Retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire is urging commanders to get more involved in preventing suicides of military members in the wake of a mounting number of soldiers who have taken their lives after serving on the Afghanistan mission.
Mr. Dallaire, who led an understaffed United Nations peacekeeping team in Rwanda in 1994 during one of the worst genocides of modern times, said the well-being of soldiers struggling with mental-health issues after deployment can't solely be left to doctors and therapists.
"The chain of command is the one who keeps those guys alive in the field, but when they get into garrison, we tend to try to want to push them aside," the former Liberal senator said. "It is by simply observing people and being with them and noticing them – and the chain of command has that responsibility in garrison as much as in the field – that we will reduce the [suicide] numbers significantly."
A Globe and Mail investigation revealed that at least 70 military members and veterans have been lost to suicide after returning from their perilous Afghanistan tours – nearly one-third higher than the 54 revealed by the newspaper one year ago. The Globe launched its initial investigation after a rash of suicides in 2013.
Many of the subsequent deaths are linked to the trauma of the mission, but they are not included in the country's official toll of 158, which includes six soldiers who killed themselves in theatre. Suicides that came after the mission should also be counted, Mr. Dallaire contended.
"Those are all the casualties that have happened from the Afghanistan mission. Not mentioning them in the same sentence is fundamentally wrong. It doesn't show the true cost of that mission," said the former army commander, whose new memoir, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD, delves into his suicide attempts and how he copes with what he witnessed in Rwanda.
The Afghanistan war was Canada's longest military operation. Of the 70 service members and veterans lost to suicide after returning from the mission, 56 were in the Canadian Forces and 14 had been released, The Globe's investigation found. Reporters interviewed families and close friends of 31 of the fallen to commemorate these dedicated soldiers and to examine whether the military and government did enough to help them.
Together, their stories expose disturbing failures, including delayed care, ineffective medical treatment and insufficient mental-health support. Twelve of the 31 took their lives within two years of returning from their last Afghanistan tour, raising questions about the medical evaluations done after their deployments and the aid provided.
Fourteen of the fallen were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to their families and documents obtained by The Globe, while a coroner's inquiry identified the mental illness in one other case. In another 10, families saw signs of PTSD but the illness wasn't diagnosed. In some instances, soldiers feared seeking help would scuttle their military careers, their families said.
General Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, is expected to speak with The Globe this week about the suicide issue. The Forces only last year acknowledged that deployment may be emerging as a risk factor for suicide, noting there has been a significant increase in suicides among those in combat roles and under army command.
National Defence and Veterans Affairs are working together on a suicide-prevention strategy, mandated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year after The Globe's initial investigation of military suicides. An expert panel, whose membership has not been released, met for the first time in late October. The panel is reviewing mental-health programs and suicide-prevention activities to determine whether improvements are needed, but it's unclear when it will deliver its findings. The last review of the military's suicide-prevention programs was in 2009. That evaluation led to 59 recommendations.
Many factors are usually involved in the suicide of a military member or veteran, but Mr. Dallaire believes the impact of an overseas mission, whether in war or peacekeeping, cannot be dismissed. Often, the trauma of deployment is the catalyst for the soldier's deteriorating health, relationships and finances, he noted.
Recognition of the connection between deployment and suicide is growing, but a stigma remains. Most of the Afghanistan war veterans profiled by The Globe have not been recognized by Canada in the same manner as those who died while on the mission. Only eight of the 31 families have received the Memorial Cross and Sacrifice Medal, presented to families to honour those who died in service of Canada, whether in a firefight, training or by suicide connected to their military work. The Forces is now reviewing the other cases.
"They should be considered equivalent to those who are recognized for having been killed in action overseas," Mr. Dallaire said.
The mounting suicide toll among Afghanistan war veterans has triggered pleas for greater action from several members of a mental-health group advising Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr. Others are also calling for more support for ill and wounded military members and their families.
Bronwen Evans, chief executive of True Patriot Love Foundation, said increased access to mental-health services is paramount. With $1-million in funding over the next four years from Bell Media, the foundation will this year distribute grants to 13 organizations delivering mental-health support to veterans and their families. The programs receiving funding include music and equine therapy, service dogs and emergency housing.
Ms. Evans said many soldiers struggle to ask for support because they are trained to be strong. "I think part of the solution is asking for help, and being able to accept it."