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Sounding the alarm

Canada's military ombudsman says the government has the power to make a key fix so no soldier is released without mental health treatment in place

Canada must stop releasing soldiers without mental health treatment in place, says military watchdog

With a single order, Canada’s military leadership could end the practice of releasing ill and injured soldiers from the Canadian Armed Forces before their medical benefits and treatment are in place.

“I don’t need new legislation and I don’t need new policy directives,” Canada’s Military Ombudsman Gary Walbourne told VICE News. “Why is it not happening?”

Walbourne is urging the Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan and Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance to order soldiers remain in uniform and under the care of the Canadian Armed Forces until treatment and medical benefits are established for the day they are released. The call for immediate action to address a longstanding problem was made in the wake of last week’s deaths of a veteran and his family in an apparent murder-suicide.

The veteran, Cpl. (retired) Lionel Desmond, had sought mental health treatment days before he shot and killed his wife Shanna, 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah and his mother Brenda, and then himself on Jan. 3 at their home in rural Nova Scotia, according to police reports and details released by family members.

Since VICE News first reported on the Desmonds’ deaths, new details have emerged about the former infantryman’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a 2007 deployment to Afghanistan.

“I think the major challenge is that we release people before the systems are in place to help them.”

His sister-in-law, Shonda Borden, told reporters he was constantly replaying his wartime experiences in his head and hearing voices. Other family members said he struggled to control his anger and suffered from nightmares, once waking up in the middle of the night and choking his wife before she was able to calm him down. A month before the shootings, Desmond posted to Facebook about his struggles and being diagnosed with post-concussion disorder and PTSD, vowing, “I will fix it, if not I’ll live with it.”

Days before the shooting, Desmond went to an Antigonish, Nova Scotia hospital to check himself in, but his family said he was told he couldn’t be treated until the hospital had his medical records. He spent a night sleeping on a cot, but left in the morning. The next day, he and his family were dead.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil ordered an investigation into Desmond’s treatment to determine if protocols were followed and what services he was provided.

The Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada said they would pay for the funerals of Desmond and his family, but would not commit to an official investigation into his death, as would be standard procedure if he were still in uniform.

Walbourne has called on Veterans Affairs to conduct a full review of its interactions with Desmond to determine if more could have been done to help him with his struggles.

“I think the major challenge is that we release people before the systems are in place to help them,” Walbourne said, noting his office fields hundreds of complaints each year from new veterans frustrated with an overly complex process of securing medical benefits and services.

Walbourne first suggested the military stop releasing members until benefits and treatment could be provided seamlessly in a report published in September.

The reason it can take months for a new veteran to receive medical benefits and access treatment is revealed in a map Walbourne has produced of the bureaucratic processes currently required to transition a soldier to veterans’ benefits:

While the whole process is a bureaucratic labyrinth, the biggest delay comes from a Veterans Affairs Canada’s review of medical records to determine if an injury or illness is related to a veteran’s service. That alone can take up to 16 weeks. One solution Walbourne recommends is for the military to make that determination before the soldier is released so Veterans Affairs can focus from day one on securing the benefits and treatments they need.

“People are very entrenched in their positions and very possessive of the processes that have been built,” Walbourne said. “We just need to check our egos at the door and have a real fresh look at that delivery model.”

The Liberal government is planning to table a new defence policy in the spring, which is expected to include an overhauled strategy to address suicide rates among serving soldiers and veterans. But its exact details remain to be seen.

Walbourne said if the government doesn’t bring radical change to its treatment of veterans, the conversation will move beyond questions about mental health treatment to one of national security.

“When a Canadian signs on the dotted line to give up everything, including their life, for this country, there is an obligation that has to be honoured by the other party,” Walbourne said. “How will we recruit, retain, develop members if we don’t do that?”

Cover: Photo by Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

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