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A Globe investigation helped reveal that at least 62 Canadian soldiers and veterans took their lives after serving in the Afghanistan war – more than one-third of the number who died on the mission. Here's how the investigation unfolded and what followed from it

THE INVESTIGATION

In early 2014, The Globe and Mail set out to learn the number of suicides among current and former Canadian military members who had served in Afghanistan. The Globe asked National Defence and the Canadian Forces for this information, but no figures were provided.

Reporter Renata D'Aliesio turned to the Access to Information Act, asking for all records created in response to The Globe's request for suicide data. After a five-month wait, The Globe received a CD with 162 pages of military and government e-mail communications that contained some answers. The records showed how many active-duty members who deployed to Afghanistan had taken their lives as of April 8, 2014. But the information did not include the members' names or suicides of former soldiers.

To fill the gap, Ms. D'Aliesio pored over more than a decade's worth of military-related obituaries to identify possible suicides of soldiers and veterans. In interviews with families and military members, she confirmed that the deaths were in fact suicides.

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Read the full story behind the investigation.

An additional 12 suicides were identified through this work, raising the count to at least 54 soldiers and veterans who killed themselves after their Afghanistan tour. Days after the newspaper went public with the figure, the military released an update that brought the toll to at least 59. Further reporting by The Globe showed that the suicide tally has increased to at least 62.

The true count is likely higher. The federal government doesn't regularly track veteran suicides and has incomplete records on reservists, who made up more than one-quarter of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

The Globe's report on the suicide toll took an in-depth look at the lives and deaths of four Canadian infantrymen who had served in Afghanistan:

Jamie McMullin, father of three. June 9, 1982 – June 17, 2011
“He was just very depressed about the things he had done over there that he couldn’t get over,” his father Darrell McMullin says.
Paul Martin, father of two. June 27, 1974 – Sept. 8, 2011
“I think it was too fast,” his wife Hélène Bilodeau says. “He took a big handful of pills every night just before going to bed, and took pills in the morning and at the lunch. And then he stopped.”
Ron Anderson, father of four. May 27, 1974 – Feb. 24, 2014
“I haven’t been playing with my children. Say hello, that’s about it,” Ron Anderson told the court. “I haven’t been a father... I just want to be left alone.”
Scott Smith, father of two. Feb. 7, 1983 – Dec. 10, 2014
“He was an extremely proud soldier,” his wife Leah Smith says. “He really loved what he did. He had aspirations to go very high in the military.”

The Globe continued its coverage by revealing that:

  • The Canadian Forces rejected an internal recommendation to expand its addictions program to better help military members struggling with substance abuse, despite being aware that nearly six in 10 soldiers who died by suicide in recent years had been dependent on alcohol or drugs. Read the full story.
  • The Canadian military was expelling wounded members at an ever higher rate despite concerns from veterans’ advocates that the dismissals posed a risk to soldiers’ mental health.
    Read the full story.
  • After long refusing to disclose how many soldiers have killed themselves after serving in the Afghanistan war, the Canadian military released new figures that raises the suicide count to at least 59.
    Read the full story.
  • A government expert group that examined a dozen veterans’ suicides urged Canada to routinely review such deaths to learn lessons that might help prevent future tragedies – a five-year-old call to action that has yet to be fully adopted.
    Read the full story.
  • 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. However, the names of military members and vets who took their lives after returning from the war are absent.
    Read the full story.
  • A military review has identified serious flaws with a support unit intended to aid ill and wounded troops, concluding that it has too few staff and resources to properly help vulnerable soldiers return to work or adapt to civilian life.
    Read the full story.
  • Seventeen serving military members took their lives last year, including six who had taken part in the Afghanistan war – raising the number of soldiers and veterans who have died by suicide after returning from the mission to 62.
    Read the full story.
  • After an army captain took his life, his family turned to a scholarship program for children of fallen soldiers. They didn’t get the help they expected.
    Read the full story.
  • A provincial inquiry examining the suicide of a young Edmonton soldier exposes disturbing cracks in military police practices, equipment and facilities and in the Canadian Forces’ mental health-care system.
    Read the full story.

Inside the investigation The Globe and Mail’s Renata D’Aliesio discusses her research and reporting

1:29


THE REACTION

Former senator Roméo Dallaire, a renowned veteran 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.

“That doesn’t mean running away with the Treasury,” noted Mr. Dallaire. “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.”

Roméo Dallaire decries government's 'penny pinching' care for vets


Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent, commenting on the suicides, said Canada needs to ensure former soldiers have sufficient support as they move on with their lives.

“One suicide is too many and it’s everybody’s responsibility,” Mr. Parent said in a statement to The Globe. “Veterans need hope. To have hope, you need forward movement. To have forward movement, you need better options ahead of you than behind you,” he said.

Canadian veteran suicides should prompt action, advocates say


THE GLOBE’S VIEW

The government should publicly state that PTSD is a war wound like any other; soldiers who take their lives because of PTSD should be given the same military honours and recognition as soldiers killed in battle or who died of their wounds later. The names of the 54 should be added to memorials and monuments. Such a move would bring honour to them and to their families, and properly demonstrate the nation’s gratitude for their sacrifice.
Read the full editorial.


Better rehab, better tracking and better communication between the DND and Veterans Affairs are all needed. As well, the Armed Forces should soften its “universality-of-service” policy, under which members suffering from PTSD can be summarily discharged, leaving them adrift and more despondent than ever. Read the full editorial.


THE PROMISES

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr promises to transform the way Ottawa deals with members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have been in combat.


Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan ordered Canada’s top military leader to make suicide prevention a priority and examine why an increased number of soldiers have taken their lives in recent years.


Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr is vowing to find a way to commemorate the soldiers who served in Afghanistan and later took their own lives.


General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff says he’s undertaking a wide-ranging review of how the military treats soldiers, sailors and air personnel that will span the entire life of a Canadian in the Forces – from recruit to veteran.


Deputy minister of Veterans Affairs, retired general Walt Natynczyk said the federal department needs to shore up its resources and show more respect, care and compassion for vets living with physical injuries and mental scars. It needs to encourage the latter to seek treatment, he said, because one suicide “is one too many.”


Veterans Affairs is planning to report on suicides of former military members annually starting in late 2017 – a move that will disclose, for the first time, how many vets are taking their lives each year in Canada.


Canada Company, an influential charity that denied scholarships to two children of an infantry officer who took his own life, promises to expand the scope of its education program because of the enduring damage left by post-traumatic stress disorder.


Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr says the government must find better ways to keep Canadian Forces personnel on the job after they have sought help for a mental illness.



THE OUTCOME

The Globe will continue its coverage, meeting with more military families and wounded soldiers, and watching whether the new Liberal government follows through on the promises made.


THE DISCUSSION

KEVIN PATTERSON, a novelist and internist who served as a civilian physician in Kandahar, Afghanistan


Lacking visible wounds can make them feel unentitled to their distress – and that feeling of unentitlement is much of what makes psychic injuries so damaging.


ANDRÉ PICARD, a public health reporter and columnist with The Globe


In exchange for their service, members of the military should be provided with the care they need. Not care that is cursory, but the care that is necessary for their recovery.


If we are going to spend on war, we need to also invest in peace of mind.


GEORGE PETROLEKAS has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders


Canada needs to change its views on universality of service, which allows the Forces to release any member it deems to be unfit for a deployment but makes no effort to consider a soldier for transfer to another branch of the military or public service. In a country as rich as ours, no soldier should have to prove that his or her mental-health issue or chronic injury is related to a specific deployment. If soldiers have served overseas they should be given the benefit of the doubt that whatever ails them does indeed have a link to their service.


ROMÉO DALLAIRE, a former senator and retired lieutenant-general in the Canadian Armed Forces


This Remembrance Day, in addition to reflecting on the sacrifices of those who lost their lives in war, we also need to turn our thoughts to those who succumb to mental injury incurred through active military service. After a decade of controversy and relative neglect, now is the time to recognize that they, too, are paying the ultimate price in the service of our country.


ALISON HOWELL, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark and associate editor of the journal Critical Military Studies


… soldier and veteran suicides are a matter not only of health and veterans policy, but also of what role Canada will take on the global stage, and at what costs.



With reports from Renata D’Aliesio, Steven Chase and Gloria Galloway




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.


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