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Mountie's answer to pain: suicide

What he witnessed as an RCMP officer led to years of mental anguish

Post-traumatic stress disorder forced Ken Barker to retire early and it ended his marriage.

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Post-traumatic stress disorder forced Ken Barker to retire early and it ended his marriage.

The beheading that took place on a Greyhound bus near Portage la Prairie in 2008 has claimed another victim.

Retired Mountie Ken Barker, seen with police dog Axa, took his own life after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the horrors he witnessed was the beheading on a Greyhound bus in 2008

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Retired Mountie Ken Barker, seen with police dog Axa, took his own life after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the horrors he witnessed was the beheading on a Greyhound bus in 2008 (HANDOUT / RCMP)

Ken Barker, a retired RCMP corporal who was a dog handler for the force, took his own life last weekend after struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder for years. He was one of the first police officers on the scene of the Greyhound tragedy.

Family and former colleagues said the 51-year-old, who retired last month, had already seen almost two decades of horrific crime scenes when he witnessed the grisly scene on the bus: Tim McLean was stabbed, mutilated and beheaded by Vince Li, who was later found not criminally responsible because of mental illness.

That was "the straw that broke the camel's back," his estranged wife, Shari, said.

Barker's family said they are talking about the death in the hope more Mounties will seek help.

"This was PTSD -- very much so," Shari Barker said Wednesday. "We feel it was his illness that took his life. He struggled with it for a long time."

Ken Barker's sister, Wendy Walder, said: "Maybe this is his path, maybe this is his purpose."

"His death was not in vain if this can help some person. For Kenny, that's success."

While family members say the beheading was the most traumatic incident Barker witnessed, the former officer said it wasn't the only one.

"Ken always said he didn't want to be known as the Greyhound guy," Shari said. "He said it first started at his first posting in Nanaimo, (B.C). The Greyhound incident was just one of many... it was multiple, cumulative and he was just a sensitive fellow. I think he was predisposed because of his nature."

Shari said it was also tough on him because unlike other RCMP members who could speak to a partner or fellow officers, Barker had only his dog.

"Ken would go home with a dog. How do you get over it when you're just with a dog?"

Barker, who had two adult children, had been on medical leave since October.

Shari said his illness didn't just force him to retire -- it also cost him his marriage. "Today (Wednesday) would have been our 26th anniversary," she said, her voice cracking. "Ken and I separated three years ago. PTSD did it. It cost him on many levels."

The two women said Barker did get psychiatric help while with the RCMP and during his short retirement, but they both said the force has to do more to address the stigma attached to its members battling mental illness.

"There's a lot of people who don't buy into it," Barker said. "There's just ignorance and people not believing it is real and not a real illness like cancer."

Walder said her brother "was a kind, sensitive, tender heart."

"This maybe wasn't the career path for him. He cared too much for people. He worried about their safety and happiness.

"He led with his feet, his passion and helping anyone he could, but he couldn't turn it off."

Walder said her brother's treatment was coming along -- and while he was still a dog handler, he was stationed at the airport and bus depots instead of responding to slayings -- but last fall things began changing.

"With Vince Li getting in the paper about his walks, he started getting flashbacks," she said.

"It was a very rapid decline in the last six months... he sent text messages like 'I think I'm too broken to ever be fixed' and he would also say 'I wish I had cancer because then people would understand.' "

The two women rescued Barker from a suicide attempt in May, but no one got to him in time this past weekend.

"He would say the front door will be open and don't go into the basement. Shari went there and the front door was open and she called for him and he didn't respond. She knew not to go to the basement. She called the paramedics."

RCMP Assist. Commissioner Gilles Moreau, in a phone interview from Ottawa, said the force offers its condolences to Barker's family.

"When one of our own leaves us like this, we are all touched by this," Moreau said.

"I've considered suicide in the past... If we can teach the entire organization to intervene, at least we might be able to get people the help they need early."

Moreau said the force already offers help to its members and a five-year mental-health strategy, announced in May, will provide more.

Its objectives include improving employee understanding in the intervention of psychological problems, reducing the presence and effects of psychological risks and measuring the force's psychological health-and-safety performance annually.

A recent audit found 38 per cent of RCMP members who are on long-term sick leave said mental-health problems are to blame.

"We know in the past, the organization has not been as solid as it should have been," Moreau said. "Are (the mental-health-strategy plans) perfect and magic? Absolutely not, but they are the best that's out there."

Lori Wilson, founder of the Families of the RCMP for PTSD Awareness, said not a week goes by that she doesn't hear about a current or former RCMP member facing a mental-health crisis.

"They are trained to be in control and control their emotions when in chaos," said Wilson, whose husband was diagnosed with PTSD. "But what happens after that?

"We try to do our best to get them a fellow member to talk to. We've even had them taken to hospital. Let us give them the tools. Let us do six-month checkups. Let us have a list of where they were before and are now. And let us talk to families.

"Unless you include the family, you will not see the signs. It's the family that sees the changes and if they are educated, they can catch it earlier."

Steve Walker, a retired Manitoba Mountie who has PTSD and for the final five years of his 31-year career worked on occupational stress as a labour representative, said Barker did get the help he needed.

"He was well taken care of," Walker said. "We don't want people to fall into that black abyss where people are not cared for. But in 48 hours, someone suffering from PTSD can spin into a black hole -- it can happen that quickly."

Walker said it's especially stressful for officers in smaller communities, including aboriginal reserves, because they don't have paramedics and medical examiners to help them at a crime scene, including putting bodies in body bags.

"These things have a corrosive effect on human beings."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 6:28 AM CDT:
Adds photo

Updated on Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 6:31 AM CDT:
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Updated on Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 9:58 AM CDT:
Corrects name of Families of the RCMP for PTSD Awareness

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