BY Jim Byset
IF YOU’VE EVER wondered what value the Canadian government places on the lives of its servicemen, you can wonder no longer for today, we finally have an answer. Canadians now know how much each of those lives are worth. We now know what the government thinks of those men who put their lives on the line in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. We now know what the government thinks of those men who return from foreign countries having experienced the horrors of armed conflict. We now know what the Canadian government thinks of those men who’ve had their arms and legs ripped from their bodies, or who’ve returned home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) We now know what the Canadian government thinks of those men who, with nowhere to turn, take their own lives in a last act of hopelessness.
That value is one shiny new penny.
At least, that’s how it might appear to Denise Stark, mother of Cpl. Justin Stark, who took his own life in a Hamilton, O.N. armoury in 2011 following a 7-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. Stark’s mother received a cheque addressed to her deceased son, marked ‘CF (Canadian Forces) Release Pay’ on February 28 of this year to the value of one cent. Stark’s mother, according to New Democrat MP Wayne Marston, was left in a ‘fragile state’ because of the incident. It is not yet clear exactly why the Public Works department sent the cheque, but its issuance has caused widespread outrage.
Canada’s Minister of National Defence Rob Nicholson made a public apology to Stark’s family, and described the cheque as an “insensitive bureaucratic screwup.” In fairness to Nicholson, it is exactly that and it is unfair to lay the blame squarely at his feet for this mess. As defence Minister, Nicholson would likely have very little input into the more mundane aspects of the force, such as payroll administration.
Yet, while Nicholson has promised to look into the matter, it is all-too-easy to view the incident as symptomatic of governmental indifference.
In March 2013, the Department of National Defence (DND) published a report comparing male suicide rates within the Canadian military, with those of Canadian society generally. The report offers the conclusion, based upon ‘crude data’ that CF suicide rates are actually lower than those found in the general population, and that military deployment is not a risk factor for suicide. It is a conclusion that is extremely difficult to reconcile with recent events, especially given the breathtaking paucity of data and limited research present in the report.
Part of the problem is that CF reporting on suicide does not include those who have retired from the military, nor does it include reservists. The Canadian military regards these as civilian deaths and tracks female suicides separately. There doesn’t seem to be any practical justification for this approach; in fact, given the extremely dangerous and sometimes horrific nature of military service, all suicides, whether they are vets, reservists, females or male regulars should be included in the report. To do otherwise offers an incomplete picture of the reality of suicide and in this regard, the Canadian military has its head planted firmly in the sand.
Indeed, the report is noteworthy not only for its restricted scope, but also for its utterly dismissive tone. It’s easy to forget while perusing the numbers and comparing deployed with non-deployed, solider with civilian, that these are human beings. Yet, nowhere in the report is this simple fact mentioned. Nowhere in the report are there any recommendations to help reduce suicide rates. Nowhere in the report does the reader derive any sense that suicide is an issue that the Canadian military is taking seriously. The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) does not feature anywhere in the report.
Last January, opposition leader Thomas Mulcair wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper urging him to take “urgent action” to address the “crisis” of suicide in the Canadian military. Mulcair, describing attempts to improve veteran’s access to mental health services said “it is clear that these efforts have not been sufficient.” In response, the government issued a press release saying it was working with the Canadian Armed Forces to address the issue.
Yet, the clock is ticking. Last week saw the suicide of yet another CF vet, dispiritingly – the tenth solider in recent months to take his (or her) own life.
Sgt. Ronald Anderson, 39, died of an apparent suicide at his home in Doaktown, N.B. Anderson was deployed seven times overseas with two tours of duty in Afghanistan, serving 21 years in the Canadian military. Anderson, who is survived by his fiancé and four daughters, had been diagnosed with PTSD, according to his father, Peter Anderson. Indeed instances of PTSD seem to feature in almost all cases of soldier suicide. Another common factor in soldier suicides is that the overwhelming majority are male. In fact, of the last ten Canadian solider suicides that took place – two were women – a number that mirrors closely the male-to-female suicide ratio of 3:1 in Canada generally.
If more suicides are to be avoided in future the Canadian military must begin by addressing the problem honestly. To regard veteran suicides as civilian deaths is little more than a transparent attempt to deny the devastating impact that military service can have on an individual’s psyche. The disproportionate impact of suicide on male soldiers requires an approach that is sensitive to the needs of male soldiers. Male-centred counselling and psychiatric services should be a top priority.
Currently, the DND is struggling to fill vacancies for mental health professionals. Jacqueline Rigg, the director general civilian for Human Resources Management Operations at DND claims that the remote location of many Canadian military bases creates difficulties in attracting and retaining staff. While there is no doubt that the DND faces challenges in filling these vacancies, the time for excuses is over; the DND is facing a crisis and must do everything in their power to make sure that all Canadian soldiers receive adequate mental health services.
To do otherwise is to reinforce the message expressed by the penny paycheque sent to Denise Stark – ‘your sacrifice is as good as worthless.’ This is a message that the Canadian public will not abide.