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Politics Canadian veteran suicides should prompt action, advocates say

Canadian army soldiers board a CH-47 Chinook helicopter as they leave forward fire base Zangabad in Panjwai district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, June 18, 2011.

BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

To read the story behind the Globe's unprecedented, far-reaching investigation into soldier suicides, please click here.

Revelations that 59 Canadian soldiers and veterans who served in Afghanistan have since killed themselves should spur more action to help military personnel cope with the transition to private life, supporters and advocates say.

"Even though Afghanistan is over as far as Canada is concerned, soldiers are still suffering the effects of that," said Bronwen Evans, CEO of True Patriot Love Foundation, which helps soldiers, veterans and their families. Canada ended a bloody combat mission in Afghanistan in 2011 and a training mission there in 2014.

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Ms. Evans said she was "concerned and bothered" by the results of a Globe and Mail investigation that found at least 54 soldiers and veterans killed themselves after serving in the Afghanistan war – more than one-third of the number of Canadian troops who died in the war itself. On Monday, the military provided The Globe with an updated suicide count, which brings the number to at least 59.

Some struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and the military's universality-of-service rule – which removes soldiers from the Canadian Forces if they are deemed unfit to deploy. The Globe found there was a shortage of mental-health staff and support programs and that the military's process for releasing mentally wounded soldiers from the army left many who still wanted to serve feeling lost and betrayed.

In sum, the investigation suggests that the military and government are failing some of our most vulnerable troops.

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.

"This is the reason my office continues to focus on transition. For a person to transition successfully, they have to be medically whole, financially whole and compensated fairly for pain and suffering.

The incoming Liberal government promised during the election campaign to invest an additional $100-million aper year to expand supports for families who are caring for veterans with physical or mental-health issues.

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Justin Trudeau, sworn in as prime minister on Wednesday, also committed to making life more affordable for disabled veterans by re-establishing the system of lifelong pensions and increasing the disability award for those who were injured in the line of duty. In addition, he promised to expand access to the permanent impairment allowance for veterans with career-ending injuries, and to increase the earnings-loss benefit to 90 per cent of a veteran's pre-release salary.

Ms. Evans said the Department of National Defence and the Department of Veterans Affairs must better co-ordinate how they transfer the files of ex-soldiers. They've already begun improving this, she said, adding it's not just government that can do better.

She said the private sector should do more to help soldiers find jobs after they leave the military. "What can really affect somebody's mental well-being is being unemployed," Ms. Evans said. "If you're somebody who's been medically released from the military, and you don't have a job and you've lost your sense of meaning and purpose – really, at the end of the day, it's the private sector that is going to give [soldiers] the jobs."

David Mulroney, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs who was the Deputy Minister responsible for the Afghanistan Task Force that co-ordinated the work of government departments in the war zone, said it is clear that more help is needed.

Veterans who are suffering should be provided with long-term counselling, with no statute of limitations, because mental issues can emerge years or even decades after the service, Mr. Mulroney said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

"I had the chance to meet soldiers serving in Afghanistan and anyone who had that opportunity realizes what an incredible contribution they made at an even more incredible cost. So they deserve the gratitude and recognition by Canadians," Mr. Mulroney said. "How we treat veterans is a good measure of where we are as a country and we cannot fail in this."

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In addition, he said, there are civilians who were deployed to Afghanistan who have received less than the treatment they deserved.

"I spent a lot of time on the phone, not just with civilian departments but also with people like the RCMP, who tended to see those civilians who had been deployed to Afghanistan as being outside the promotional cycle and sort of forgotten about," said Mr. Mulroney.

Some of them also suffered mental trauma, he said, "I am absolutely sure of it." But the government made no effort to recognize their service might have been difficult or exceptional, said Mr. Mulroney.

The new Liberal caucus includes several former members of the military who could put pressure on senior levels of the Trudeau government to live up to its promises to veterans and members of the Forces who are dealing with postcombat issues.

They include retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, who was a chief of the land staff; former naval captain Marc Garneau, who became the first Canadian astronaut to fly in space; former lieutenant-colonel Karen McCrimmon, the first woman to command a Canadian Forces flying squadron; lieutenant-colonel Harjit Sajjan, who served three times in Afghanistan; former Air Force major Stephen Fuhr, who flew CF-18s; and former Air Force logistics officer Leona Alleslev.

Murray Rankin, a New Democrat MP, said Canadians care about the men and woman they send into combat and deserve to know more about how they are treated when they return home.

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The government of Stephen Harper mishandled the veterans file, said Mr. Rankin – something he said was evident in the outcry from veterans' groups and, eventually, from members of Mr. Harper's own Conservative Party.

"I want to be optimistic about the Liberals and to give them every opportunity to do the right thing," he said. "There is an urgent need to address these wrongs."

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