To read the story behind the Globe's unprecedented, far-reaching investigation into soldier suicides, please click here.
The Globe and Mail's exposé about the suicides of 54 veterans of the Afghanistan mission is upsetting for any number of reasons, but none more so than for the fact that the federal government tried to keep these deaths out of the public's sight. The details of some of the suicides had to be pried from the Department of National Defence as if they were state secrets; others were only gleaned by examining military obituaries going back 10 years.
Why the secrecy? We would accept the argument that the privacy of the soldiers and their families was a concern, if not for the fact that family members have proved eager to talk publicly about their losses. These same parents and spouses were also keen to discuss the lack of adequate support available for combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that raises the suspicion that the DND and Veterans Affairs Canada have been more worried about public perception than the well-being of soldiers.
Clearly, the fact that 54 Afghanistan veterans – and that number is undoubtedly higher – killed themselves, compared with 158 killed in action, is troubling for the government. It would prefer to minimize the suicides. But there is a consequence to that. By not being upfront about it, the generals and bureaucrats have created a culture that has added to the stigma of PTSD.
Visible war wounds – a missing limb, a scarred torso – are easy to corroborate and relatively simple to treat. PTSD is invisible and requires complicated, long-term treatments. It manifests as a drinking problem, in mood swings, as insomnia and paranoia. Our soldiers do and see terrible things so we don't have to, and they suffer for it the same way we would, if we were them. It's easy to sympathize – unless, apparently, you work for the federal government or the Armed Forces.
The government should publicly state that PTSD is a war wound like any other; soldiers who take their lives because of PTSD should be given the same military honours and recognition as soldiers killed in battle or who died of their wounds later. The names of the 54 should be added to memorials and monuments. Such a move would bring honour to them and to their families, and properly demonstrate the nation's gratitude for their sacrifice.
We'll discuss other solutions later this week.
Are you a military family with a similar story? E-mail reporter Renata D'Aliesio at RDaliesio@globeandmail.com as she continues to bring attention to this important issue.