Canada's new Veterans Affairs Minister is vowing to find a way to commemorate the 59 soldiers who served in Afghanistan and later took their own lives.
"They are part of our military family," Kent Hehr said in an interview. "A veteran is a veteran is a veteran."
The minister made the comments on Remembrance Day, when thousands gathered at the National War Memorial in Ottawa under grey skies to pay their respects to those Canadians who fought for their country, including the many who gave their lives in the process.
Mr. Hehr said he will consult former soldiers on how to proceed. "All of the proud soldiers who have served our country honourably ought to be recognized for their service and their sacrifice, including recognition of those who may have taken their own life," he said. "I will engage with veterans in the months ahead and, together, we will explore ways to better recognize all those who have fallen."
A recent Globe and Mail investigation found that 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. Last week, the military gave The Globe an updated suicide count, which raised the number to 59.
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.
On Wednesday in Ottawa, a bugler played the Last Post, artillery delivered a 21-gun salute near Parliament's East Block and CF-18 Hornet jet fighters roared overhead for Remembrance Day.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, placed a wreath at the tall granite memorial arch in downtown Ottawa, as did Governor-General David Johnston, who is commander-in-chief of Canada.
"Members of our Armed Forces – past and present – routinely put their lives on the line for our country," Mr. Trudeau said in a statement. "They represent the very best of what it means to be Canadian."
Sheila Fynes, whose son, Corporal Stuart Langridge, took his life four years after serving in the Afghanistan mission, believes he and other soldiers should be recognized alongside the 158 military members who died in theatre.
"There is no wall with their names on it. There is no flag that flies on the side of the highway. There is no Highway of Heroes" for them, Ms. Fynes said. "Other than a … plaque at Beechwood Cemetery, there is nothing – and that puts you in a really lonely place."
Mr. Hehr's pledge comes the same week 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 – after the country's long and bloody ensnarement in the Afghanistan war.
On Wednesday, the Veterans Affairs Minister talked in a statement of the challenges he faced after a stray bullet left him a paraplegic at the age of 22.
He said he wants soldiers and veterans to know the new Liberal government will not forget them. The former Conservative government's relationship with veterans soured over time amid charges the Tories were short-changing soldiers and former soldiers who needed support.
"When I was injured, I found the support I needed to rebuild my life and eventually go on to have a successful career in public life. In those moments I felt alone, there was always someone, somewhere I could turn to," Mr. Hehr wrote in a letter he posted on his Facebook page. "I want Canada's servicemen and women, and Canada's veterans to know they too are not alone, that all Canadians stand with them."
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.