. The reasons for doing so are complex, and often many factors are involved, such as alcohol abuse, relationship breakdowns and mental illness. The Globe's profiles of 31 Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide, published last fall, revealed that many of the soldiers were dealing with PTSD or other mental illnesses connected to their experiences during the dangerous deployment. Some were also struggling to get sufficient care.