Soldiers who fought in major international conflicts are often reluctant to speak about the human destruction they witnessed during combat and in its aftermath. Their desire to spare others the horrifying images that they couldn't look away from is a hallmark of the veteran's courage. But, in too many cases, those images, along with the stress of battle, are also his or her undoing.
Now a new study from the military's Surgeon-general has made a direct link between suicide and the fact of being deployed on dangerous missions in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Based on records kept since 2002, when Canada began sending troops into battle in Afghanistan, the suicide rate of regular force males is 32 per 100,000 – almost double the normal rate for men.
The study's authors acknowledge that many factors besides overseas tours can contribute to a suicide, including mental illness, relationship problems, addictions and debt. But, they add, "there is strong evidence that the mission in Afghanistan has had a powerful impact on the mental health of an important minority of personnel who deployed in support of it."
A Globe and Mail investigation has revealed that at least 71 soldiers and veterans took their lives after serving in Afghanistan, a conflict that saw 152 Armed Forces members killed in action in Afghanistan, and another six take their own lives while on tour.
Put another way, for every two Canadian soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan, one more took his or her own life.
There is no question that there are multiple reasons a person might commit suicide. It is never a simple matter. But the additional burden of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder may be too much to bear for soldiers also suffering from depression, or going through a hard time at home, financially or romantically.
Military brass have acknowledged that there is a rising rate of suicides in the Armed Forces and say they will do something about it. This won't be easy, but it is absolutely necessary. The Surgeon-general's report only adds to the urgency. Soldiers who defend Canada in battle deserve to enjoy the peace they helped preserve when they return home. If more money and resources are required, Ottawa should be quick to make them available.