In the wake of Afghanistan, many CAF members have been released from service, suffering from unseen wounds. DND’s inability to follow up means many are left feeling alone — and angry at the system.
by Jason McNaught
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DOZENS OF THE CAF’S most damaged soldiers are released from the military each year, left to their own devices as civilians, trying to make it in a world without structure, routine, or purpose.
They call nearly every week. You pick the receiver up and aren’t really sure what you are going to get at the other end of the line. One simply said — rather cryptically — “I’m coming to Ottawa, and I’m going to start a war.” And then we never heard from him again.
But mostly, when they get you on the phone, the best you can do is listen. Because you don’t really get a chance to say anything after “Hello.” They’ve been waiting for a human on the other end of the line, and when they finally get one, it all just comes out at once like the bursting of a giant dam of frustration and sadness and anger rushing through the receiver. You grab bits and pieces of information — the flotsam large enough to hold onto — and as the torrent keeps coming, you keep knitting these tiny, disjointed fragments together, trying to make sense of it. But sometimes it’s too late for these guys. Sometimes they don’t make much sense at all.
Once a soldier has been discharged from the Canadian Armed Forces, they are no longer a member of the Department of National Defence and aren’t included in statistical research or databases. Specifically, DND doesn’t keep track of the number of soldiers who commit suicide after their release from the military. After all, they’re civilians.
What the department will tell us is that 183 active duty soldiers took their own lives between 2002 and 2014 — more than were killed in combat in Afghanistan during Canada’s 13-year mission. By its own admission, DND explains that this is “not surprising as CF personnel are a screened employed population and would be expected to have lower rates of suicide as well as lower rates of other medical problems.” That comment highlights the real problem. As much as the CAF would like to appear in the public eye as committed to the well-being of its soldiers, what do you do for a young man or woman in the infantry that’s come forward with serious mental health issues? You certainly don’t put a gun in their hand.
That’s what makes this a very sensitive issue. Once a soldier is broken, his or her mental wounds may never heal. DND will pay for their cocktail of prescription medications, cover expenses for counselling, transportation, medical bills, etc., but out of the 4,500 soldiers that leave the Forces each year, 1,700 of them won’t be doing it of their own accord. Some are discharged outright, others make a pit stop at the beleaguered Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU), but eventually, a broken soldier will be freed into a world that, for some, will represent the polar opposite of their time in uniform: an environment with no structure, no support, and no purpose. And it’s here where some of them may choose to take their own lives.
That’s what makes DND’s official suicide rates in the CAF so … well, misleading. They’re mandated to screen out the soldiers that pose the highest mental health risks through the “universality of service” rule, and then make statements designed to convince the general public that they don’t have a suicide problem, going so far as to add that they can find “no consistent relationship … between deployment and the risk of suicide in the CAF.”
The 183 soldiers that took their lives in uniform either didn’t show up on DND’s radar, or were in JPSU and hadn’t been transitioned out before they did it. That means Trooper Stephan Jankowski, who committed suicide shortly after being discharged from the Army by gulping down the medication used to treat his PTSD, won’t be included in the CAF suicide rate. Neither will Corporal Leona MacEachern. She retired from the military after suffering from serious mental wounds and ended her life by driving her car into an oncoming transport truck on Christmas Day. Her husband described it as a “desperate final act,” but again, according to DND, it’s not their problem. They were civilians.
We read it all the time in the papers. “They’ve fallen through the cracks.” But what we’re failing to understand here is that no one is really falling … soldiers with serious mental wounds are walking through a gate that’s being opened for them.
There is an aggravating tragedy to all of this. These “former” soldiers were once deemed suitable to fight for their country. They were tested physically and mentally, put through their paces, and earned a spot in a fraternity with supposedly deep and lasting bonds. They weren’t depressed or mentally ill to begin with. They had friends, good memories, kids they loved and who loved them. And then something, or a series of things, began an unravelling. An unravelling that would lead them to isolation, to the loss of their uniform, their job, their livelihood, and sometimes to the gun, the pills, the knife, or the rope that would end their pain and suffering.
And week after week, we hear from these people: the ones who are the next to die. Former soldiers bleeding out in a dark corner of a room somewhere with gaping mental wounds — festering, infected, pustulous, hideous wounds that no one seems to know how to treat. DND can strip them of their uniforms and label them civilians, but they will always be soldiers, and we can’t forget that — no matter how “crazy” they’ve become.
Why? Because dying was easy compared to what these men and women are going through. The ones who find our number, or leave messages sometime through the night, seem inescapably trapped in a horrible nightmare they can’t snap out of. Esprit de Corps was once uncovering corruption and holding those responsible to account. Somewhere on the continuum between then and now, this raison d’être seems to have changed into an entirely different beast, one that currently has the magazine fielding calls on behalf of ex-soldiers suffering from all manners of mental wounds, where “making things right” isn’t as straightforward as uncovering hidden truths. Sometimes the people that call us just want someone to reach out, and be reached out to — but a lot of them are very, very angry.
DND’s policy of releasing the most damaged soldiers into the world and forgetting them isn’t just irresponsible, it’s extremely dangerous. And they’re either ignoring them, or they have no idea how people outside the military who pose a potential threat should be dealt with. Here’s a recent example:
In early May, Esprit de Corps took a call from a veteran who believes that his chain of command at 8 Wing Trenton collectively waged a psychological war against him, ultimately forcing the former captain to retire from the Forces. After a few discussions with the veteran, who now believes he will never be able to work again unless his name is cleared, he told Esprit de Corps that he was going to reciprocate the treatment he suffered at the hands of those people by waging his own psychological war against them. When asked to elaborate, he simply said, “An eye for an eye, and blood for blood.”
Not sure what to make of the threat after being emailed a list of names, Esprit de Corps decided to contact 8 Wing in the hope they would have a procedure for dealing with situations such as this. At first, the Military Family Resources Centre was contacted. After trying to establish how to proceed, the call was transferred to the Military Police. The story was relayed again, and again the call was transferred, this time from one MP to another, and then another. When Esprit de Corps finally were able to get the ear of an MP who agreed to take the call, even before hearing the full account of the story, he explained that he was transferring the call to Public Affairs. “But we have a list of names.” Perhaps the individual should at least be contacted, we suggested. But that fell on deaf ears.
The call was transferred once again, and the person on the other end of the line did not pick up. Esprit de Corps then called every Public Affairs officer listed at 8 Wing. All were either on leave or away from their desks. Finally, the decision was made to contact DND’s Media Liaison Office. At this point, we got someone who was prepared to listen.
Admittedly, the woman on the other end of the line didn’t understand why we would contact the media relations office about the problem. We explained repeatedly that it wasn’t for a story. It was a matter of due diligence. Esprit de Corps felt that close to a dozen people at 8 Wing may be in danger. She said she’d run it by her superior. We asked her name. She replied, “Patricia,” declining to give her rank and surname. Several follow up emails were made to the media relations office. No response.
Esprit de Corps contacted the veteran’s former padre at 8 Wing, imploring him to run it through the proper channels. He refused to speak about the topic based on confidentiality rules. Another email was sent to the Media Liaison Office. This time we asked to be contacted when there was movement on the file. A short time later, we were contacted by an individual who introduced himself as a supervisor at Public Affairs. He explained that he was aware of the problem, but didn’t give away any info on how the situation would be dealt with.
By this time, it has been weeks since the initial phone call was made. And to date, more than a month later, no one from DND has reached out to this veteran to try and diffuse the situation, or investigate the threat. Meanwhile, this individual’s anger grows day by day. With no job, and no purpose, the outrage over his alleged treatment has entirely consumed him.
This isn’t an isolated incident. For more than a year, Esprit de Corps has been reaching out to DND in order to provide them with the opportunity to reach out to these injured ex-soldiers, because simply writing their story, getting a reaction, and then forgetting them doesn’t sit well with the magazine’s collective conscience. But Esprit de Corps’ patience is wearing a little thin. Calls from outraged and disillusioned veterans aren’t slowing down — they’re increasing. It’s time for DND to take responsibility for the products they’ve created, and come to terms with the magnitude of the problem that’s now resting at the department’s feet. Veterans shouldn’t have to call us to get help.
We’re fighting a new war now, and Canada is losing. More than 183 soldiers have already died. Countless others have been lost out of uniform. Our government just spent somewhere in the neighbourhood of $22 billion dollars attempting to eradicate the Taliban and rebuild another country, but for some reason, they’re only feigning an assault on our nation’s greatest threat to domestic security, while the bulk of defence dollars are spent on new ships, armoured vehicles and fighter jets. Build one less Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship. Build one less fighter jet. Find the money … host a bake sale at DND HQ. Do anything, because hiding behind a thin wall of carefully crafted statistics isn’t going to make this enemy go away.