POLITICS

Canadian Soldier Suicides: Vets Urge Ottawa To Beef Up Support Systems

12/05/2013 11:57 EST | Updated 02/04/2014 05:59 EST
CP
OTTAWA - Master Cpl. Kristian Wolowidnyk is no longer facing an imminent discharge from the Canadian Forces because of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

The former combat engineer and Afghan war veteran, who survived a recent suicide attempt, was told this week that he now qualifies to remain in the military as part of a prolonged release process for injured soldiers.

The change of Wolowidnyk's classification means that upon his eventual release, he will have reached the 10-year service mark and will qualify for a fully indexed military pension.

For Wolowidnyk and his wife, Michele, the news eliminated a major source of stress. But more than that, they say it validated his psychological injuries.

"They've recognized his injury, I think is a lot of it," Michele Wolowidnyk said in an interview Thursday.

"Not just that his release is not pending anymore, but that they've recognized this is a very serious injury for him and now he's going to get the proper treatment going forward."

Until Wednesday morning, it appeared Wolowidnyk — father to a two-year-old child — would be discharged, even though he was desperate to stay in the Forces and re-qualify for another military trade.

He tried to kill himself on Nov. 21 — two days after being told he was being discharged.

He spent a week in the mental-health wing of the civilian Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton before being released to his family.

But shortly after The Canadian Press first reported his story, Wolowidnyk was told he qualified for the prolonged-release process.

For now, he says he'll focus on healing. But he hopes to begin training to be a machinist in the new year.

Wolowidnyk says he and his wife have been getting calls, emails and text messages of support from friends and fellow soldiers. Even complete strangers touched by his story have reached out to him through Facebook.

"I think this experience has been good for him and cathartic because there are a lot of other people out there who are undoubtedly going through the same thing and hopefully him speaking out about it lets them know that they're not alone and that they can look for some help, talk to their friends," Michele Wolowidnyk said.

The escalating struggle of soldiers like Wolowidnyk has been resonating across Canada after a number of apparent suicides within the military in recent days.

Veterans advocates say the four apparent suicides since last week may only hint at the magnitude of the problem. For every death by suicide, they warn, as many as 12 others may have sought the same fate.

On Thursday, former soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder pleaded with the federal government to provide more support to veterans suffering from the illness.

A visibly distraught Kate MacEachern told an Ottawa news conference the heart-wrenching story of how she nearly took her own life a little over a year ago after learning that she might be forced out of uniform.

MacEachern said she doesn't believe the prime minister or military brass when they tell soldiers in distress that help is available.

"Lots of words are now being spoken, but it's too late for some," she said. "Why did we have to wait until now?"

The government says soldiers and their families trying to cope with PTSD can call a confidential toll-free referral service at 1-800-268-7708.

But another veteran, Mike Cole from Trenton, Ont., said soldiers are telling him that when they call, they get put on hold, or are simply told to go to the hospital.

MacEachern is a former corporal who quit the military last summer after being ordered not to repeat a 2012 fundraising walk in aid of injured soldiers.

She called on the government — and Canadians at large — to do everything possible to prevent further deaths.

"The conversation needs to happen," she pleaded tearfully. "Please, no more of my brothers and sisters. We can't lose any more. One is too many. Four is a national tragedy."

MacEachern says former defence minister Peter MacKay offered words of encouragement when she completed her first fundraising walk, but they now ring hollow.

"He told me that day that if I ever needed anything to contact his office," she said. "2,080 miles later, and many more tears than that, I never saw nor heard from him again."

The news conference took place as a funeral was held in Truro, N.S., for one of the four suicides.

A coffin with the body of Warrant Officer Michael McNeil, 39, was carried into the town's armoury by comrades from the 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regimen, his brother Kevin and cousin Tim McNeil.

The younger McNeil brother said members of the military who are suffering need to know help is available.

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The Canadian Forces Member Assistance Program's confidential 24/7 toll-free telephone advisory and referral service for all military personnel and their families can be reached at 1-800-268-7708.

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—With files from Steve Rennie

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