Despite trying to maintain journalistic objectivity, any story about death in a family can tear a piece out of a reporter’s heart.
Take the case of Shaun and Sheila Fynes and their son, Cpl. Stuart Langridge. His story is a spiral from a decorated, successful soldier to depression, despair, drug and alcohol abuse and, finally, his tragic, lonely suicide by hanging in March 2008 at the Canadian Forces Base in Edmonton. He was 28.
“It’s beyond comprehension to me that my son should be so unhappy,” said his mother, Sheila.
It's beyond comprehension because Stuart was a soldier who loved what he did.
He joined the Cadets at the age of 12, moved to the Reserves and finally to the regular army when he was 19, serving as a tank gunner in Lord Strathcona’s Horse, an armoured regiment based in Edmonton.
One performance evaluation by his Army superiors said that Stuart “Possesses above average potential for promotion.”
But something changed when Stuart went to Afghanistan in 2004. Something terrible happened there, something that Stuart wouldn’t talk about. By the time he came back to Canada he was different man.
“We started to hear that he wasn’t sleeping well,” said his mother. “He was having nightmares and night terrors and we were aware that he was starting to drink more than he had in the past.”
No official diagnosis
Tests showed Stuart had the symptoms of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But the diagnosis was never made official.
“No one wanted to look past the symptoms,” said Sheila. “And because he didn’t disclose a specific incident, therefore it couldn’t happen. But Stuart said, ‘I can’t talk about my stuff because if I do it’s a career ender.’”
But by 2007, Stuart’s career had already stalled and that sent him spinning deeper into depression. He was in and out of hospital, drinking, taking drugs and he tried to take his own life five times.
“As a mom, I was just so worried,” said Sheila . “He said I need help. And I said, 'You need to go to the army.' I know that they will get you into a rehab somewhere. They look after their men.”
But now Sheila believes the military failed her son.
At 3:30 on the afternoon of March 15th, 2008, Stuart was found dead – hanging in his room at the Canadian Forces Base in Edmonton.
The Fynes got a phone message from the base commander. When Shaun called back he learned his stepson was dead.
“And Sheila shrieked, I told them this would happen,” said Shaun. “Sheila had been told three or four days before that he was safe, that he was being watched 24/7.”
The army calls that close monitoring “a Suicide Watch,” but Sheila believes their son wasn’t watched closely enough.
“Our son should not be dead,” said Sheila.
It was sad enough to lose their son, but learning about the way Stuart’s body was treated after his death only added to their grief.
More grief for stricken family
“It was almost quarter after seven at night when they cut him down,” said Sheila. “They found him at 3:30. Four hours they left him. They left him as they found him.”
As more details of the Military Police investigation into Stuart’s suicide came to light, the Fynes’ grief turned to anger. A suicide note he had written before his death was kept secret for 14 months.
“That’s the one thing that they really haven’t been able to explain away,” said Sheila. “They say that it’s regretful, that they changed their policy. Somebody else said they forgot.”
At the end of the note, Stuart wrote, “I don’t deserve any kind of fancy funeral, just family.” But that didn’t happen.
“We didn’t acknowledge and recognize his wishes because we were unaware of them,” said Shaun. “Stuart had a military funeral at CFB Edmonton.”
Apart from the funeral, there were mix-ups over Stuart’s pension and will, leaving the Fynes with so many unanswered questions. And three Military Police inquiries – inquiries where the military investigated itself – didn’t satisfy the Fynes.
Finally, in 2012, the Military Police Complaints Commission, an independent body run by civilians, agreed to hear their case. Shaun and Sheila sat through eight months of testimony and listened to 92 witnesses. It was as painful experience as, once again, Stuart’s last hours were exposed and his death examined in every detail.
The Military Police took the position that everything had been done properly except for a few human errors. But some of the facts that emerged were truly shocking.
The original report that was written soon after Stuart’s death referred several times to “a list of personnel available to assist in a suicide watch on Corporal Langridge.”
But there was a second version, written three days later, and all references to that list had been removed.
“When I read the second report, it’s been polished,” said Michel Drapeau, a former colonel in the Canadian Army who is now a lawyer and represents the Fynes. “It’s been reduced. It’s been made to present a picture that is incomplete, that is beneficial to the organization that is the chain of command, and certainly damaging to Stuart Langridge.”
W5 requested an interview with the Military Police, but they turned us down and issued a statement which ended with the words, “We are confident that the MPCC final report will provide a balanced and fair assessment of our investigations into the death of Corporal Stuart Langridge.” Read the full statement here.
The Military Police Complaints Commission report probably won’t be published until 2014, but it has no teeth, no power to hold any individual responsible. All it can do is to provide findings and recommendations.
Drapeau hopes that one of those recommendations will be to hand over cases of suicide in the military to the Coroner’s Office, as happens in the United Kingdom. This would mean investigations would be taken away from the military to be handled by police or civilians.
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