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Former senator Roméo Dallaire, a renowned military vet who has helped shape the Liberals' thinking on how to help wounded soldiers, says the new government must end the "penny pinching" concerning veterans' care and establish a covenant that entrenches Canada's moral obligation to look after military members and their families.
Mr. Dallaire, who resigned from the Senate last year, also demanded better tracking and disclosure of former and serving military personnel who take their lives – a call echoed by other veterans' advocates in the wake of a Globe and Mail investigation that found at least 54 soldiers and vets killed themselves after serving in the Afghanistan mission. The suicide count is one-third of the number of soldiers who died in the war. There were 158 Canadian military deaths in theatre during the 13-year NATO-led operation that was triggered by the 9/11 attacks.
The Afghanistan war started when the Liberals were last in power. They and their leader, prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau, will have to deal with the aftermath and address, among other things, an overwhelmed, resource-strained Forces' health system that is grappling with a rise in mental illness due to the war. The new government will be sworn in on Nov. 4.
"The 158 number was a scandalously erroneous number," contended Mr. Dallaire, a former lieutenant-general and once chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Veterans Affairs. "There was absolutely nothing said about the horrible sacrifices and cost to the families of those who kill themselves after the mission, due to the injury of the mission."
Mr. Dallaire said he tried many times over the years to get a clearer picture on soldier and veteran suicides and how many of these deaths were attributable to military service, but he was stymied.
Last year, The Globe asked the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces for a count of soldiers who died by suicide and had served in the Afghanistan war. Our request was processed for nearly two months, but the data weren't released. The newspaper had to go through the Access to Information Act to obtain the tally eight months after the initial inquiry. The Globe identified several other deaths through poring over more than a decade's worth of military-related obituaries and then confirming, in interviews with soldiers' families and military members, that those deaths were in fact suicides.
"The way you had to go about getting information from DND … is indicative that their attitude toward these suicides is totally wrong. They try to hide them or to minimize them instead of recognizing them," Mr. Dallaire, who himself is coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attempted suicide four times before getting help, said. A former commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda in the 1990s, Mr. Dallaire bore witness to one of the worst genocides of modern times.
During the election campaign, the Liberals pledged to re-establish lifelong pensions for injured vets and to reopen nine Veterans Affairs service offices that had been closed by the Conservative government. The party also said it would enhance mental-health services and invest $100-million annually to expand support for veterans' families.
Veterans advocates will be watching what happens. Michael Blais, founder of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, suspects the suicide count of 54 is lower than the actual number. The Canadian Forces have incomplete data on reservists, who made up more than one-quarter of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, while Veterans Affairs does not regularly track suicides of former military members. Also, there are likely some vehicle-crash deaths and drug overdoses that were documented as accidents but were actually suicides, Mr. Blais and others noted.
"We're not committing sufficient resources to deal with the true [suicide] threat that we confront today," Mr. Blais said.
Former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran also suspects the number of suicides is higher. He said it's time to turn promises into substantive action because many of the problems are well known. He wants Veterans Affairs to give case managers more power to help wounded soldiers.
Psychiatrist Greg Passey, who served in the military for more than two decades, said the Forces have made strides in decreasing the stigma of PTSD. Yet, a stigma remains, he noted, and more work needs to be done. He added it's critical to improve tracking of military and veterans' suicides so that intervention programs can be improved for soldiers and their families.
"These guys are our unknown fallen because they end up often dying alone and there are destroyed families along the way," said Dr. Passey, who works with mentally ill veterans in British Columbia. "It's not just the suicide, but also all the collateral damage that occurs to the family members."
In Britain, there is a military covenant that outlines the country's "duty of care" to its soldiers. Mr. Dallaire believes a covenant is needed in Canada, along with more money and staffing to help wounded military members.
"That doesn't mean running away with the Treasury," noted Mr. Dallaire, who said he briefed Mr. Trudeau on veterans' issues before the election campaign. "But it does mean putting the same emphasis of financial engagement … and support for these people as we do to the damn trucks and vehicles … we spend billions maintaining."
Are you a military family with a similar story? E-mail reporter Renata D'Aliesio at RDaliesio@globeandmail.com as she continues to bring attention to this important issue.