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Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. Special to The Globe and Mail
Last updated: Monday, Jun. 19, 2017 1:54PM EDT
No one knows for sure why, 10 years after serving in Afghanistan, Lionel Desmond took a gun to his wife, his daughter, his mother and then himself. But an investigation by Lindsay Jones sheds new light on the pressing need to better understand soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – and to find ways to support them before it’s too late
Lionel Desmond, far right, was part of the 2nd battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, based at CFB Gagetown. Here, he is shown in 2007 in Afghanistan’s Panjwai district, in between patrol base Wilson and Masum Ghar.
TREV BUNGAY/FACEBOOK/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Behind the vinyl-clad trailer on the hill, the tires on Shanna Desmond’s newly leased red Dodge pickup truck are flattened, punctured by knife marks.
Shanna’s father, Ricky Borden, is standing in the driveway, which has been churned into a mud pit by the steady stream of police and medical-examiner vehicles. He and a friend fortify themselves with bottles of beer before going inside to tackle the grimmest of tasks: patching the bullet holes that now riddle the walls and ceiling of the home. “Can you imagine having to do that?” he said, staring straight ahead.
Inside the neatly kept trailer in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., there are blood stains on the beige seats of the bar stools at the kitchen island where Shanna stood; the grout on the kitchen tile floor is tinted darker than the rest. The family’s toy poodle was here when Lionel Desmond arrived on Jan. 3. The dog now shakes incessantly, traumatized by what happened when the 33-year-old Afghan war veteran walked into the trailer.
Some time around suppertime, he stepped inside – moving past a decal on the wall that read “Home is where the heart is” – and shot his wife , Shanna, and 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his own mother, Brenda Desmond. Then he killed himself.
“He went in that house on a mission and there was no way to escape even if they tried,” Shanna’s mother, Thelma, says. “Whoever was in the house was his target.”
Shanna Desmond’s mother, Thelma Borden, holds Penny G, her granddaughter Aaliyah’s dog, outside her home where the killings took place.
DARREN CALABRESE FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Left: Brenda Desmond, Lionel Desmond and Aaliyah at a relative’s wedding in September, 2014.
Right: Shanna Desmond, flanked by her parents Thelma and Ricky Borden, and Aaliyah at Shanna’s nursing school graduation at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish on May 1, 2016.
Nearly six months later, the Bordens and Lionel’s family members are still struggling to understand what happened to Lionel Desmond – and to what extent post-traumatic stress disorder and the support he received after returning from war contributed to the tragedy that has destroyed their families. They desperately want answers, and are calling for the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada to investigate the treatment Lionel received during and after his military service. But the federal government doesn’t appear interested in calling for an inquiry into the tragedy, despite the lessons it might provide about what soldiers endure during military missions – and what sort of additional support they need to reintegrate into civilian life.
Lionel is one of more than 70 soldiers and veterans who have killed themselves – and in rare cases, others – after serving in the Afghanistan war. Over the past six months, The Globe and Mail interviewed more than two dozen of Lionel’s and Shanna’s family members, friends and military colleagues to piece together how the unthinkable happened in this remote Maritime community. In many respects, the investigation has turned up more questions than answers. For now, the families say they are certain of only one thing: Lionel Desmond is a soldier who slipped through the cracks.
A photo of Lionel and Shanna with baby Aaliyah hangs at his uncle Allan Desmond’s home in Lincolnville, N.S.DARREN CALABRESE FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL
‘No training in the world could get you ready for that’
Before he went off to war, Lionel Desmond was a happy-go-lucky guy who was often thoughtful and always ready with a joke. “You couldn’t get a funnier, sweeter person in the world than Lionel Desmond,” said Jenna Belony, a childhood friend who first met Lionel in high school. “Any time I had a bad day, he’d always say, ‘Tomorrow is a new day. Smile for that.’”
Lionel lived to make people laugh and smile. He even tried to get Shanna to crack one while she was in labour with their daughter in December, 2006, by copying her breathing and pretending to push. (Shanna, however, was not amused.)
Lionel was proud of his job as an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment based in CFB Gagetown, N.B., and hung his framed Canadian Oath of Allegiance on the wall in his grandparents’ kitchen.
He brought his trademark humour to Afghanistan, where he was deployed in January, 2007, just a month after Aaliyah was born. After arriving with No. 9 Platoon in Kandahar province, Lionel quickly became known as an entertainer, exaggerating his northern Nova Scotian accent and breaking into James Brown song-and-dance routines. His fellow soldiers nicknamed him Dezzy.
“For the first two months, it wasn’t that bad,” said Lionel’s best friend, Orlando Trotter, a retired corporal, describing life in Afghanistan during the beginning of their tour. They lived in an abandoned compound called Strong Point West. “It was kind of quiet.” During downtime they lifted weights, cleaned their guns and watched movies like Flags of Our Fathers and Superman Returns.
After a few months, however, life on the base became more tense – just as Lionel and Mr. Trotter received some devastating news. Six of their comrades had died when their light-armoured vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Five were from Lionel’s base, Gagetown: Sgt. Donald Lucas, Cpl. Aaron Williams, Pte. Kevin Kennedy, Pte. David Greenslade and Master Cpl. Christopher Stannix. Mr. Trotter said the deaths took a toll on him and Dezzy. But there was no time to mourn their comrades. Lionel’s platoon – which had moved to Masum Ghar base in the dangerous Panjwaii district of Kandahar province – was focused on aggressive attacks against the Taliban. Bullets whizzed all around Lionel and his comrades during daily gunfights, said former master corporal Trevor Bungay, who was the second in command of Lionel’s platoon in Afghanistan. “Close calls were a daily event,” he said.
Many times, the platoon set out at 2 a.m. and was in position by dawn, the call to prayer echoing across the desert. When prayer ended, the soldiers attacked. The 24-year-old rifleman’s job was to hunt down and kill the Taliban. He also carried the wounded on stretchers and collected corpses – arms, legs and heads – and put them on vehicles to take to an Afghan police station.
“No training in the world could get you ready for that,” said Mr. Trotter.
Haunted at home
Chantel Desmond says she noticed a vacant look in her brother’s eyes when she and other family members picked him up at the airport in August, 2007. “His eyes were just dark,” she said. “It wasn’t Lionel.”
Back on base in Gagetown, Shanna Desmond confided in Mr. Trotter that her husband was suffering from “shell shock.” At the time, Mr. Trotter said he didn’t think much about the comment, because many of his comrades were also struggling – though not necessarily seeking help. “There’s a stigma that you don’t want to ask for help because it’ll impact your career,” he said. “A lot of guys are scared to lose their job – get kicked out of the military. It’s difficult when you have a family, mortgage and car payments.”
It’s unclear exactly what Lionel did in the infantry over the next two years, though in Veterans Affairs documents he said he hadn’t been able to perform duties after 2008. He wanted to change trades and become a mechanic, but was sent to the musical pipe-and-drum unit in 2010 instead – a move that upset him. He felt frustrated and disillusioned with the Canadian Forces, family members say, and a former colleague added that Lionel believed the new band position was a “wimpy” job.
A sign of Lionel’s growing instability surfaced in a field mess hall one day after his transfer. A fellow soldier jokingly asked him why he was drinking chocolate milk. Isn’t white milk good enough, he’d asked. Lionel erupted, jumping out of his chair. He grabbed a knife and chased the soldier out of the mess hall. Later, Lionel described how upset he was to Shanna’s aunt, Sarah MacEachern. “He said, ‘I would’ve killed him if I had’ve got him,’” she said.
He had a similar conversation with Cpl. Rick Pitchuck, a fellow Nova Scotian, from Cape Breton. Lionel also talked about how doctors thought he was going “crazy,” as Mr. Pitchuck, now retired, recalls it, and that he had a “friend” in the back of his head who was always talking to him. But he tried to make light of it. “He just laughed and said, ‘He’s there all the time and won’t go away,’” said Mr. Pitchuck. “I never really had any concerns, because he told me he’s going to get help about it.”
Shanna eventually convinced Lionel to go for help at the medical clinic on the base, where he was referred to Dr. Vinod Joshi, a National Defence consultant psychiatrist, who first assessed him in 2011 and continued to see him once a month. A letter to Veterans Affairs – written later at Lionel’s request – described Lionel as a changed man. He’d lost interest in life, Dr. Joshi said, and was withdrawn and emotionally numb around his family.
At night, he was tormented with nightmares and insomnia. During the day, his mind flashed back to carrying body bags and corpses. He felt guilt about Afghan civilians’ deaths, even though he wasn’t the direct cause. And he was disturbed by an unexploded IED that was detected on a bridge he had just travelled across. What haunted him most, however, was a vivid mental image of an Afghan man who he thought was staring at him, only to discover it was a body covered in flies.
In a separate document dated Sept. 28, 2011, Lionel was diagnosed with PTSD with major depression and depressive episodes. The assessment also showed that Lionel was on “Temporary Category,” a designation that indicates a soldier has an illness or injury that may limit the type of work they can perform.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, a soldier has to experience a range of symptoms, including nightmares and flashbacks, hypervigilance, reckless behaviour, sleep disturbances, irritability and angry outbursts, persistent and distorted sense of blame, estrangement and diminished interest in activities for more than one month. Once diagnosed, soldiers are sent to an Operational Trauma Stress Support Centre, where an individual treatment program is created. In Lionel’s case, he was advised to start attending trauma-focused psychotherapy and a psychoeducational group and to bump up his drug regimen. In addition to boosting his dosage of Effexor, an anti-depressant that he was already taking, and continuing to use a sleep aid (Zopiclone), he was told to start taking an antipsychotic medication (Risperdal) daily and a sympatholytic drug for anxiety and PTSD (Prazosin).
About a month later, Veterans Affairs received a handwritten document from Lionel. In it, he described changes to his quality of life after serving in Afghanistan, writing that he loved his country but was haunted by “the smells of dead bodies in front of me,” and that he had trouble feeling close to Shanna: “I have problems sleeping in the same bed as my wife.”
He also wrote that he took part in a PTSD program and learned breathing techniques: “I’m learning to control but sometimes it doesn’t work. I blow a head gasket and it’s like the war is just beginning.
“I have been paranoid looking over my shoulder. I don’t like big crowds, drives me to be more alert and on guard.”
Lionel Desmond wrote about how post-traumatic stress disorder affected his quality of life for a Veterans Appeal and Review Board review.
Thelma Borden said she told her daughter to go easy on Lionel because he had been through so much in Afghanistan. But there were times when she visited the family in New Brunswick and couldn’t put up with her son-in-law’s angry outbursts and insomnia. She’d leave early, sometimes taking Aaliyah with her.
Lionel took a turn for the worse in spring, 2012, when he began to develop obsessive-compulsive traits, according to a note to Veterans Affairs by Dr. Joshi. He continued to have significant problems with PTSD and deteriorated further in the fall, when he and Ms. Desmond separated. (Ms. Desmond’s family says they didn’t split up, but rather that Shanna had moved back to Nova Scotia to attend university and become a registered nurse.)
“The thought for him of losing his daughter and his wife, not being able to be a good dad and a good husband, I think that angered him. With post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s very hard to think straight, so you do have outbursts, and sometimes he would do that,” said Mr. Bungay, who was also stationed in Gagetown after returning from Afghanistan.
Lionel’s mood was depressed, Dr. Joshi noted. He had occasional dissociative experiences, persistent problems with hypervigilance, road rage and anger, and frequently thought about suicide, though he had no specific plan in mind.
On a scale of 10 to 100 to measure how well a person functions in daily life, Dr. Joshi rated Lionel’s ability at 55 to 60 – meaning he had moderate difficulty in social, work or school functioning. Optimal mental health is in the 91 to 100 range. Overall, Dr. Joshi wasn’t optimistic about Lionel’s future. “His long-term prognosis is guarded in light of poor response to treatment.” (When contacted by The Globe and Mail, Dr. Joshi declined to provide further comment though a National Defence spokesperson, citing patient confidentiality.)
Dr. Joshi submitted his assessment as part of an appeal Lionel made to Veterans Affairs to increase his disability compensation. After reviewing details of how PTSD had affected his life, the Veterans Appeal and Review Board bumped up his one-time award by a few thousand dollars, to $74,646.