Anita Cenerini is taking on a role no mother seeks out, and every mother hopes she never has to take on.
She is this year’s Silver Cross Mother, which means she lost a child in military service to the country.
And when she lays a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Nov. 11, it will be on behalf of all Canadian mothers whose son or daughter died as a result of military service.
When the Legion asked if she’d do it, Cenerini admits she hesitated.
“But I did it for Thomas,“ Cenerini said from her home in Winnipeg. “He was a hero the minute his boots hit the ground.”
Her son, 22-year-old Pte. Thomas Welch, occupies a unique and tragic place in the modern military history of Canada.
He wasn’t killed by the enemy in Afghanistan. He didn’t die in a training accident.
Welch died by suicide on May 8, 2004, in Petawawa, Ont., hours before he was to board a flight to see his mother for Mother’s Day.
He was the first Canadian soldier to take his own life after returning from active duty in Afghanistan.
We now know how many other soldiers live with PTSD and mental illness as a result of what they went through in Afghanistan, and how many others were in such despair they also took their own lives.
But Welch was the first.
In the days after he hanged himself, the investigating military officer concluded his death was not connected to his army service. But they had not interviewed his mother or his sister, who both knew the military was wrong. And it took the military 13 years to finally admit it.
WATCH: ‘Mom, I’m going to have to go to war’: Silver Cross Mother on conversation with son after 9/11 attacks
Cenerini says what her son endured in Afghanistan changed him from a cheerful, loving, happy young man to one filled with despair and agony and anguish.
“Personality-wise, he was almost unrecognizable, ” she said.
“When he came home for leave in October of 2003, we already saw changes in him that were concerning.”
Family meant everything to him, his mother says, yet he was agitated, couldn’t settle down, and kept leaving the house. Never one to raise his voice, she says she was shocked when Thomas said in an angry tone “I have to get out of here.”
And so his mother took him to the airport and says he was sullen and sad.
She kept in close contact with her son by phone. He’d call her and sometimes stay on the phone for hours. It was during one of those conversations she realized just how much Thomas was suffering.
“The call lasted about three hours,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
Even though it was 14 years ago, she remembers it vividly.
A Canadian soldier, Cpl. Jamie Murphy, had been killed by a Taliban suicide bomber. Thomas told her plans had changed earlier that day, and that he’d switched places with Murphy.
“He called me very distraught and told me it should have been him. And he was sobbing and it was hard to understand between the sobs what he was saying. I just felt I needed to assure him that it wasn’t supposed to be him. It was a long and very difficult conversation. I don’t think at the end of the conversation Thomas was convinced that it wasn’t supposed to be him that day … I knew it would have played very heavy on his heart.”
And then she dissolves into tears. Time has not diluted the pain. Cenerini says her son didn’t sign up hoping or expecting he’d ever go to war.
“Thomas was a very easy child. He was laid-back, easy going, and had an incredible sense of humour.”
His dream was to become a police officer and a family friend advised him one way to get some education and training was to join the military. So he signed up. That was August of 2001. Just days later, was 9/11.
He and his mother watched the horror of those terrorist attacks unfold on TV.
“Thomas connected the dots. He said to me, ‘Mom, I am going to have to go to war.’ And I immediately started crying and said ‘No Thomas, you just signed up. You don’t have to go anywhere. You can get out right now.’ And he just looked at me and said ‘Mom, they are going to need me now more than ever.’ And that moment changed me as the mom of a soldier. I saw Thomas so wise and brave and valiant and I wanted to be that for him too.”
So she supported him, even though in her heart she was full of fear. When asked if he wanted to go to Afghanistan when he was deployed, she says “Well, he never told me that he didn’t want to go. It was his duty and he took responsibility seriously. He was a very loyal person. He was very loyal to his friends and I think when you become part of the military family there’s a loyalty to those you serve with.”
He turned 22 in Afghanistan. And he was back in Canada for less than three months when he took his own life. His mother says there was never any doubt in her mind his death was attributable to his service.
“Never. Never — never wavered. I knew. I knew when I saw him come home. The month just preceding his death, there was no question in my mind that his service in Afghanistan was attributable to his death.”
The military didn’t see it that way. In death, Pte. Thomas Welch was officially forgotten. Though he’d been considered a solid and dependable soldier, a trusted rifleman with a cool head, he was given no recognition for his service. His family was given no memorial cross and received no support to grieve their terrible loss. Thomas — like so many soldiers before him who died by suicide, wasn’t considered worthy of anything from the military he’d loyally served.
It took his mother 13 years of heartache and constant questions, plus stories in the media before the military finally acknowledged her boy’s death was a result of what he’d endured in Afghanistan. In June of 2017, his death was reclassified by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs as linked to his deployment.
“He deserved to be recognized by our country for the courage, the loyalty, the dedication that he not only carried out in Afghanistan but the courage to fight the war that was in his head when he came home,” his mother says. “And to fight it alone. It’s a lonely fight.”
On Sept. 18, 2017, Welch’s family was presented with his Sacrifice Medal, Memorial Crosses, and Memorial Ribbons at a private memorial service at Garrison Petawawa.
As this year’s Silver Cross mother, Cenerini will sadly but proudly represent all the mothers who have endured the same pain.
“I can’t speak for them, and I can’t appropriate their voices, but I just want them to know that their son or daughter is, in my opinion, a hero just as I always saw Thomas. Anyone willing to make that commitment to their country, to risk their life for our freedom, they’re heroes. ”
Recognized not for how they died, but for how they lived.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.