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The Globe and Mail
158 Canadian soldiers died in the Afghanistan mission. But the losses did not end there. A Globe and Mail investigation reveals a disturbing number the military has kept secret: that at least 54 soldiers and vets killed themselves after they returned from war
During his stint with the support unit, Sgt. Anderson spent most of his time at home, his parents say. Their son also started playing slot machines. His father estimates he blew through $60,000 in two months on gambling and alcohol.
“They sent him home. This is their solution? Three years he spent drunk in the basement,” his father says. His mother, a retired nurse, adds, “I think that’s the worst thing they can do, send these guys home.”
Sgt. Anderson was medically released from the military in 2013, after serving for two decades. He wanted to get away from Gagetown, and moved to Miramichi in northern New Brunswick with his girlfriend and her son. He bought a two-bedroom house and seemed to be doing better. His ex-wife sent their four children to live with him in August. He quit drinking to look after them.
The Andersons have a framed picture of their son with his four kids, taken on the first day of school in September, 2013. The retired sergeant, in a blue-and-red checked shirt, has a big grin. His left arm is wrapped around his boys; his twin girls are in front. It’s their last family portrait.
He was struggling financially to care for everyone, and falling deeper into debt. Unable to work because of his PTSD, he was reliant on his disability benefits and a pension from Veterans Affairs. Bankruptcy records show he owed $105,459 in November, 2013. He didn’t tell his parents about his financial troubles.
That winter was rough, his mother says. The pipes in her son’s home kept freezing and he had to haul in water from the river. Sgt. Anderson was stressed, but no one thought he was suicidal.
His girlfriend found him in their shed early on the morning of Feb. 24, 2014. He’d shot himself with his hunting rifle. He was 39. His mother says his autopsy report showed he had medical marijuana and prescription drugs for depression in his body, but no alcohol.
Because Sgt. Anderson was retired from the military, he’s not technically part of the Canadian Forces’ tally of soldiers who died by suicide after serving in Afghanistan. He is among the untold more – the veterans whose deaths are not regularly tracked by National Defence or Veterans Affairs.
No boards of inquiries or formal medical suicide reviews are done in veterans’ deaths. Veterans Affairs has a suicide-prevention program, but the department does not track how many vets kill themselves each year. Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Janice Summerby notes that when soldiers leave the military, they begin receiving health care through the provincial medical system. “As such, Veterans Affairs Canada does not have jurisdiction to undertake reviews of veterans’ suicides,” she says.
The Andersons are worried about their youngest son. Ryan was blown out of the hatch of an armoured vehicle when a bomb exploded in Afghanistan. He has back problems and PTSD, and is receiving treatment. He took his brother’s suicide hard, his parents say.
Scott Smith, father of two. Feb. 7, 1983 – Dec. 10, 2014
Cpl. Smith overcame a lot of hardship early in his life. He never knew his father. His mother died of cancer when he was 7, and the boy moved to Calgary from England to stay with an uncle. Within a year, he was on the move again, to his grandmother’s in Victoria.
They grew close, but she didn’t have many people to turn to for help with his care. When she was hospitalized with pneumonia, she had to leave her grandson with her apartment manager. The illness made her realize there would be no one to look after her grandson in the case of her death. She made a difficult decision, and put him up for adoption.
Scott – whose original surname was Wilkinson – bonded immediately with his adoptive parents, Connie and Bob Smith. The couple had been on the adoption list for a decade and were about to give up. Scott was 11 when he came into their lives. Their son was a witty charmer. He played soccer and rugby during high school and was an excellent swimmer.
He was also very caring and wanted to make a difference. After high school, he began working with troubled teens at a wilderness boot camp on Vancouver Island. The job was challenging but rewarding. He went back to school to finish a certificate in counselling.
He was working for the wilderness camp when he met his wife, Leah, then 23. She had moved to the island’s Campbell River from New Minas, N.S., in 2007. He was tall and muscular; she was petite and pretty. There was a spark between them.
The couple married a year later in a small ceremony at an inn by the Pacific Ocean. Ms. Smith had no inkling he was thinking of joining the army. He announced his decision to enlist a few months after their wedding. They were at a Tim Hortons, waiting to watch the Sex and the City movie. The film was his choice; in retrospect, she suspects he picked a chick flick to butter her up for the difficult news.
She remembers telling him: “As long as you’re not front-line Afghanistan, I’m okay.”
His parents, though, didn’t think the military was a good fit for their son. He had experienced bouts of depression because of all the losses in his life, his mother says, and he sometimes drank heavily. Along with his biological mother’s death, Cpl. Smith had lived through the death of his grandmother, from cancer, when he was 15. An Alberta uncle had died by suicide after losing his oil-patch job in the 1990s.
Connie Smith worried that the macho military culture would push her son to drink more, and that war would play havoc with his mind. “It was not an ideal environment for him,” she says.
But military recruiters never called the Smiths for a reference or for insight into their son. After he enlisted, his mother says, she phoned his commanding officer and told him about her concerns. She called a second time after her son got involved in a drunken scuffle in a bar in London, Ont., where he and other soldiers were celebrating the completion of battle school, which followed basic training. She recalls a different commanding officer telling her he would keep an eye on her son.
Cpl. Smith and his wife were living on the other side of the country at that point, having moved to the Maritimes on New Year’s Day in 2009. Soon after, Ms. Smith found out that she was pregnant with their first son, Casey – her husband had just left for basic training in St. Jean, Que. There was a lot of training. The couple spent more time apart during their marriage than they did together.
A second son, Ian, was born just before Cpl. Smith departed for Afghanistan in March, 2012. He was excited about his son’s birth – but also about going on tour. “He didn’t want to leave me and the boys, but it’s something that is very good for their career,” Ms. Smith says.
Although Canada’s combat mission was over by the time Cpl. Smith deployed, a contingent of about a thousand Canadian troops remained to train and support Afghan security forces. There were still risks.
The Smiths communicated by e-mail, Facebook and Skype every other day during his nine months in Kabul. His enthusiasm for the tour diminished about midway through, Ms. Smith recalls. He was working long hours and was exhausted.
When he returned from Afghanistan in November, Ms. Smith kept watch over her husband. She had spoken to other military wives and had attended a coffee-night chat at the Gagetown base, where family-support workers and a military chaplain walked families through what to expect when their soldiers returned. Ms. Smith looked for signs of mental trauma, but did not see anything immediately. While her husband had some trouble adjusting to day-to-day family life, he seemed to adapt.
The first really troubling sign emerged in October, 2013, after he’d been home for nearly a year. The Smiths were watching a movie, Pain & Gain, in their newly built home in Rusagonis, N.B., west of the Gagetown base. In the film, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson play bodybuilders turned kidnappers and killers.
About midway through the movie, Ms. Smith says her husband zoned out and the colour drained from his face. He stretched out his arms, as if trying to grab at something. He started pacing and sweating. He was like this for two to three hours. Afterward, he tried to assure his wife he was fine. The scene that set him off was one in which the bodybuilders hit a man with a vehicle. Cpl. Smith told his wife it reminded him of an incident in Afghanistan.
After the movie meltdown, Cpl. Smith started to have more breakdowns and to distance himself from his family. The couple went to marriage counselling for more than a year, but in the summer of 2014, he decided he didn’t want to continue with the sessions. He briefly sought help for alcohol use, but told his wife he didn’t think much of the base’s addictions counsellor.
When his parents came for a visit that fall, he refused to go to a pumpkin patch with them and his boys. He was withdrawn, his mother says. She got angry with him, unaware of his troubles.
About a week after his parents left, Cpl. Smith was alone, off-roading in his Jeep, when he thought he saw a suicide attempt in another vehicle. He didn’t know whether it was real or a hallucination. Later, he told his wife and mother what happened. They tried to persuade him to seek treatment, but he was worried that doing so would scuttle his military ambitions. He was preparing for a leadership course and was up for a promotion – seeking PTSD treatment had cost others their careers.
“He was an extremely proud soldier,” his wife says. “He really loved what he did. He had aspirations to go very high in the military.”
Cpl. Smith was at a military Christmas party with his battalion on Dec. 10, 2014. It was part of a week of festivities at the base, and he came home from the party intoxicated. He and his wife quarrelled. That night was a breaking point for her. Their relationship was strained and Ms. Smith was worried about their boys. She told her husband she was going to leave him, and took off in her car.
He phoned her cell as she was driving, but she was not ready to talk. She didn’t see his text messages until it was too late. The last one read: “I’m sorry this is how it ends. Tell the boys I love them.”
Cpl. Smith was 31. His suicide was a shock to his wife and parents. When there had been a rash of military suicides the year before, Cpl. Smith told fellow soldiers to come to him if they were in trouble and uncomfortable talking with anyone else.
Both his wife and mother suspect Cpl. Smith had PTSD, and that the effects of his deployment to Afghanistan were a factor in his death. At the board of inquiry at Gagetown this past April, Leah Smith learned that her husband had slipped on ice and hit the back of his head at that Christmas party. She was told he was given first aid but didn’t go to the hospital. She wonders whether the head injury played a role. The inquiry report is not yet complete.
It’s unclear how much alcohol was in Cpl. Smith’s body the day he died. For some reason, a toxicology test was never done.
His wife and mother want to see military culture change. They say seeking help shouldn’t be viewed as a weakness and career killer by either soldiers or their commanders. His mother believes mental-health training should be ongoing, as integral to the military as physical fitness.
“If you can’t actually see a wound, we as people, as a society, don’t see it as them being sick,” his mother says. “That has to change.”