A call to action from war veterans' graves

Jun 20, 2017

20 Jun 2017

The tragic case of Cpl Lionel Desmond has created a call to action for a joint federal-provincial inquiry. Canada must try harder to make sure that our brave warriors don't fall through the cracks of multiple jurisdictional efforts.

Halifax-based journalist Lindsay Jones penned a very detailed study into Corporal Lionel Desmond’s killing of his daughter, wife and mother, and his own suicide on that fateful 3 Jan 2017 day.

Jones’ article, about "An Afghanistan veteran whose war wouldn’t end" (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/what-happened-to-lionel-de...) is both analytical and disturbing – in equal portions. It is the hyper-accurate telling of a tragedy that poses the perennial question: Could it have been avoided if anyone had recognized the warning signs?

Ms. Jones’ impressive article is one of the most important stories about the aftermath of the Afghan war written to date. That war continues to claim lives more than three years following the official end of Canadian military operations in that unfortunate country.

A careful reading of Ms. Jones article yields a number of significant milestones:

  • Prior to deployment, Cpl. Desmond was jovial and optimistic, traits that had disappeared by the time he returned to Canada;
  • On 8 April 2007, six Canadian soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb. Five were from CFB Gagetown, Desmond’s base;
  • He carried dismembered bodies by stretcher to an Afghan police station;
  • When he returned to CFB Gagetown in 2008, he was unable to perform his duties;
  • He felt unhappy with his 2010 reassignment to the pipe and drum band, seeing it as “wimpy”;
  • His reaction to a humourous comment over chocolate milk had him chase the soldier with a knife, telling a family member later that if he caught the soldier he would have killed him;
  • Cpl Desmond told a colleague that he had “a friend” in the back of his head who persistently spoke to him;
  • In the fall of 2011, Desmond was diagnosed with PTSD and major depression;
  • In the spring of 2012 he developed obsessive-compulsive behaviours as his PTSD worsened;
  • His wife, Shanna, returned to Nova Scotia to pursue nursing training (they did not separate or dissolve their marriage);
  • He was released from the CAF on July 16, 2015 and, although he had received training as a diesel mechanic, was unable to focus and work;
  • There had been a number of suicide warnings and threats.

Ultimately, Cpl Desmond became a statistic as one of the more than 70 Canadian veterans of the Afghan war who suffered death by their own hand. His mother, wife and young daughter, however, while indirect victims of that conflict, are not listed among the casualties. I fear that the Desmond tragedy may be the first of a spiral of suicide and familial homicide.

Military personnel who deploy together, particularly to hazardous theatres, form deep and personal bonds with their colleagues, buddies and comrades – and become, for all intents and purposes, second families. They often depend on each other for moral and emotional support in the absence of their actual families, and when the deployments end, they can experience a mixture of emotions of leaving one family, albeit temporary, for their permanent families.

Perhaps separating a service member stricken with PTSD or any other occupational stress injury from his or her military “family” can lead to a feeling of being exiled or even ostracized, compounding and exacerbating the “patient’s” symptoms.

Canada's military leadership, medical services and personnel administration should take Jones' essay as a case study and a call to action, a call for a joint federal-provincial inquiry that is formal, comprehensive and non-partisan.

– Tim Dunne is a former CF PAO and regular contributor to FrontLine.