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Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, left, and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance attend the Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 11. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, left, and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance attend the Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 11. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Defence Minister vows to prioritize mental health of soldiers at every stage Add to ...

Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, a veteran of Canada’s war in Afghanistan, says he has personally known soldiers from this conflict who have taken their lives, and on his watch the military will make the mental health of Forces personnel a priority at every stage of its dealings with them.

The former Vancouver police officer said his thoughts are immediately drawn to the families of these soldiers.

Asked about the suicides of those he knew, Mr. Sajjan begged off, saying “it’s not about me,” but rather about “what the families are going through.”

He found himself tongue-tied when asked to elaborate on the impact of suicides on the children, spouses and relatives.

“I can’t even begin to describe,” he said. “How do you put things into words? It’s hard.”

A recent Globe and Mail investigation revealed that nearly 60 military members and veterans killed themselves after serving in the 13-year Afghan mission led by NATO. A Canadian Forces report released on Nov. 10 showed that deployment may be emerging as a risk factor for suicide, particularly trauma and mental illness connected to the Afghanistan war.

(Read the story behind the Globe's unprecedented, far-reaching investigation into soldier suicides)

The Globe found 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.

The investigation suggests the military and government are failing some of Canada’s most vulnerable troops.

Since then, Mr. Sajjan has ordered Canada’s top military leaders to make suicide prevention a priority and to 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 said changes are afoot in how Ottawa is handling mental health and soldiers.

He said the Department of National Defence will ensure “that as we move forward, and we ask our service men and women to do some impossible things, that we do look after them and the mental health component is right up there as a priority for us.”

Last week, Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance told The Globe and Mail he is 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 – with the goal of helping them build resilience to handle personal setbacks better.

In mandate letters to his ministers made public last Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed Mr. Sajjan and Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr to make a new suicide-prevention strategy a priority.

Mr. Hehr has said he wants to ensure the 59 soldiers who served in Afghanistan and took their own lives are commemorated the same way as all Canadian veterans.

“They are part of our military family,” Mr. Hehr said in an interview last week on Remembrance Day. “A veteran is a veteran is a veteran.”

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