A war veteran whose personal medical files were inappropriately accessed by bureaucrats at the Department of Veterans Affairs said the experience left him feeling so terrified and helpless his wife had to stop him from committing suicide.

Retired intelligence officer Sean Bruyea, an outspoken advocate for soldiers, said he knew officials at the department had read and shared his personal information five years ago. That was around the time he was testifying against the new Veterans Charter, because benefits he had previously qualified for were being denied.

Bruyea is a Gulf War veteran who was seeing a psychologist for post-traumatic stress disorder. He and his wife, Carolina, were also in couples counselling because of his health problems.

Bruyea said it was "hell" during the five years between his 2005 testimony and last Thursday's announcement by Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart that his files were indeed accessed and shared among department staffers.

"I suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, and at the core of post-traumatic stress disorder is fear for my life, fear for my security, the security of my wife," Bruyea told CTV's Question Period on Sunday.

"So when we lost control of my personal life and they started trying to force these assessments in their hospitals, I was terrified, I was helpless, I was powerless and frankly Carolina had to save me a couple of times from doing myself in and she actually had to physically stop me. And that was hard."

Stoddart's year-long investigation stemmed from a complaint made by Bruyea that his personal and medical information was contained in briefing notes prepared for then-veterans affairs minister Greg Thompson in 2006. The notes covered Bruyea's participation in a press conference in which he was critical of the department.

"What we found in this case was alarming," Stoddart said Thursday in a news release.

"The veteran's sensitive medical and personal information was shared -- seemingly with no controls -- among departmental officials who had no legitimate need to see it. This personal information subsequently made its way into a ministerial briefing note about the veteran's advocacy activities. This was entirely inappropriate."

Bruyea's medical information, including his diagnosis, symptoms and prognosis, were also found in a 2005 briefing note for staff in the former Liberal government. Stoddart's investigation also revealed that Veterans Affairs sent volumes of Bruyea's medical information to a veterans' hospital without his consent.

'I was terrified'

Bruyea said while he was trying to have his benefits reinstated he was asked to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at a government-chosen hospital, a sign he believed that the government was trying to discredit him.

"I was terrified," Bruyea told Question Period. "As an intelligence officer who studied Soviet Russia, I knew about the gulags in Stalinist Russia and I thought, ‘This isn't much different. I mean, they're trying to make my advocacy a psychological issue.'"

At one point, Carolina, then a recent immigrant from Mexico, told Sean to back down from his advocacy work and volunteered to work two jobs to support them and pay for his therapy if the government permanently cut his benefits.

"When Sean started advocating, I said ‘Sean are you sure of what you're doing? You are confronting people that have power,'" she told Question Period. "He was confronting people that controlled things in his life and I was just afraid."

Bruyea assured her that in Canada, citizens don't have to fear reprisals for exercising free speech, but his opinion changed when he saw a memo in which a department official suggested bureaucrats get tough on him for his criticism.

"When I received that memo I was stunned that I suddenly became subversive, I became a dissident, I became an enemy of the state for the very department that I was trying to help so that it can improve the treatment of veterans," Bruyea said. "I didn't get that. For me, it was mind-boggling."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has since called the breach "completely unacceptable" and Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn said the department will adopt the privacy commissioner's four recommendations. He also said the department's rules for using private information and penalties for breaking confidentiality rules are being reviewed.

Bruyea has filed a lawsuit against the federal government for about $200,000 in compensation, but because he is unemployed will likely only be awarded $20,000 if he wins, he said.

But he said Stoddart's findings go a long way to vindicating him in his battle to prove his privacy had been violated.

"We don't have to survive anymore," Bruyea said. "Now we can start living. So for us it was five years of just constantly keeping our head above the water, and now we get to live safely in the country which I became disabled fighting for."