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Calls grow for inquiry into veteran's triple murder-suicide

Wilfred Desmond holds a framed photo of his grandson, Lionel Desmond, in his home in Lincolnville, N.S., in January, 2017.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Calls are growing for an inquiry into a triple murder-suicide involving a mentally ill Afghanistan war veteran as serious questions persist about the medical care and support he received before and after his military release.

NDP Veterans Affairs critic Irene Mathyssen said the Canadian Forces have an obligation to examine how they handled Lionel Desmond, who in January shot and killed his wife, Shanna, 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda, before turning the gun on himself in their Nova Scotia home. Mr. Desmond was released from the Forces just 18 months earlier.

"He wasn't just one of those 70 poor souls who went somewhere quietly to end the pain," Ms. Mathyssen said. This is "about a horrific act that took a mother, a child, a spouse, and we risk that [happening] again and again, if we don't pay attention, if we don't have the soul-searching and difficult inquiries that this begs."

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Investigation: What happened to Lionel Desmond? An Afghanistan veteran whose war wouldn't end

To date, no inquiries have been called.

The Forces maintain they don't have the authority to investigate what happened because Mr. Desmond was no longer in the military, while the Nova Scotia Premier's Office wouldn't comment Sunday on the prospect of leading a probe.

Mr. Desmond, 33, is one of more than 70 Canadian soldiers and veterans who have killed themselves – and in rare cases, others – after serving in the Afghanistan war. A Globe and Mail investigation published on Friday revealed that the retired corporal, who had been an infantry soldier with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment in Gagetown, N.B., was struggling at home and at work after his return from Afghanistan in August, 2007. Yet, he wasn't assessed for post-traumatic stress until 2011.

Diagnosed with PTSD and major depression, Mr. Desmond was prescribed several drugs and advised to attend psychotherapy, but his mental state deteriorated, according to a psychiatric assessment obtained by The Globe. He was hyper-vigilant, quick to anger, had dissociative experiences and frequently thought about suicide, his psychiatrist noted.

His mental health worsened after he was released from the Forces on July 16, 2015. With no job prospects, suicidal thoughts lingered. Yet, Mr. Desmond was able to obtain a firearm licence from New Brunswick's Department of Public Safety, The Globe investigation revealed.

Not long afterward, the family moved to the rural Nova Scotia community of Upper Big Tracadie, where both Mr. Desmond and his wife, Shanna, grew up. Relatives said the young vet was struggling to access the medical care he needed through the provincial health system.

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Former veterans' ombudsman Pat Stogran said the life and death of Mr. Desmond highlight long-standing problems with how the military deals with soldiers who are injured on the job. Many of them are medically discharged, even though they want to keep working.

"They're kicking them out. They're deeming them unfit for service," said Mr. Stogran, who supports calls for an inquiry. "This is a huge problem that has to be splayed open for the Canadian people."

Military boards of inquiry are routinely called when serving members take their own lives. The inquiries are designed to uncover what factors contributed to the death and offer recommendations to help prevent further suicides.

The Forces maintained they have no legal mandate under the National Defence Act to investigate the death of a veteran, but the language in Section 45 of the Act appears to offer Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan some latitude. The minister may convene a board of inquiry into "any matter connected with the government, discipline, administration or functions of the Canadian Forces."

Military spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said work is under way to improve the support and programs offered to soldiers slated for release. A new model is expected next year.

"Regardless of what led to Mr. Desmond's actions or whether or not there is an official inquiry, we know that we need to do more," Ms. Lamirande said. "We need to keep working towards implementing changes to our transition services and improve our delivery to those transitioning to civilian life."

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Retired Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer, a former NDP Veterans Affairs critic, is urging Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil to step up.

"There's nothing stopping the Premier of Nova Scotia from taking a leadership role and saying to his federal counterparts, 'Let's work together, let's develop an inquiry that involves all three levels and then let's get to the bottom of this.' Most importantly, open it up, so that the general public has an idea of what's going on."

The Premier's Office wouldn't comment on the prospect of leading an inquiry into the Desmond family tragedy. A spokesperson noted that the Nova Scotia Health Authority has completed a review of Mr. Desmond's interaction with the health system and officials will meet with the family to discuss the findings and recommendations. Nova Scotia medical examiner Matthew Bowes has the authority to order a provincial fatality inquiry, but has yet to decide whether one will be convened in this case.

Conservative MP John Brassard, the party's Veterans Affairs critic, said the Forces and Veterans Affairs have received a slew of recommendations over the years for improving how they deal with mentally ill members.

"We're very good at building up our soldiers to prepare for combat, but we need to do a better job when they come back," said Mr. Brassard, who, along with Ms. Mathyssen, is part of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs. The committee has recently focused its work on mental health and suicide prevention and its report is expected to be tabled in Parliament on Monday.

Lindsay Jones is special to The Globe and Mail

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About the Author
National news reporter

Renata joined The Globe and Mail's Toronto newsroom in March of 2011. Raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Renata spent nine years reporting in Alberta for the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, covering crime, environment and political affairs. More

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