Canada’s military ombudsman is once again calling for a smoother transition into civilian life for former members of the Canadian Forces after a veteran apparently killed himself and three members of his family in rural Nova Scotia this week.
Military Ombudsman Gary Walbourne said the deaths of retired corporal Lionel Desmond, 33, his wife, his daughter and his mother underscore the military’s responsibility to ensure that when members rejoin their communities, the support they need is already in place.
“There should be no member of the Canadian Armed Forces released until all benefits and services from all sources are in place,” Walbourne told Global News on Thursday morning.
“That includes their pensions, any veterans affairs programs, anything that needs to be put in place for medical care.”
All four victims died of apparent gunshot wounds. Desmond’s were self-inflicted, and the RCMP are treating the case as a murder-suicide.
Desmond had been treated for PTSD in Quebec at a joint personnel support unit for a year prior to his release from the military in July 2015. A family member said the Afghan vet had not been able to secure further treatment after moving home to Nova Scotia.
“Once (former members) release, sometimes, that continuity of health care gets broken, and that’s one of the problems with pre-releasing people prior to having everything in place,” Walbourne said.
Each case is unique and has its own “nuances wrapped around it,” the ombudsman was careful to add. But depending on the the type of illness, the former member may have more trouble finding appropriate care.
In rural communities, getting access to ongoing mental health care remains difficult for all Canadians, he noted, including veterans.
“(Desmond’s home) was a remote location and a couple of hours away from one of the clinics that this person may have had access to.”
In addition, Walbourne said, the stress of not having a pension set up can leave some members unable to prioritize their mental health as they worry about how they’ll make their next mortgage payment.
“The military has responsibility for the member while they’re wearing the uniform … so (we should) continue that until we can find the place where that person needs to be, with the right medical care and financial supports in place prior to release.”
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The office of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the minister’s thoughts and prayers were with the Desmond family, and that he agreed more needs to be done to help ill and injured military personnel transition to civilian life.
But spokesperson Jordan Owens said the government should guard against knee-jerk reactions or piecemeal decisions, referring instead to a detailed new Liberal defence policy that’s due in the spring.
Walbourne took issue with that.
“I don’t think this is a knee-jerk reaction in any way,” he said.
“I’ve been in this environment for about seven years and we’ve been talking about this since the day I walked through the door.”
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The ombudsman acknowledged that his recommendations, which also include setting up a special concierge service to guide former soldiers through the system, won’t come cheap.
But, he said, if the Trudeau government believes that fixing the system will take years, “then I’m saying the institution should carry that responsibility and not the individual member … It’s critical to our recruitment, our retention, our national security.”
With files from the Canadian Press.