Tragedies off the battlefield

Scott Taylor

Scott Taylor

Military’s sincere words about soldiers’ suicides are not enough

Last week, a trio of suicides by veteran combat soldiers rocked the Canadian military. While suicides often go unreported in the media for privacy concerns and respect for family members, in this instance the sheer rapidity of these incidents involving serving soldiers caused alarm.

As rumours swirled, the Defence Department revealed the identity of the three deceased.

On Wednesday, Warrant Officer Michael McNeil, who had a 19-year career with the Royal Canadian Regiment, died at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa in Ontario. On Nov. 25, the body of Master Cpl. William Elliott, a decorated veteran with the Second Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, was found at his home near CFB Shilo in Manitoba.

That same day, Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast died in a Lethbridge, Alta., hospital after he was found in distress at a correctional centre. A reservist with the Lethbridge-based 20th Independent Field Battery, Halmrast was being held on charges of domestic assault at the time of his death.

All three soldiers had served a tour in Afghanistan, with Elliott having been deployed twice to Kandahar.

Army Commander Lt.-Gen. Marquis Hainse was quick to issue a statement:

“The loss of a soldier in any circumstance is tragic, and we mourn with the family and friends of the deceased while the Canadian Army endeavours to support them in their loss.”

For those familiar with the tiny size of the Canadian Army, Hainse’s words ring true.

With just over 20,000 personnel, our army is like a small tribe or village. When you factor in the close camaraderie associated with military service and the bond of shared combat experience, the loss of a fellow soldier resonates profoundly. To lose comrades in battle is tough enough. To have them take their own lives once back on Canadian soil is even more tragic.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson echoed this after a committee meeting Thursday. Visibly shaken, Nicholson referred to the loss of three lives as tragedies and seemed keen to determine what steps to take institutionally to prevent future incidents.

“Nobody wants to see anything like this, and I look forward to any recommendations or findings,” Nicholson told reporters.

The problem with top-level sentiments of mourning and promises of prevention is that they run counter to the department’s track record to date on handling suicides. Last week’s incidents have attracted the media’s focus, and very quickly it was discovered that 74 serving soldiers have taken their own lives between 2008 and 2012. Of that number, a whopping 70 cases remain open military investigations.

This statistic certainly undermines Hainse’s public statement that claimed “it goes without saying that we take every death seriously and, as such, we will explore all facets of these situations to try and learn from them and reduce future occurrences.”

It will admittedly be difficult to learn from the previous suicide cases when over 95 per cent of the inquiries remain open. Rather than seeking possible solutions from a surgeon general who has at best five per cent of the necessary research concluded, it would seem evident that more resources need to be applied in seeking the causes of these tragedies.

What is not calculated is how many ex-soldiers have committed suicide after disappearing into civilian society. Once again, because of privacy issues and family emotion, most of these cases go unreported as news and are therefore difficult to track in statistics.

In the past, the Canadian military has claimed it also has no way of tracking such statistics. But given that all members are issued service numbers and all Canadian citizens require social insurance numbers and health cards, it would seem a no-brainer to begin tracking if they so desired.

While I do believe the sincerity of the expressed remorse from Hainse and Nicholson, let us hope that sentiment translates into some positive action soon.