Part 2: When the trauma of war won’t let go

Christine Semenick was standing across from Yan Berube with a loaded gun covered by a scarf on the table between them. Berube, a former army corporal who was in the same battalion as four Canadian soldiers killed in a friendly-fire incident in 2002, had repeatedly asked Semenick to leave his apartment so he could kill himself.

Semenick, a Veterans Affairs nurse, had gone to his home the morning of May 19, 2010, after Berube, who suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, didn’t show up for an appointment.

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Berube, who had drugs in his system, was pacing and talking about a shootout with police. He and Semenick had been making progress in working through his PTSD, but the recent theft of his war medals had sent him over the edge.

Semenick’s actions in making sure Berube didn’t hurt himself or others earned her a bravery award from the RCMP. It also resulted in her losing her contract with Veterans Affairs, which said she put herself in danger.

“I knew I was the safety valve for the situation,” Semenick said. “If I would have left … who knows who would have ended up dead?”

The incident underscores the ongoing issue of suicide and PTSD among Canadian Forces personnel, which was highlighted again at the end of November and in early December when four Canadian Forces members killed themselves within days of each other.

Former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier is calling for a board of inquiry or Royal Commission to look into what the military is doing to prevent more suicides.

Semenick said she wasn’t surprised by the deaths.

“I kind of expected to hear something like this down the road because of the situation for the veterans coming back,” said the nurse, who lives in the Comox Valley.

Victoria couple Shaun and Sheila Fynes have been outspoken critics of the way the Canadian Forces treats soldiers suffering with PTSD. Their son, Cpl. Stuart Langridge, hanged himself in his army barracks at Canadian Forces Base Edmonton in March 2008.

“My heart just breaks for those [four] families,” Sheila Fynes said. “It’s not just Stu anymore. This is a pattern. The circumstances are eerily similar.”

Langridge tried to commit suicide five times in 2007. His stepfather, Shaun Fynes, said Langridge was punished and ostracized instead of offered help. He said Langridge was suffering from PTSD following his tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan but was never diagnosed.

The couple said soldiers are constantly getting in touch with them to reach out and ask for help in dealing with PTSD and suicidal thoughts. They are repeatedly hearing that soldiers are afraid to ask for help within the chain of command because they’re afraid a PTSD diagnosis will lead to them being discharged.

“I just don’t see there are any lessons being learned,” Sheila Fynes said. “I don’t want soldiers to keep dying.”

According to Canadian Forces data, 10 regular force members committed suicide in 2012, 21 in 2011 and 12 in 2010.

However, statistics provided to the CBC by the Department of National Defence in mid-December showed 13 suicides in 2012 and 22 in 2011. DND also said 10 regular force members have taken their own life this year.

Canadian Forces spokespeople could not explain the reason for the discrepancy.

Dr. Greg Passey, a clinical psychiatrist who heads the B.C. Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Vancouver, said those numbers don’t take into account reservists or veterans who have been discharged from the forces.

“We’ve got a problem because we lose track of our soldiers when they leave and, as veterans, that’s when the suicides really start to take place,” Passey said, who treats Canadian Forces personnel, veterans and current and former RCMP officers. Many veterans with PTSD find themselves struggling financially and emotionally and don’t know where to turn for help, which is when they are at greatest risk of suicide, he said. Passey calls those people “the unknown fallen.”

A recent Surgeon General’s mental-health report commissioned by the Canadian Forces says suicide rates have remained stable in the Canadian Forces over the past decade and that suicide rates among military personnel are lower than those in the general population of the same age and sex.

“You have to realize, military members are screened so they don’t have terminal illnesses or chronic illnesses. They’re not the aged, they’re not teenagers, they don’t have addiction problems,” said Passey, who spent 22 years in the Canadian Forces as a medical officer. “All of those factors have been screened out, so the military should, actually, have a significantly lower rate of suicide than the normal population.”

Of the military personnel deployed to Afghanistan up to 2008, 13 per cent were diagnosed with a deployment-related mental illness after more than four years of followup, the report found. There were 39,000 armed forces members who deployed to Afghanistan for at least 30 days, many more than once.

But the report denied an increased rate of suicide among those who have deployed in combat zones compared to those who have not.

“Suicide is often an option considered by veterans with PTSD. If they got their PTSD from deployment, I would say one plus one plus one is three,” said Lt. Col. Chris Linford, who developed PTSD after his deployment to Rwanda in 1994. He wasn’t diagnosed until 2004.

Linford served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 and halfway through the deployment realized “my PTSD was coming back with a vengeance.”

As soon as he got back, posted to CFB Esquimalt, Linford sought help from his unit and a doctor. A psychiatrist and a psychologist were assigned to closely look after him for the next year and a half. Even with that support, Linford thought of committing suicide a year and a half ago.

Linford admits he was worried he could lose his career if he admitted to having PTSD, a barrier that stops many military personnel from seeking help.

“There is a common misperception that if you have a PTSD diagnosis, you will be released, and that is simply not true,” said Linford, who is retiring in January. “I admit I knew some people who were diagnosed with PTSD and they did leave the forces.”

The Fynes family said what is needed is a fundamental shift in the way the Canadian Forces treats mental-health issues, an openness and accountability that will encourage more soldiers to come forward and admit they need help.

The federal government in 2012 dedicated more than $11 million to hire more psychological support staff. Nearly 80 new qualified candidates have been selected but have yet to be hired.

“If we can’t fix this, our son died for nothing,” Shaun Fynes said.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

 

In 12 days, one attempted suicide and four deaths

 

Master Corporal Kristian Wolowidnyk

Master Cpl. Kristian Wolowidnyk, 28, tried, unsuccessfully, to take his own life Nov. 21 after the Canadian military told him he was being discharged because of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

Master Corporal William Elliott

Master Cpl. William Elliott died at his home near Canadian Forces Base Shilo in southwestern Manitoba on Nov. 25. The 28-year-old served with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

 

Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast

Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast, 28, died Nov. 25 in a Lethbridge, Alta., hospital after a suicide attempt in a jail. He was a reservist with the 20th Independent Field Battery.

 

Warrant Officer Michael McNeil

The body of Warrant Officer Michael McNeil, 39, was found at CFB Petawawa in Ontario on Nov. 27. He was a 19-year veteran with the Royal Canadian Regiment.

 

Master Corporal Sylvain Lelièvre

Master Cpl. Sylvain Lelièvre, 46, was found dead in his home on CFB Valcartier in Quebec on Dec. 2. Lelièvre, a member of the Royal 22e Regiment, was a decorated soldier who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

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