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Canada Veteran’s suicidal past wasn’t known when police put him in cell, inquiry hears

Corporal Shaun Collins hanged himself after being locked in a military cell.

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Military police would have watched an Afghanistan war veteran around-the-clock while he was locked up in a cell had they been aware of his suicidal history, a provincial inquiry into a corporal's death was told Tuesday.

Sergeant Matthew Parkin, one of three military police officers who dealt with Corporal Shaun Collins on March 9, 2011, acknowledged in testimony Tuesday that they would not have placed the young soldier in a darkened cell without supervision if they had known he tried to take his life several times before. The military's security information database would have turned up those suicide attempts, but the corporal's name was misspelled when it was entered – one of several custody safeguards that failed at the police guardhouse at the Edmonton base.

Cpl. Collins, 27, had been arrested that night for allegedly driving drunk and refusing to provide a breath sample. While the police officers were in a nearby room finishing paperwork, he hanged himself with a noose fashioned from his combat shirt and attached to the bars of the cell door. He died in a hospital two days later.

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His suicide is part of a mounting toll. A continuing Globe and Mail investigation has revealed that at least 62 soldiers and veterans have taken their lives after serving on the Afghanistan mission.

The provincial fatality inquiry into Cpl. Collins's death was ordered by the Alberta Justice Minister and offers a rare glimpse inside the military, which conducts its own death investigations, but always behind closed doors.

Cpl. Collins appeared to be getting better in 2011, his mental-health doctors testified Tuesday, at the second day of a four-day inquiry. In December, 2010, he turned to a psychologist outside of the military system because he worried seeking help within would harm his career.

A friend had recommended trauma specialist Keli Furman to him. He was extremely distressed, Dr. Furman recalled.

She said he was affected by the deaths of fellow soldiers in Afghanistan and atrocities he had witnessed there. He told her he felt harassed and abused by one of his supervisors. He was also struggling to cope with his sister's murder and a deadly vehicle accident involving his friends in Alberta.

He struggled with guilt, flashbacks and drinking. He had become scared of driving, going to restaurants and walking into Wal-Mart.

"He was one of the most severe cases of PTSD that I had seen in my career," Dr. Furman testified. "There was clear evidence that he had been exposed to horrific events."

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After their first meeting, Dr. Furman saw Cpl. Collins for two-hour sessions twice a week. She received approval from the Canadian Forces to treat him. Military members are not covered by provincial health-care systems.

The young soldier wanted to get better, Dr. Furman said. He reduced his drinking and avoided parties and a friend's engagement bash, because he didn't want to be tempted. However, he declined alcohol treatment, saying he could quit on his own.

Dr. Furman worked with him to control his temper and ground him in reality. Military psychiatrist Catherine Phillips also saw Cpl. Collins, talking with him and monitoring his medication. He was taking an anti-depressant, sleeping pills and anti-psychotic medication to stabilize his mood.

Cpl. Collins met with Dr. Furman the day before he hanged himself. She saw no signs then that he was a suicide risk. Instead, he was excited about his future and about getting married. He recently got a cat and was enjoying his woodworking job in the military.

He was slated to be transferred to the Joint Personnel Support Unit. Both he and his psychologist didn't know much about the unit created in 2008 to help ill and wounded soldiers heal. He said he hoped to take a soapstone-carving class at the JPSU, to keep seeing Dr. Furman and remain in his woodworking job at the Edmonton base.

"He knew he had a long way to go, but he was highly motivated to recover," Dr. Furman told the inquiry.

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It appears Cpl. Collins reported to the JPSU on the morning of March 9, 2011. He later went drinking at a bar on base, ignored a bartender's urging that he not drive away in his black SUV and then was stopped by the military police and arrested.

He smelled of alcohol, Sgt. Parkin, then a corporal, testified. He was aggressive and resisted arrest. When he was told he would be detained, Cpl. Collins got more agitated. He yelled at Sgt. Parkin and another corporal not to call him a detainee. That was a loaded word in Afghanistan.

Less than two and half hours later, Cpl. Collins was found hanged in his cell. The military police guardhouse's video-monitoring system wasn't working and its cell doors posed a hanging hazard, the inquiry has heard. At the time, the military cells did not meet Canadian correctional standards.

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