OTTAWA – The apparent suicides of two soldiers in Western Canada have spawned at least one police investigation and more questions about the military’s practice of discharging troops deemed medically unfit for service.
Both soldiers, who died in separate incidents, had ties to Canadian Forces Base Shilo in Manitoba. Neither has been identified.
One of the soldiers, a member of the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, was found dead Tuesday at home just outside of the base.
A defence official says RCMP are investigating and it appears that the soldier killed himself.
In the other case, a soldier who was transferred over the summer from CFB Shilo to a reserve unit in Lethbridge, Alta., was found “in distress” last Friday at a local corrections centre, and died in hospital on Monday.
That member belonged to the 20th Independent Field Battery; Alberta’s Justice Department referred questions to the military.
Lori Truscott, a Canadian Forces public affairs officer in Shilo, said the military is reviewing the circumstances of both deaths, but did not indicate whether military police were involved or which defence agency was leading the probe.
Officials at National Defence confirmed that neither soldier was assigned to the military’s joint personnel support units, which are supposed to prepare the wounded to either return to their front-line units or be discharged from the military.
The soldier in Shilo, who was in his early 30s, was on track to be released from the military, said a close friend of the victim.
Late Wednesday, the military said that neither of the soldiers were being considered for medical discharge at the time of their deaths. However, the Defence spokesman would not say whether either of the men were on what is called a permanent category, which is a disabled list just ahead of the formal process for release.
But Cpl. Glen Kirkland, who has fought a high-profile battle with National Defence on behalf of soldiers being medically discharged against their will, says he spoke with his friend within the last two weeks.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s crushing, absolutely crushing,” Kirkland told The Canadian Press in an interview Wednesday.
The soldier, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, asked about the post-release procedure to access benefits through Veterans Affairs Canada and was upset about not being able to collect a pension, Kirkland said.
Aside from being in the infantry, Kirkland’s friend had only worked on a farm with horses and didn’t feel qualified to do anything else.
“He said: ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to feed my family?'” Kirkland said about their last conversation. “I kept telling him, ‘We’ll have to figure something out.'”
Aside from dealing with medical concerns, one of the most serious stresses for those leaving the military is fear of the unknown that comes with potential job retraining and the financial uncertainty that accompanies it.
“I can’t speak on behalf of these guys because I don’t know what was going through their heads, but when their potential earnings and everything is limited, the financial stress on these people is just outrageous,” said Kirkland.
Since testifying before a House of Commons committee last spring, Kirkland has been sought out by a number of troubled soldiers, some of whom have talked about suicide because they were about to be discharged.
Kirkland, who was wounded in a 2008 Taliban bombing that killed three comrades, told the committee he was being forced out of the army before he qualified for a military pension.
His plea to stay was answered by former defence minister Peter MacKay with a pledge he could remain until September 2015, but the offer was exclusive to him and he decided to leave rather than be singled out.
He was in the spotlight again a few weeks ago when similar cases emerged.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson insisted that no one is being summarily let go and that each soldier is “prepared” for their transition to civilian life.
The military is doing its best and “really does care,” but it is handcuffed by politics and a bureaucratic policy that discards injured soldiers, Kirkland said.
“All these politicians saying they stand behind the troops, and nothing gets done,” he said. “They are absolute cowards.”
— With files from John Cotter in Edmonton