Calls grow for more government aid after fourth soldier suicide in a week
Published Wednesday, December 4, 2013 12:18PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, December 4, 2013 10:24PM EST
The chorus of voices calling for more government aid in support of soldiers and veterans is growing as army officials confirmed the death of a soldier as the fourth apparent military suicide in a week.
The Canadian Forces said an investigation is underway into the death of a soldier at CFB Valcartier in Quebec. The soldier -- 46-year-old Sylvain Lelievre -- was reportedly a member of the Royal 22e Regiment.
Last week, the apparent suicides of three other Canadian soldiers raised questions about the services and care offered to troubled soldiers and veterans.
Warrant officer Michael McNeil died last Wednesday at the Canadian Forces Base Petawawa in Ontario. Earlier in the week, Master Cpl. William Elliott died at his home just outside CFB Shilo in Manitoba, while Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast died in Lethbridge, Alta., following a suicide attempt at a corrections facility.
The deaths prompted a response from Canada’s top general, Chief of Defence Staff Tom Lawson, who said in a statement Wednesday that “any, each, and every suicide is a tragedy, and the loss of any soldier is painful and heartbreaking to our men, women and families.
“As you’re already aware, we each have a role to serve in identifying and assisting those affected by mental health concerns,” he said, encouraging soldiers who are struggling to seek help immediately.
“Don’t underestimate the direct, positive impact you can have as a leader, as a friend, or as a subordinate. We can all note changes in behaviour, we can all listen to each other, and we can all aid in seeking help,” Lawson said.
In question period Wednesday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called news of the deaths “troubling” and asked the Conservatives what they’re doing “to address this tragic situation.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it’s everyone’s “responsibility to encourage” those who need support to seek help from programs already in place.
“Those supports are available and of course, we will make sure they will continue to be available,” he said.
NDP MP Peter Stoffer said one of the biggest problems facing military personnel is that when they come forward with a problem “the clock ticks” toward the termination of their military career.
“Will the minister now today rethink the universality of service to allow the men and women who do come forward to stay in the military until they receive all of the psychological, rehabilitation and educational opportunities and then transfer over to another career?”
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said “every possible accommodation” is made to ensure that soldiers receive access to services and are kept in the forces.
“The chief of defence staff and the chief of military personnel have assured me that members of the Canadian Armed Forces are not released until they are prepared for that transition,” he said.
Earlier Wednesday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called the situation for the soldiers “extremely tragic” and said that, as it stands, the government is not doing enough for veterans and their families.
‘We need to know how many are sick’
Veterans’ advocates are warning government officials that the four deaths are part of a much more pervasive problem affecting personnel returning from combat, many of whom may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in silence.
Canadian Forces ombudsman Pierre Daigle told CTV’s Power Play Wednesday said the stigma of mental illness has diminished over the past decade. However, many soldiers are still afraid to come forward and admit they are suffering because “they are afraid for their career.”
“We need to know how many of them are sick out there. There is no national database yet that tells the system how many people are suffering, because some don’t come forward, some don’t reply to the right questionnaire and so on,” Daigle said.
“So unless you know how many you have, what’s the scope of your problem, you can’t prioritize your resources in the right place.”
Daigle also said that there are 76 mental health care providers who have been screened and are ready to treat military members, but “because of some kind of bureaucratic complexity, they’re still not in the system.”
Sen. Romeo Dallaire said while improvements have been made in mental health programs for soldiers in the last 15 years, there is still data missing, including information about the thousands of reservists scattered across the country.
“The question is, how affected are we and by-the-by now that the shooting has stopped, are the budgets going to stay there and are we still putting the same interest in it?” Dallaire told Power Play.
Dallaire said post-traumatic stress disorder is an injury that can become “terminal,” and soldiers must be able to access therapists and a peer-support network in order to cope.
He said it is crucial that soldiers find a peer “who’s lived it,” and talk through their pain together.
“Secondly, you’ve got to remember you are never alone. One of the dangers of this thing is that you end up not being able to explain to people. You’re keeping all that in yourself and you just continue to internally hemorrhage and you feel as if you’re the only one on earth that’s crashing like this and you might as well get rid of it because no one really understands you.”
He acknowledged, however, that it’s difficult for many soldiers to come forward.
“Expecting guys to appear just because they’re hurting, in a Darwinian outfit like the military, that’s still something we’re working on.”
Dallaire had apologized Tuesday after falling asleep at the wheel of his car and crashing into a barrier on Parliament Hill. The retired general said news of last week’s soldier deaths, coupled with the coming 20th anniversary of the genocide, has left him unable to sleep, even with medication.
Dallaire has documented and spoken publicly about his battle with depression in the years following his return from Rwanda.
The recent soldier deaths have prompted others to share their stories, including Private Leah Greene, who told CTV News she considered suicide after sustaining an injury four years ago.
While she never served in combat, Greene says the military ignored her cries for help.
Anxious and depressed, she recently went AWOL and is now hiding in Ottawa.
“I feel that when I got injured it was the death of a service member,” she said, “I was no longer part of anything.”
On Wednesday, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said news of the Quebec soldier’s death is heart-wrenching.
"It's absolutely heartbreaking and troubling in the extreme that anyone, soldiers in particular, find themselves in a position that they see no hope and take their own lives," MacKay said, speaking on his way into the weekly Conservative caucus meeting in Ottawa.
He said the federal government is doing what it can to provide support to soldiers returning from combat in Afghanistan, and that more support is coming.
“We’re been preparing for the increase in stress because of the Afghanistan mission by putting in place these joint personnel support units,” he said.
For his part, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino breezed past reporters after the Tory caucus, refusing to answer questions on the topic of the recent deaths.
With files from The Canadian Press and CTV's Richard Madan