"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

“Soldiers Give Up Their Rights So They Can Risk Their Lives”

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As a late update (November 2017), now that there is absolutely no doubt that there is an epidemic of suicides among soldiers who have deployed, Veterans Affairs has just announced that they are going to start tracking post-release suicides in December 2017. Thanks to the Globe and Mail for continuing their series, The Unremembered, and continuing to document the continued death of soldiers post-deployment from wounds earned on deployment.

Liberal government to track veteran suicides as part of new prevention strategy

Suicides among soldiers and veterans have been growing concern since end of Afghan war

By Murray Brewster, CBC News Posted: Oct 05, 2017 11:45 AM ET Last Updated: Oct 06, 2017 4:18 PM ET


I came across this interesting article concerning the story of Cpl Steve Stoesz who is being disciplined for speaking out about the decision to cut military health care, particularly in the unit that treats post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The author writes a compelling concluding paragraph, which echoes what I’ve written on the same topic. You can’t make arguments that equate military service to civilian jobs (including the police) because the military role is unique, particularly in the abandonment of individual rights (including the right to refuse hazardous work).

Jeff Rose-Martland wrote:

There is a subtext to national service. Those who serve agree to give up their rights because that is essential to doing the job. In exchange, they rely on every superior rank — including citizens — to see that they are treated fairly and justly, to ensure that they are cared for when they need it. They exchange rights for trust. When we betray that trust, we cannot demand to withhold rights as well.

I suspect part of the problem is there is still a strong line of thought in the military that PTSD is not an issue, along with suicide. When I was getting ready for some Remembrance Day talks last year I was investigating the question of soldier suicide in Canada. The US military has seen a sharp upswing across all services that they relate to service in Iraq and Afghanistan. I came across a report from the the CF health services published a report which confirmed there was no upswing in military suicides as a result of combat service. As rationale, they trotted out the same reason I recall seeing in health surveys back 25 years ago: they expect a lower-than-average suicide rate because soldiers represent a selected sub-set of the Canadian population. They did not answer the more challenging question, about why we were so different than the US experience – who themselves were a selected sub-set of US population.

Even if you take a hand-picked cohort from the population, and then expose them to stressors far beyond what the general population faces…would you not be doubly surprised that the suicide rate appears lower than the population?

Here’s one snip from a CF article from 2009:

Suicide rates in the CF are lower than those among the Canadian population and have been generally decreasing.The rate of suicide among CF men between 2000 and 2004 was about 75% of the rate among Canadian men (after figures are age-standardized). The rate of suicide among CF women is extremely low relative to the rate among Canadian women.

A recent PA backgrounder provides the same reasons, April 2012:

Suicide is a concern for all Canadians. According to Statistics Canada, suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 341. Suicide rates among currently serving CF personnel are lower than those among the overall Canadian population and there has been no statistically significant change observed in the suicide rates in the CF since 1995. This is not surprising given that CF personnel are a screened workforce, and have access to comprehensive, high quality health programs and services.

Finally, from the preface to the expert report on suicide in the CF:

Public interest in military suicides has been particularly acute over the past year or two, coincident with a rise in the suicide rates seen in the US Army and Marine Corps. Other militaries coping with the extraordinary demands of the conflicts in SW Asia are concerned that they, too, will see such increases in time. In the CF, however, the suicide rate has remained steady since the beginning of the mission in Afghanistan, and previous deployment does not appear to be associated with a signicantly increased risk of suicide. Nevertheless, the public, Members of Parliament, and military leaders often ask what the CF is doing in terms of suicide prevention.

I found a copy of that expert panel’s report previously on the CF website, but it seems to have been taken down. A link from a CTV story in October 2011 results in page not found. At a CF site I see that anyone wishing to view the report should contact one of the physicians. Has DND taken that report off public distribution? Curious. There is a copy available on scribd here.

A contrary opinion caught my eye in 2010 when I was investigating this question, and came across research done by an officer (social work if I recall) studying for his PhD (in religious studies I believe). He had, instead of just looking at reported stats, obtained the raw Military Police reports and examined them to determine if the death was likely suicide. His data reduction provided a suicide rate that was pretty comparable to the US experience between 2006 and 2007:

Starting in 2006, Sartori also noticed an abrupt change in the terms the military reports used to describe suicide in documents. The 36 suicides in 2007 were listed as sudden deaths, with 12 clearly marked suicide and 21 cases listed as “investigated.” National Defence officials did not dispute that the document is a suicide list, but did not respond to requests from CBC to explain the new categories.

The 2007 numbers put the military suicide rate at triple that of the general Canadian public. Over the past two decades Canada’s overall rate has ranged from 11.6 to 14 suicides per 100,000, though recent numbers are not available.

Dr. Greg Passey, a former military psychiatrist and head of a post-traumatic stress disorder clinic in Vancouver, says the spike in military suicides is “disturbing” but not surprising. He says he believes it’s related to what he calls the “increased tempo” of the Afghanistan mission, which began in 2002.

Particularly concerning is the change in definitions started in 2006 which, if true, might very well be obscuring what is really going on. On a related topic, consider this story from last year talking about the upswing in domestic violence on military bases:

Instead, it came from a freedom-of-information request that revealed a military police report that was shelved and later downplayed by Canada’s military bureaucracy.

According to the report, military police noted a five-fold jump in reported cases of domestic violence after troops returned from a heavy combat tour in Afghanistan to Ontario’s CFB Petawawa in 2007. […] Col. Jean-Robert Bernier, deputy surgeon general with the Canadian Forces, dismissed the report, noting “some methodological flaws in the way some of that military police data was collected and analyzed.”

[…] Is suicide interesting enough for our public debate? In 2008, the CBC cited research by Laval University doctoral student Maj. Michel Sartori, who obtained military police records that showed the suicide rate among Canada’s regular forces and reserves doubled from 2006 to 2007, rising to a rate triple that of the general population.

Last year, the National Post reported that, according to the military’s own figures, 2009 showed the highest number of suicides among Canadian Forces personnel since tracking began in 1995.

When I start to see hints about definition changes, and a Canadian report that concludes ‘smooth sailing’ when our US and other allies are having huge problems, I start to wonder. With objective contrary evidence for 2006-2007, and indications the number is climbing, really gets me curious. A recent CBC report suggests increases as well.

I see that Michel Sartori has published his doctoral work on the subject…although it is au Francais, so I’ll have to read it slowly. LE DRAME DU SUICIDE DANS LES FORCES ARMÉES CANADIENNES. QUAND LA VIE PERD TOUT SON SENS, UNE PAROLE PEUT-ELLE ENCORE ÉMERGER DU CHAOS (roughly, The Tragedy of Suicide in the CAF. When life has lost all sense, a comforting word may emerge from the chaos)

I suspect part of that goes back to part of the military ethos which is never to complain or to admit weakness. I suspect there is still some thought that “real” soldiers don’t end up with operational stress injuries (OSI) in spite of lots of evidence to the contrary (right back to WW I). I suspect that culture of denial won’t change as long as the mental health professionals that treat those conditions are downsized.

When I’ve worked through that thesis I’ll see if my mind is changed.


Written by sameo416

May 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. […] I’ve written before about the suicide rate in the Canadian Forces. The last formal report from the CF health care side stated there wasn’t a problem because the rate of suicide among soldiers was below that of the general population. These interesting articles from the US suggest that the problem of suicide among combat soldiers is growing, and a concern even though the rate is below that of the general population. […]

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