Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan has 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 – after the country's long and bloody ensnarement in the Afghanistan war.
The minister's call to action follows a Globe and Mail investigation that revealed nearly 60 military members and veterans killed themselves after serving in the 13-year NATO-led Afghan mission. A Canadian Forces report, which was completed in the summer but only released Tuesday – the day before Remembrance Day – showed that deployment may be emerging as a risk factor for suicide, particularly trauma and mental illness connected to the Afghanistan war.
The Forces had previously said it had not found a consistent relationship between serving overseas and increased suicide risk. The Globe had requested the newly released report in June through the Access to Information Act, but the newspaper was denied the records because they were supposed to be publicly released by Sept. 1, during the federal election campaign.
The delayed disclosure is just one of numerous roadblocks that The Globe faced in its more than year-long quest to find out how many soldiers have died by suicide after returning from the Afghanistan war and to assess what care these traumatized troops received.
The suicide count stands at 59 – more than one-third the number of Canadian troops who perished in the war itself. There are likely more suicides. The Canadian government does not regularly track veterans' deaths and has incomplete data on reservists, who made up more than one-quarter of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
In a statement Tuesday, the newly minted Defence Minister said he is concerned about the increased rate of suicide among military members. A former police officer who completed three tours in Afghanistan with the Canadian Forces, Mr. Sajjan has directed the chief of the defence staff to make the issue of suicides a "priority" and "identify a way forward."
"Throughout my career, I have seen first-hand the demands of military service, and the sometimes enormous impact it can have on members and their families. This is particularly relevant given our long combat mission in Afghanistan," said Mr. Sajjan, whose office declined a request to interview the minister Tuesday because it said he was tied up with briefings.
General Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, also expressed concern about the Surgeon-General's latest suicide report and findings. The Surgeon-General is the military's top health official. In a statement, Gen. Vance pledged to take action, saying the well-being of military members and their families is his highest priority.
"We already have an extensive suicide prevention program in place," Gen. Vance stated, "but clearly we must continually strive to improve.
"As directed by the minister, I will take action to determine what needs to be done to get our members the help they need," he added. A request to interview the general was declined Tuesday. His office said he was booked solid with preparations for the new Defence Minister and other files.
Wounded Warriors executive director Scott Maxwell said the veterans-assistance organization is encouraged by the Defence Minister's directive.
"This is a significant first step, so early in the mandate of Minister Sajjan, that speaks to the seriousness of veterans' suicide," Mr. Maxwell said.
Army veteran Darrell McMullin, whose son, Jamie, took his life in June, 2011 – a little more than two years after returning from the Afghanistan war – welcomed the overdue suicide review, but said he is concerned it will be a "whitewash."
"Just because Gen. Vance is going to do a review, it doesn't mean we're going to get the results that we're looking for," said Mr. McMullin, who served in the military for more than two decades. "I hope that they will finally realize that yes, it [suicide] is connected to their military service and yes, they need to do more for the soldiers," he added.
"The military will spend a fortune to train a soldier to go to war. They need to spend that same amount of money to repair that soldier when they come back."
The Surgeon-General's report states more research is needed to better understand why suicide risk has increased in the army and what role deployment played in the deaths of soldiers. From January, 2002, to the end of 2014, there were 80 suicides among regular-force males in the army, compared with 67 in the navy, air force and other military divisions, which combined made up a larger cohort. The army shouldered much of the combat in the Afghanistan mission, which wrapped up last year.
Overall, the report noted that suicide rates in the Forces did not significantly increase from 1995 to 2014, and were not statistically higher than those in the Canadian male population.
According to records obtained by The Globe through the federal access legislation, between January, 2002, and April 8, 2014, 183 military members who were still serving killed themselves; of those, 42 took their lives after returning from their Afghanistan tour.
The Globe investigation identified an additional 12 suicides – six of active-duty soldiers since April 8, 2014, and six of veterans in 2014 and 2015 – bringing the suicide count to at least 54.
Last week, the Forces provided The Globe with an updated suicide number – disclosing information that it had once tried to keep secret. This brings the count to at least 59.
The Forces also revealed another figure that it had been keeping secret: Of the 158 soldiers who died in the mission, six took their lives.
The Globe investigation examined the lives and deaths of four infantry soldiers who killed themselves after serving in Afghanistan, including the suicide of Corporal Jamie McMullin. They were all fathers and husbands, based in Gagetown near Fredericton. They all struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and the military's universality-of-service rule – which removes soldiers from the Forces if they are deemed unfit to deploy.
The Globe investigation found that questionable decisions were made in their care, and in the handling of their army careers. A shortage of mental-health staff and support programs was also a persistent problem, as was the military's process for releasing mentally wounded soldiers from the army.
Mr. Maxwell of Wounded Warriors said the organization hopes that Gen. Vance's review will lead to additional measures to help ill and wounded members and their families and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
With a report from Steven Chase
Are you a member of a military family with a similar story? E-mail Renata D'Aliesio at firstname.lastname@example.org as she continues to bring attention to this important issue.