Grant Palmer had a special Mother's Day planned for his wife, Anita Cenerini. He organized a weekend in Thunder Bay with all her children: three-year-old Jacob, the youngest, who lived with the couple in Winnipeg; Michelle, who was finishing her last year of high school in Marathon, Ont.; and 22-year-old Thomas, the eldest, an infantry soldier nicknamed L'il Trooper who had recently returned from the Afghanistan war.
Private Thomas Welch sounded upbeat when he talked with his mother over the phone the night before his flight to Thunder Bay from Ottawa. He said he was looking forward to spending time with his family, and had even been scheming to play a prank on his mom.
Around 3 p.m. the next day, Pte. Welch's family was waiting for him to arrive at the baggage carousel when they were called to the WestJet counter and led upstairs to a small chapel. What was going on, they nervously wondered. Two military workers broke the devastating news to them: Pte. Welch had taken his own life at the Petawawa base.
His mother and sister crumpled to the floor in tears. What happened at the base? What went wrong, Ms. Cenerini angrily asked. More than a dozen years later, she is still waiting for answers. The family heard plenty of rumours, but the military never provided them with an official record of events.
It also didn't hold a board of inquiry to uncover what happened to the young soldier and whether his experiences in Afghanistan contributed to his downward spiral, even though, as a Globe and Mail investigation discovered, Pte. Welch was the first Canadian soldier to kill himself after serving in the volatile operation. He died by suicide on May 8, 2004, just three months after returning from the war zone.
"I don't know any truth about his death. I don't know what went so terribly wrong that he ended his own life," an anguished Ms. Cenerini said at her Winnipeg home. She chokes on the word truth and breaks into sobs. Her son's suicide has left a deep void in the family and the lack of answers from the Canadian Armed Forces has stunted their healing.
The case exemplifies the debilitating distress endured by families when they're left in the dark. On Tuesday, military ombudsman Gary Walbourne will release recommendations from a collaborative review with the Forces that call for improving how the military deals with bereaved families and for enhancing the board of inquiry system.
"Having these boards of inquiry, especially when there is a death of a military member, can at the end of the day save lives. There are lessons learned. They are incredibly important," he said.
Ms. Cenerini suspects her son was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was constantly angry and agitated after his return from Afghanistan and was haunted by nightmares. His relationship with his girlfriend was also floundering, and he was drinking a lot.
A military inquiry could have uncovered what factors contributed to Pte. Welch's suicide and whether there were some early key lessons for Canada on caring for soldiers after their Afghanistan tours – deployments that continued for a decade after the private's death.
Yet the Forces confirmed last week that no board of inquiry ever took place. Only a lesser summary investigation was conducted, and its findings were never divulged to Pte. Welch's family.
The investigation report, which the military has retrieved from the government's Library and Archives Canada after The Globe made several inquiries last year, will soon be presented to the family, a military spokesperson said. Major Giselle Holland said the army will "do our utmost to answer any questions they might have."
Boards of inquiry into military suicides were not mandatory in 2004, but had been carried out in other cases. Rules were changed in August, 2008, making inquiries the standard in deaths by suicide. But practices remain inconsistent and the robustness of the internal probes varies.
More than 70 Afghanistan war veterans have killed themselves after serving in the mission, The Globe's ongoing probe of military suicides has found. Many were dealing with PTSD or other mental illnesses connected to their deployments.
Several families of soldiers lost to suicide have told The Globe they felt marginalized by the inquiry process – and even targeted for blame in some cases. Unlike a provincial coroner's inquest, military inquiries are closed to the public and media.
Pte. Welch grew up in Manitouwadge, a remote northwestern Ontario township surrounded by vast forests speckled with lakes. A gold rush surged through the region in the 1980s, drawing miners such as his father, Daniel Welch.
With the wilderness at his doorstep, Pte. Welch developed a love for the outdoors, often hiking, camping and fishing with his younger sister, Michelle. "We were always close. He was a protective older brother," she said.
Pte. Welch wanted to make a career out of protecting others. He had plans to become a police officer and thought military experience would help him. He signed up for the army on Aug. 27, 2001. Fifteen days later, the world changed.
The recent high-school graduate was with his mother and baby brother when the smouldering World Trade Center towers appeared on their television screen. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the al-Qaeda-orchestrated attack.
"I'm going to have to go to war, mom," his mother recalled him saying. She began crying and pleaded with him to drop out of the military. "They need me now more than ever, mom," he told her, draping his arm over her shoulder.
In August, 2003, the fresh-faced soldier deployed to Kabul with the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, part of Canada's contribution to the NATO mission formed after a U.S.-led invasion removed the Taliban government from power. Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization had been based in Afghanistan.
Pte. Welch was a trusted rifleman with a cool head. He worked hard and rarely complained, even when performing mundane tasks, his military mates said after his death. Small in stature, he was the L'il Trooper with a big heart and subtle sense of humour. He often played with the Afghan children who trailed behind the soldiers during patrols of Kabul. He gave the kids Werther's caramels and other candies that his mom sent in a steady stream of care packages.
Back at home, though, his family noticed troubling signs. During his two-week leave in the fall, he was sullen and withdrawn. Two soldiers from his battalion were killed during his break, but he didn't want to talk about it. He just wanted to go out, get drunk and forget.
"He was a completely different person," his sister recalled, the memory bringing her to tears. "He didn't have any emotions. He was very angry. He acted like he didn't care about us and he was drinking heavily."
He grew more distant in phone conversations after returning to Afghanistan. A Canadian solider attempted to kill himself during the deployment, which angered Pte. Welch, his mother said. Then, on Jan. 27, 2004, Corporal Jamie Murphy was killed and three other Canadian soldiers were wounded by a suicide bomber while on patrol. Pte. Welch was in tears on the phone the next day: "He said that should have been me, mom. That should have been me."
Pte. Welch and Cpl. Murphy were both rear gunners, he explained. Pte. Welch's platoon was supposed to be on that fateful patrol, but the schedule changed. She tried to comfort her son, but he was devastated. She could feel him slipping away.
Pte. Welch never planned to be in the army beyond his initial three-year contract. A 2002 work evaluation notes that he wanted to go to college when his term expired on Aug. 27, 2004.
But he felt pressure to stay and was torn by the decision he had to make. In fact, paperwork recommending his military contract be extended was presented to him in Afghanistan. A memo dated Nov. 6, 2003 states: "Pte. Welch is a very good soldier and valued member of his platoon. He is [a] team player who goes out of his way to ensure that platoon morale is high. He has proven himself a solid and dependable soldier … Pte. Welch is recommended for re-engagement."
Military documents that Ms. Cenerini kept show that her son refused to extend his army contract on April 7, 2004. But in the call before the Mother's Day weekend in Thunder Bay, he told her that he'd changed his mind and re-signed with the military that very day. He said he had a car to pay for and talked about wanting to get married and have kids some day.
His mother and stepfather were uneasy with his decision and didn't know what to make of his change of mind. It was the last time they heard from him.
"We replay the conversation over and over again," Mr. Palmer said.
Nearly a year after her son's suicide, Ms. Cenerini sent a note to the only e-mail address in his Yahoo account that didn't belong to a family member. She found the account on his computer, which she'd finally received back from the military.
"I don't know who you are – but I wonder if you could share with me what kind of relationship you had with Thomas," she wrote. "Thomas took his own life. If there is anything you can share with me to help me put the pieces together I would certainly be incredibly grateful. Sorry, if this news is a shock to you."
She was searching for answers because she had received scant information from the military.
Pte. Welch hanged himself inside his room at the Petawawa base, northwest of Ottawa. In the days after his death, conflicting stories and rumours swirled about what happened the night he died. His parents heard their son had been drinking and was upset with his ex-girlfriend and some friends. Another story suggested he was instead pining over an old love.
A military chaplain told them one thing, and another told them something else. When they got his computer back from the military, they found a loving letter to his ex-girlfriend, but it appeared to have been edited after he died, Ms. Cenerini said.
They even heard speculation that Pte. Welch had been killed.
"I would hear one thing and then go to another person and hear something else," Ms. Cenerini said. "It just made it unbearable."
She knew a military investigation had taken place, but was never told of its results, nor did she receive a copy of the coroner's report. No one talked to her about holding a board of inquiry.
Inquiries into military deaths by suicide were not mandatory then, but were often carried out to identify gaps and measures that could help prevent other deaths. Indeed, boards of inquiry had been held for much less serious incidents, such as the case of a missing parachute, former military ombudsman André Marin noted in a rebuke of the inquiry system in December, 2004.
For Mr. Marin, a summary investigation – the probe chosen for Pte. Welch's death – was not an adequate substitute for a board of inquiry, which has the power to gather evidence and hear from witnesses.
"In terms of optics, choosing a Summary Investigation over the more concerted effort involved in a Board of Inquiry can be seen as trivializing the importance of the event, an event that will invariably be of momentous consequence to the families of the deceased and to the military community," Mr. Marin wrote in his 2004 report.
Ms. Cenerini kept trying to get at the truth – a pursuit that eventually wore her down. On Feb. 16, 2005, she wrote to then-Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Denne, the commanding officer of her son's battalion, to express concerns about her son's mental health and depressive state in Afghanistan.
It's clear from his response to her that not much effort had been made to talk with Pte. Welch's family or friends about his mental state. The commander promised to send a copy of Ms. Cenerini's letter to the new commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment.
"I hope you know that had I known of his state of mind, I would have brought considerable influence to bear to ensure proper treatment was provided," the Lt.-Col wrote on March 30, 2005. "I will understand if you feel this is 'too little, too late,' but I hope you will agree that if we discover even a small piece of the puzzle that helps us intervene and prevent a recurrence of this kind of tragedy in the future, it has to be beneficial."
Pieces of a puzzle that a board of inquiry could have put together, if one had been called.
Mr. Denne declined an interview request to talk about why a summary investigation was ordered instead of an inquiry. He said the military should have all the pertinent records.
"For me to try to remember the factors that led to a decision that long ago would be conjecture at best," he wrote. "I sincerely hope that Private Welch's family, some of whom I met in Winnipeg with my RSM [regimental sergeant major] before I relinquished command of the battalion, can find closure through communication with the Department of National Defence."
An e-mail from Pte. Welch's mysterious Yahoo contact arrived in Ms. Cenerini's inbox the day after she wrote to the stranger. He said he'd been transferred to Pte. Welch's section and served with him in Afghanistan. They patrolled together almost every day and night. In quiet times, he said, Pte. Welch talked about how smart his younger brother was and shared stories about his sister. He also talked about leaving the army and going back to school.
"Thom was an ideal soldier but an even better person," he told Ms. Cenerini. "I knew right away that he would be a genuine friend in an organization where friendships were often not so sincere. I turned out to be correct."
He said Pte. Welch's suicide was a shock to everyone. He regretted not inquiring more forcefully about what had happened to his friend.
"Don't stop asking questions if you need answers," he implored Ms. Cenerini.
Nearly 13 years after her son's suicide, she hopes those answers are finally near.