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Brandon Sun - PRINT EDITION

Gov't must care for our soldiers

Canadian Forces may not be in active combat in Afghanistan anymore, but that long and deadly conflict continues to haunt our men and women in uniform.

And the casualties are still mounting.

Over the past two weeks, there have been four Canadian soldier deaths from apparent suicides, including Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast, who died in an Alberta hospital after a suicide attempt in jail, Master Cpl. William Elliott, who died at his home near CFB Shilo, Warrant Officer Michael McNeil, who was found at CFB Petawawa, and the latest death, Master Cpl. Sylvain Lelièvre, who was found dead in his Quebec home on Monday.

Unfortunately, these deaths should not be surprising to military brass. Many soldiers who served tours abroad, whether in Afghanistan or Bosnia before it, have come home mentally and physically damaged by their experience. And the result has played itself out in homes and courtrooms across the country.

Here in Brandon, we have covered the trials of numerous active and former soldiers from Shilo who have found themselves in court after committing crimes connected to post-traumatic stress disorder.

• In 2008, a former soldier suffering from PTSD intentionally drove his car into an oncoming vehicle and then dared police to shoot him during a suicidal confrontation.

• That same year, a Shilo soldier, who had served seven months in Afghanistan in 2006, received a two-year suspended sentence for a shooting after he and his buddy were wounded as they practised combat techniques with a loaded gun.

• In 2007, another veteran Shilo soldier who suffered from PTSD pleaded guilty to assaulting his 14-year-old stepdaughter in court, after pushing her down in a fit of anger.

• In 2005, a soldier who attacked his wife and holed himself up in his family’s Shilo home blamed PTSD for his actions.

• Four years ago, a military man was ordered to take counselling after he assaulted his girlfriend during an argument at their Brandon home. During the soldier’s sentencing, Crown attorney Rich Lonstrup said the issue of PTSD was being raised more and more in Brandon courtrooms.

“We’re hearing about this far too often and it’s very upsetting ... one hopes if there’s a frequent problem that it’s being addressed at the appropriate levels within the military structure,” Lonstrup said at the time.

• And only a few months ago, a troubled soldier was convicted during a three-day court martial at Shilo of aggravated assault and four firearm offences. After having been transferred from CFB Edmonton to Shilo, he had been invited back to the on-base home of two fellow soldiers in the early morning of July 29, 2012, to continue a night of drinking.

There was an argument and the soldier in question, who had been badly beaten by one of his hosts when he initially refused to leave, went to his quarters and returned with a .45-calibre semi-automatic handgun. He shot his assailant in the leg and fired another shot that narrowly missed the victim’s roommate.

He had received treatment for an addiction and PTSD and was doing well for a time during his time in Edmonton. But by 2011, he began to display problems again. He’d been taking antidepressants at some point, but by February 2012 had stopped taking his medications and his drinking increased. Three weeks before he was transferred, he reached out for help and never received it.

As Lonstrup said, these kinds of stories are happening all too often. But when it comes to treating the mental health of soldiers, there are two big obstacles. There remains in our society, especially in the military ranks, a stigma surrounding mental illness that makes some reluctant to find help. That particular aspect of military culture must change.

At the same time, we have to question just how actively the Canadian Forces work to identify and offer assistance to those who suffer from PTSD following combat duty. In a recent interview with CBC, Master Cpl. Kristian Wolowidnyk said the military deemed him unfit to work after he was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and PTSD and was told he was going to be kicked out of the military. Shortly afterwards, he tried taking his own life.

“If I’ve tried and failed, there’s obviously other people who are thinking about it,” Wolowidnyk said.

Figures released by National Defence show that 22 full-time members of the Canadian Forces committed suicide in 2011 and 13 personnel took their own lives in 2012.

Our federal government must do more to address the suffering of soldiers who return home after these kinds of conflicts, and ensure that they find the help they need, without simply tossing them out of the military when they become ill to be rid of a problem. Our government has a responsibility to take care of them after asking Canadian Forces personnel to put themselves in harm’s way.

We also encourage anyone who may be suffering from PTSD to find help rather than trying to deal with the situation on your own. There is no shame in suffering from such a disorder.

At least, there shouldn’t be.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 6, 2013

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Canadian Forces may not be in active combat in Afghanistan anymore, but that long and deadly conflict continues to haunt our men and women in uniform.

And the casualties are still mounting.

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Canadian Forces may not be in active combat in Afghanistan anymore, but that long and deadly conflict continues to haunt our men and women in uniform.

And the casualties are still mounting.

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