OTTAWA – The moment the Canadian military told him he was being discharged because of his post-traumatic stress disorder, Master Cpl. Kristian Wolowidnyk felt his life was over.
Two days later, on Nov. 21, Wolowidnyk — a former combat engineer who survived the desolation of Kandahar in 2009 and 2010 — tried to take his own life, but survived.
Veterans advocates say a number of suicides within the military in recent days may only hint at the magnitude of the problem. For every death by suicide, they warn, as many as 12 others may have sought the same fate.
Defence officials confirmed Tuesday that military police are investigating the death of a member of the Royal 22e Regiment at CFB Valcartier in Quebec as the fourth apparent Canadian Forces suicide in a week.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Wolowidnyk — a husband and father to a two-year-old child — said he was desperate to stay in the military and re-qualify for another military trade.
Not only was he denied, but he was told that his psychological injuries, including anxiety and serious depression, did not qualify him to remain in the military as part of a prolonged release process for injured soldiers.
He spent a week in the mental health wing of the civilian Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton before being released to his family – and to confront the reality of his military career coming to an abrupt end in February.
Wolowidnyk was startled to see two other Afghanistan veterans on the same hospital floor.
“I have never wanted to be anything else other than a soldier,” Wolowidnyk said.
Most of the other men and women he knows in uniform — including those “locked up” with him in the hospital — feel the same way, said the 28-year-old, who has spent 10 years in both the regular and reserve force.
News of Canadian soldiers’ suicides resonating across country
The escalating struggle of soldiers like Wolowidnyk has been resonating across Canada since word of the suicides began emerging last week.
It was drawn in especially sharp relief Tuesday when Liberal Sen. Romeo Dallaire, arguably Canada’s highest-profile military victim of post-traumatic stress, nodded off at the wheel and crashed into a traffic barrier on Parliament Hill.
The retired general later admitted that the news last week that three Canadian soldiers had killed themselves, coupled with the coming 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, have left him unable to sleep, even with medication.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson implored those who are struggling to seek help.
“My thoughts and prayers continue to be with those who have been affected by these recent suicides,” he said in a statement.
“We all have a role to play in reaching out to those who are hurting and encourage them to get help. I want to remind those may be going through difficult times that you are not alone and there is support available to get you through this.”
Like other Canadian Forces veterans whose cases have been thrust into the public spotlight, Wolowidnyk was told he does not meet the military’s universality-of-service rule, which requires all members to be fit enough to deploy at a moment’s notice.
Upon release, he’ll be roughly a year-and-a-half short of the 10-year mark, which would have qualified him for a fully indexed military pension.
His wife Michele, a lawyer in Edmonton, said she sees an overzealous military bureaucracy at work, one that’s not prepared to make allowances.
“When the government signs on for a war, like the war in Afghanistan, they know there are reasonably foreseeable consequences of what’s going to happen as a result of this war,” Michele Wolowidnyk said.
“People are going to die. People are going to be injured and part of deciding as a country that we’re going to do that is that the government is going to have to accept that it’ll have to take responsibility for the injuries our soldiers have suffered.”
Retired corporal David Hawkins, who was released earlier this fall after pleading to stay, said he believes the military is simply trying to get rid of troops with post-traumatic stress.
“You’ve got guys who are not mentally ready to leave,” Hawkins said. “And we’re telling them that. We’re telling them we’re not ready. We don’t want to leave. We’re not fit to leave. Yet, they still push the paperwork to go through.”
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Both Hawkins and Wolowidnyk are assigned to the Joint Personnel Support Unit, which is supposed to prepare the wounded to either return to their front-line units or be discharged from the military.
Prior to her husband’s suicide attempt, he had only seen a social worker every two weeks, and had not been under a psychiatrist’s care since last summer, Michele Wolowidnyk said.
“Psychological injuries as a result of Afghanistan are an epidemic,” she said.
“There are undoubtedly way more of them than anybody thinks that there are. A lot of these guys aren’t seeking treatment and the ones that are not getting good enough treatment.”
Nicholson has pointed out repeatedly that the Harper government has poured millions of extra dollars into the mental health of soldiers, and insisted no one is being hustled out the door before they are “prepared” to leave.
But Pierre Daigle, Canadian Forces ombudsman, noted in recent reports and interviews that National Defence has long faced 15 to 20 per cent shortage of mental health professionals.
The Canadian Forces Member Assistance Program has a confidential 24/7 toll-free telephone advisory and referral service for all military personnel and their families. The number is: 1-800-268-7708.