The Globe and Mail reports that “Former Canadian soldiers are killing themselves at a significantly higher rate than that of the general population, the government’s most comprehensive examination of veterans’ suicides reveals … [and] … The landmark study, which was released on Thursday, shows that 1,486 former military members ended their lives from 1976 to 2012, with one-third of the suicides occurring after 2002, when Canadian troops were entrenched in the Afghanistan war … [and, further] … Young men faced the greatest suicide risk, government researchers found. Suicide claimed 40 per cent of the 435 male vets who died before turning 25. These vets were 2.4 times more likely to kill themselves than their comparable population – a worrisome finding that is prompting a deeper look.”
It is, indeed, “a worrisome finding” and the article says that “Although the research offers the most detailed veterans’ suicide count to date, it does not explore what factors may have contributed to their deaths or examine their work and deployment history … [and] … The federal government has long faced calls to track how many former soldiers are ending their lives and why. While suicides within the Canadian Armed Forces are monitored, the deaths of former soldiers have not been regularly tracked – a crucial gap in understanding how to better support vets and prevent further suicides.“
The government, at the behest of its own bureaucrats, has fought hard against the notion that it has any sort of “sacred duty” to uphold a 1917 “social covenant” towards veterans. It has done so, I have heard ~ on the rumour net ~ because it is afraid that if it ever admits to any sort of “sacred duty” to any one group then there will be and endless line of other groups, each arguing, usually in court, that it, too, is owed something (almost always money) by an ungrateful nation.
I expect that what when Dr Alexandra Hebert, chief psychiatrist with the Department of Veterans Affairs, says that “improving the support offered to military members who are being released is a priority for both the Forces and Veterans Affairs,” … [and, the article says that Veterans Affairs] … “announced a joint suicide-prevention strategy in October” she means it. I suspect, however, that concrete steps will be few and far between. All too often, in government, a “joint strategy” means a report by outside consultants (sometimes recently retired civil servants) that recommends <surprise, surprise> more studies.
I wish I knew what to do.
Back in the 1920s and late 1940s it seemed that the Royal Canadian Legion provided both formal and, perhaps more important informal, collegial support to veterans. But the Legion seems disconnected from some (many?) 21st century vets. Some vets are using social media, with which most younger vets are very comfortable, to try to help maintain the camaraderie that is one of the hallmarks of military life. (Sending up the count is a way for an infantry patrol to confirm that all members are still there.)
Certainly more information is needed to guide responsible action … but I fear that there will be a temptation to make an announcement about another study and then just hope for the best.
Some wounded veterans say that the best therapists are other people like them: sailors, soldiers and air force members who served in far off, often hellish places, who saw and did things that few civilians can imagine, and who can understand why PTSD strikes some and can understand its consequences. These soldiers wish to stay on in the military and be useful while they receive help with their wounds. The military has tried to help by creating Joint Personnel Support Units. But these have had mixed reviews and have had leadership problems, too. They are, too often, seen as a sort of dumping ground for the “sick, lame and lazy” which is, as i understand it, almost exactly what wounded vets do not want. Some wounded vets want to stay in the units in which they served but that can be very, very difficult:
- First, ships, regiments, battalions and squadrons are dynamic organizations and the battles in which many were wounded happened five, ten or 15 years ago … the people who shared those experiences, who understand, who can listen and provide support are gone; and
- Second, units have changed. When I was a regimental commander we were responsible for many of our own garrison/barracks functions and i Always had a few soldiers who were employed strictly in barracks, who did not deploy overseas or go the field, even for an overnight training exercise. That’s no longer the case and many senior officers are horrified at the notion of wounded soldiers, who are, by definition, unfit for service, might take the places of fit soldiers in battalions, companies and platoons.
It is not that serving officers and warrant officers disagree about the unit being, very possibly, a good, even the best place to offer support; it is just that no one that I know can think of how to do it, in practice, without disabling those very units in the process.
So what can be done? What should be done?
I wish I knew …
I do know that we must all hope that Dr Hebert and her colleagues get a better understanding of the problem, and that General (retired) Walt Natynczyk, who as the deputy minister of veterans Affairs is the most senior official in the Veterans Affairs organization, and The Honourable Seamus O’Regan who is the Minister, can use that information to craft something better than a few more consultants’ reports. I do not doubt, not for even a µsecond, that both Walt Natynczyk and Seamus O’Regan care deeply about wounded vets, what worries me is that no one, other than a few vets, themselves, seems to have any fresh ideas about how to help.
Perhaps we can get behind vets like infantry Sergeants Brian Harding and Jordan Irving who were both decorated by the Governor General for starting “Send Up The Count” which has already saved lives. They aren’t the only ones doing something, of course, they’re just the ones about whom I know the most. Maybe there’s someone you know, someone in your community, who is helping and maybe you can get behind them.
I know that some Regimental Associations, usually managed by retired (veteran) members, are also trying to reach out to younger vets, to help keep them “in the family.” Maybe that’s one part of one of the solutions to a large, complex and difficult puzzle. Maybe there is no “one size fits all” solution; perhaps it’s more like President George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” and we need the government to support a wide range of public and private initiatives. This is not, I believe, a partisan thing ~ I’m 100% sure that these data worry Conservatives, Liberals, NDPers, Greens and Bloqistes alike and I’m sure that all men and women of good will, politicians, bankers, hard rock miners, civil servants, shop keepers, soldiers and housewives want to help. I wish I knew how.
Maybe, going back to that “thousand points of light” idea, there is some role for community based organizations like e.g. the Salvation Army which has a long, proud history of supporting Canadian sailors, soldiers and air force members in war and peace and which also has considerable experience in helping those in great need. Maybe we need to see the familiar (to some of us) Red Shield Clubs in Vancouver, Saskatoon, Hamilton, Montreal and Halifax … someplace where a Canadian vet can go for a cup of coffee, and friendly, helpful supportive chat with someone who cares about her or him.
Most likely, I suspect, we need all of it: some big, centrally managed, government programmes, some small, community based private programmes run by the likes of the Salvation Army and programmes run by vets for vets and by e.g. regimental associations or, perhaps, by a revitalized, reformed Royal Canadian Legion that actually cares about 21st century veterans.
I don’t have any answers … all I do know is that we have a problem. We (voters, through the governments we elected) sent these men and women into battle and some are still becoming casualties, even though the guns are silent. Maybe governments, per se, don’t have a binding “special covenant” or “sacred duty” towards veterans, but we do. We put the “forty shillings on the drum” and we went them all over the hills and far away and now we need to help those who obeyed but cannot come all the way home again on their own.