Canada will honour more families who lost a loved one to suicide after deploying on the Afghanistan mission in the wake of a military and government review of 31 cases profiled by The Globe and Mail in the fall.
The Globe investigation revealed that only eight of the 31 families had received the Memorial Cross and Sacrifice Medal – created to commemorate soldiers whose deaths are attributable to military service and to pay homage to their families. In many other cases, a military board of inquiry or the Department of Veterans Affairs had determined that the suicides were service-related – in some instances several years ago – but the Afghanistan war veterans and their families had not been recognized.
Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Gauthier, head of honours and recognition for the Canadian Armed Forces, said the military and Veterans Affairs are working to rectify medal oversights and delays. Of the 23 suicides that were being examined as a result of the newspaper's inquiries, at least 10 more military members and their families will be honoured, and another four are likely as their case reviews near an end, he said.
Nine remain under review, awaiting documentation or the completion of a military inquiry.
"We all acknowledge that what the family is going through is already very difficult, and when there's a delay, in some cases several years later, this does not help them in their grieving process. We're all conscious of that and we're trying to improve the situation so the family is treated fairly in a timely manner," Lt.-Col. Gauthier said.
Death by suicide is supposed to be treated no differently than a death in combat or training. If it's connected to military service, families are presented with the Memorial Cross and Sacrifice Medal, and their loved one's name is added to the Canadian Virtual War Memorial and inscribed in the Books of Remembrance, which lie in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.
But the circumstances surrounding a suicide take longer to probe. When soldiers die on overseas operations, the Memorial honours are presented to families before funeral services, because the deaths are clearly connected to military work, Lt.-Col. Gauthier said.
Some of the Afghanistan war veteran suicides chronicled in The Globe were not on the radar of staff working on medal recognition, Lt.-Col. Gauthier conceded. The fallen members were single and had no children, and thus no Veterans Affairs' review of service-relation for death benefits was triggered. This review is often used to determine whether medals should be awarded.
Lt.-Col. Gauthier said changes have been made to improve co-ordination and communication between the departments, and he hopes such omissions and delays no longer occur. He encouraged families to reach out to the Forces or Veterans Affairs if they believe Memorial honours have been forgotten.
"The people who have given their lives in the service of Canada, they have to be recognized. Their families who suffered a tragic loss have to be recognized for their sacrifice," Lt.-Col. Gauthier said.
The Globe's ongoing investigation of military suicides has uncovered that more than 70 Canadian soldiers and veterans who served on the Afghanistan mission have taken their lives after returning home. Many were struggling with mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Families of two of the fallen recently received Memorial honours. Master Corporal Tyson Washburn and Corporal Camilo Sanhueza-Martinez deployed to the Afghanistan war in 2010. Both fathers, they died by suicide just two months apart in 2014.
"It was mixed feelings," MCpl. Washburn's father, David, said of receiving the honours last week. "They wouldn't acknowledge [Tyson's death by suicide]. Now they're giving us a medal."
A member of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment based in Petawawa, Ont., MCpl. Washburn was a cook in Afghanistan. His father said he struggled with post-traumatic stress after his return.
Other families are waiting for commemoration, including those of Sergeant Paul Martin, Sergeant Doug McLoughlin and Captain Brad Elms. All three were long-time soldiers and had completed multiple overseas tours, including Afghanistan. They were coping with mental illnesses when they died by suicide – Sgt. Martin in 2011, Sgt. McLoughlin in 2013, and Capt. Elms in 2014. Their deaths have been ruled attributable to their military work.
On Tuesday, Canadian military members who died by suicide will be remembered in candlelight ceremonies in eight communities in five provinces, including in Victoria, Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City and Oromocto, N.B, near the Gagetown military base.
Started in 2013 by a small group called Honour our Canadian Soldiers, the Feb. 21 "Soldiers of Suicide" memorials have grown each year. Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr attended last year's ceremony at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa.
"We want families to know they're not alone," group founder Lise Charron said.
With the permission of families, 22 names of military members who ended their lives will be read out at Tuesday's ceremonies. Remembering those lost to suicide shouldn't be taboo, Ms. Charron said. "It's letting everybody else know that finally we can talk about this."
With a report from Allan Maki in Calgary