What has killed the most U.S. military personnel during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Surprisingly, the answer is suicide.
That disturbing statistic could also be true for Canadian soldiers participating in the Afghanistan war, but we just don’t know. Testifying to a forum on the problems faced by Canadian veterans that was organized by Liberal MPs last week, the president and CEO of the Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, Zul Merali, called for military suicides to be tracked and the numbers made public so that Canadians can learn the scope of the problem in Canada’s armed forces.
Merali and other experts also discussed the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in returning veterans. Many veterans need years of intensive support to overcome the effects of PTSD and the increased possibility of suicide accompanying it.
The social stigma surrounding mental illness means that there is still far too little public discussion of these issues. And government inaction is not helping to change that situation. Senator Romeo Dallaire, himself suffering from PTSD after his stint as commander of the UN mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, stated that the departments of National Defence and Veterans Affairs “don’t even want to count” the number of Canadian soldiers who have committed suicide since the war in Afghanistan began in 2002.
The forum also heard calls to change the 2006 “New Veterans Charter”, which, witnesses said, has reduced compensation to those in the military who have suffered from physical or mental trauma. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff stated at the forum that his party would try to change the Veterans Charter to allow more care to be given to those suffering post-combat.
Juliet O’Neill, Military needs to monitor post-combat suicides, panel told, Ottawa Citizen, 28 January 2010