|Suicide effects not only those that commit this horrible act, but the families, friends and comrades|
By Rosie DiManno
KANDAHAR—The young gunner wakes with a jolt as our LAV lurches over a hump.
He takes a moment to orient himself. It’s been more than seven months in the field, mostly inside a tank. Then he remembers where he’s headed — home, within days. But first, between there and here, another grave duty awaits.
“I hate ramp ceremonies. I especially hate this one.”
This one: Not just a poignant salute to a fallen comrade and not just saying goodbye. Saying, I think, if never aloud, damn you.
Canadian troops at the Kandahar Air Field are compelled to attend these solemn repatriation rites. It’s always a distressing occasion, watching a flag-draped casket loaded into the belly of a transport plane.
There but for the grace of God . . .
Yet the upcoming ramp ceremony — just like the one that immediately preceded it, less than a month ago — is of an acutely mystifying and, as the aforementioned gunner indicated, demoralizing dimension.
|Master Corporal Francis Roy|
Master Corporal Francis Roy was found dead of “non-combat related wounds” Saturday morning. The news was originally delivered in a terse, six-sentence press release, name withheld temporarily at the request of his family.
“No further details are available at this time, although enemy action has been ruled out.”
That was Saturday evening. By Sunday night, details were still being imparted reluctantly, by the teaspoonful, and it’s unlikely the how or why of Roy’s death will ever be aired publicly. Instead, dropped as mini bio bullets in the statement that Brigadier-General Dean Milner read aloud here, were these benign facts: Roy enjoyed fishing, running and old cars.
And that’s that.
It is suspected Roy took his own life. That would make him, tacitly, a traitor to his own kind and, at least in some quarters, viewed differently as a casualty of war.
To be clear, or as clear as the fog of war will allow: A Canadian Forces National Investigative Service probe is ongoing to “establish the circumstances of this incident.” Foul play and accident have not been ruled out. But Roy’s body was discovered at the coalition forward operating base in Kandahar city.
On his second deployment, Roy was with the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, Special Operations Task Force. Distilled into comprehensible English, this means he was serving in a support capacity to Special Forces — the elite guys we, as journalists, are never supposed to mention. They’re ghosts, even when we bump into them in the dining hall.
More specifically, Roy — who signed up with the Forces in Rimouski, Que. in 2001 — was a transport technician, a logistics guy.
He was 32 and even that small detail was reluctantly revealed.
In death, Roy remains doubly elusive: As special ops designated and suspected suicide.
Canada’s final rotation in Kandahar — the Royal 22nd Regiment battle group (Van Doos) — was primed to depart with a thankfully low casualty rate; only three lives lost. And Roy wasn’t a Van Doo anymore. He’d been with the regiment originally before specializing as a logistician, responsible for troop and vehicle movements, which took him to Camp Mirage from late December 2008 to June 2009, after which he volunteered for service with the special ops regiment and landed in Kandahar.
Yet this last rotation, which has racked up significant successes in its Panjwaii area of operations, will nevertheless depart Afghanistan with what appear to be back-to-back suicides. And that, rightly or wrongly — wrongly, in my estimation — will cast a pall, attach a tragic epilogue, on their mission.
|Bombardier Karl Manning|
On May 28, Bombardier Karl Manning also — it is believed — took his own life at a remote base in western Panjwaii. Manning was nearing the end of his seven-month combat tour and his family has disputed the suggestion that he committed suicide. An investigation has not yet concluded.
Suicide by active members of the armed forces is a particularly difficult issue to confront.
For all its admirable qualities, the military culture loathes human weakness. It draws strength from hardiness, toughness of mind and body. Suicide is tragic, but self-inflicted and, frankly, the antithesis of soldiering, where the job is to survive while killing others, when necessary.
Where Canadian flags at KAF are automatically lowered when a service member is killed — in combat, by an improvised explosive device, as the result of a vehicular accident or other misfortune — it took almost 24 hours for the Maple Leaf to be positioned at half-mast at Task Force headquarters here, though the flag was lowered Sunday morning at old Canada House, still used as a recreational facility by troops.
A similar lag followed Manning’s death last month. Indeed, the flag was still at the top of the mast at HQ when Milner delivered his statement confirming the bombardier’s death.
Once is an oversight. Twice is a pattern.
“Our thoughts at this time are with the family and friends of Master Corporal Ray,” Milner said Sunday evening.
Canadians opposed to the entire Afghanistan mission will likely seize on two suicides in quick succession — if, indeed, that’s what these deaths are eventually determined to be — as further reason to condemn a mission in which 157 troops have died since 2002. No doubt questions will be asked about the traumatizing impact of combat on Canadian soldiers.
There have been at least five suicides here. The most high profile involved Maj. Michelle Mendes, an intelligence officer who’d only been in theatre a short time when she was found dead in her room on April 25, 2009. That incident prompted speculation that Mendes had been under immense stress in her job, her deteriorating mental state unnoticed or ignored.
But there has never been confirmation that the job had anything to do with Mendes’ fragile state of mind.
Suicide is an intensely personal tragedy, in the military just as in civilian life. Soldiers have the same crises as anybody else: Relationships that fall apart, family and financial pressures, bleak thoughts.
Indeed, suicide rates among members of the Canadian Forces are marginally lower than in the general population, according to a massive study by Statistics Canada and military documentation by Directorate Force Health Protection. Figures released by the latter show that in 2010, out of 56,678 active male service members in Canada, there were 12 suicides, or a rate per thousand of 18. In both 2009 and 2008, there were 15. For females (both regular and reserve), there were zero suicides in 2010, two in ’09, one each in ’08 and ’07.
The U.S. military, which has absorbed tremendous losses in two wars over the past decade, has seen a corresponding and dreadful spike in suicides: 434 last year by active personnel, 381 in 2009.
But in Canada there is no similar trend and no genuine cause for alarm, just an acute discomfort with the subject of suicide — a queasiness not much different from the civilian world, if perhaps more unforgiving, uncomprehending, of those who take their own lives in an environment of such risk and hazard.
Master Corporal Roy’s colleagues and friends have been offered counseling by Padre Grahame Thompson, Task Force Kandahar senior chaplain and a major. Asked if any had availed themselves of his solacing, Thompson said last night:
“To be truthful, none, not yet.”