OTTAWA – Sheila Fynes couldn’t sleep most nights this summer, wondering whether she made the right decision in allowing a public inquiry to view a 34-minute military police video of her son’s lifeless body hanging from a chin-up bar in his barracks.
The graphic, disturbing images of Cpl. Stuart Langridge, were never released to the news media, but the commission investigating the military’s handling of his suicide played it in public, as part of a series of hearings last spring.
His mother and stepfather, Shaun Fynes, wrestled with the question of showing the video almost up until the day it was played.
“There are times when I think I’ve shared the most personal thing about Stuart’s life and I hope, … I hope it wasn’t for nothing,” said Sheila Fynes in an interview with The Canadian Press from her Victoria home.
Langridge hanged himself on March 15, 2008, and his body was left in place for four hours while investigators documented and searched through everything in the room.
The video sometimes zoomed in on his head and face. Federal lawyers representing the Defence Department argued in advance that if the video were to be shown, it would have to be in its entirety.
Sheila Fynes said that “at first, we said: No, we don’t want anybody ever to see that.”
“But then (after) discussions with our lawyer (and) between ourselves, we decided there would be no better way for the chair to understand our allegation of the total disrespect shown to Stuart in his death, than for him to see it.”
After a pause, she added: “Was it the right decision? It keeps me awake at night.”
Neither Sheila Fynes nor her husband were present when the video was played for the commission.
The Military Police Complaints Commission hearing into the Afghan vet’s death resumes Wednesday, with testimony from Shaun Fynes.
In the coming weeks, the commission will put under the microscope not only the Defence Department’s handling of the Langridge case, but also how it copes with soldiers suffering from mental illness and post-traumatic stress.
The inquiry also poses a political problem for the Harper government with Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s refusal to hand over some internal documents to the military watchdog. That decision echoes a bruising fight with the commission previously over records relating to the treatment of Afghan prisoners.
The Defence Department refutes the claim Langridge suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, following a stint in Afghanistan. The doctor who made the diagnosis is soon to testify, along with military police investigators that are the subject of the complaint.
Members of the National Investigative Service are accused of conducting an inadequate, biased investigation aimed at exonerating the Canadian Forces.
Sheila Fynes says the coming set of hearings “will get to the heart of the matter.”
Thus far, testimony from the military contends that Langridge, who also served a tour in Bosnia, was a troubled young man with an addiction to alcohol and cocaine. One expert witness traced the problems as far back as Sheila Fynes’ divorce from her son’s father.
The military withheld Langridge’s suicide note from his family for 14 months, something for which it has apologized.
Yet a jumble of contradictions and missteps were exposed in testimony last spring.
At first, it was claimed Langridge had been under a “suicide watch” prior to his death. But a fellow soldier who attended him refused to describe it that way, saying it was only “a watch.”
Witnesses also testified that the military consulted the family about the formulation of policy for dealing with loved ones, something Sheila Fynes angrily denies.
“What has surprised me the most is the levels Justice (department) lawyers have gone to try and paint a very damning picture of our son. And some of the things that have been said by witnesses are so contradictory, and some of the things are just plain, flat-out, vile lies,” she said.
Just as the hearings recessed in June, complaints commission chair Glenn Stannard asked for partial access to documents that relate to the Langridge case but were written after military police investigators had been in touch with Defence Department lawyers.
MacKay, in a terse response, refused the plea and told the chairman not to talk to contact him again directly, but instead go through Justice Department lawyers.
That has galvanized one veterans group, which released a letter to MacKay demanding he waive solicitor-client privilege.
“I was quite disillusioned when reading your letter of response, Minister MacKay, not only from a sense of empathy for the Fynes family but to those military policemen who have been accused, our brothers in arms who have been subject to great stress and long-term concerns about potential disciplinary-career consequences,” wrote Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.
“You have an obligation to those that serve, sir, an obligation to accord to those who have been accused the opportunity to defend themselves with the full truth.”