Saturday, April 19, 2008

Soldiers & Suicide

I heard on the CBC radio news today about soldiers (men & women) who committed suicide after returning from active duty in Afghanistan. It took a Freedom of Information request by an officer in the Canadian Army, who is also an expert on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to learn that thirty-nine regular/reservists ended their lives in 2007.

As a rule suicides are hardly ever mentioned in the media. So its reasonable that these deaths would have gone unreported in their respective communities at the time of occurrence. However, as a demographic the number is alarming. Further investigation by the officer, Maj. Michel Sartori, showed that the "normal" rate for suicide among members of the Canadian Armed Forces was sixteen a year between 1994 and 2005. Against each other this is a considerable spike.

We hear and see the news about physical losses on the battlefield: "Latest Slain Canadian Soldier had 'Warrior Spirit 100 per cent' " (CBC News, March 17, 2008). We are saddened, and after a day or so we move on. But since we don't hear about those who have returned whole, and may be bearing mental stress, they slip under our radar until something happens publicly. And that's rare. Suicide is such a lonely death.

I support the Canadian mission to Afghanistan. It doesn't make me a hawk. I do however believe that oppression by the Taliban needs to be eliminated. Is it realistic to believe we can do it? Probably not as soon as we would like. So, we are going to see more deaths on the patrol and battlefield. We are going to see more suicides. I hope that with the news of this rise in needless deaths in front of us we will be shamed and moved to give the
needed prevention treatment. Our soldiers need to know they are valued.

Maj. Michel Sartori, was once detained by Bosnian Serb forces in Yugoslavia when serving there in 1994 as part of the Royal 22nd Regiment (the VanDoos). He was a Captain at the time. Very few Canadians know much about how the Canadians fought and endured in Croatia and Yugoslavia as part of UNPROFOR. That is because the incident of the torture and murder of Somali teenager Shidane Arone happened about the same time. The government of the day, already swimming in bad press, was not eager to publicize much of what going down in Europe. There were some serious cases of PTSD afterwards, but they went largely unnoticed and unreported until Corporal Paul Delmore, 26, a member of the PPCLI, "put on his full dress uniform and shot himself" on September 12, 1993 in his Winnipeg apartment. It was reported in the Winnipeg media as being a casualty of the Croatian peacekeeping mission (I have never understood the use of the word "casualty" as it is related to death or injury. There are nothing casual to these events). To read more about Canada's involvement and how the Dept. of National Defence responded to the effects of critical mental trauma in our soldiers of the day read The Ghosts of the Medak Pocket : the story of Canada's Secret War by Carol Off (Random House, 2004).

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