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Military Commanders, Start Taking Responsibility For Your Troops

02/22/2014 10:33 EST | Updated 04/24/2014 05:59 EDT

The recent rash of suicides by serving soldiers has the Forces scrambling... to cover their butts.

One would expect that, when faced with a serious medical issue among the troops, National Defence would be doing everything possible to get help to its people. Instead, it has been dragging its heels on hiring qualified mental health experts - even refusing to do so. Now, in an ongoing campaign to deny there's anything wrong, they have turned loose the spin doctors to convince us everything is being done.

First up: Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson. Last week, the General offered up the opinion that we should stop talking about this issue and that comforting desperate and distressed soldiers is a problem:

"And our experts are very concerned about the fact that in a way, as Canadians and as leaders, we've put our arms around those who are suffering from mental health, (but) that we may have brought a slight honour to the act of suicide... So we're very concerned about, as we rally around our troops, what we may be doing to this impression of suicide."

General, might I offer up that, at the heart of the problem of suicide in the Forces, is that soldiers feel trapped and with no way out? That the widespread stigma against mental injury and illness, that the attitude you present -- that helping is coddling, and that your condescending attitude exemplifies the problem which soldiers face? Suicide is the act of someone desperate for hope of help or of release from pain. The last thing a suicidal person is considering is honour. As for your claims of help: by most appearances, the Forces only puts its arms around mentally-distressed troops so in order to gain a firm hold before chucking them out.

Next in line: retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie. You know Lew - he's the 'military expert' trotted out by the media when they can't find anyone else. In a special report to the Globe & Mail, Lew held fast to the Government line: that mental health care in the Forces is well-funded and top-notch, but that's it is up to soldiers to ask for help. Retired Colonel and First Veterans' Ombudsman Pat Stogran was quick to take General Lew to task, reminding him that it is the responsibility of commanders to see to the health of their troops. More on that issue shortly.

Then, on Sunday, current head of Canadian Army Lt.-Gen. Marquis Hainse boldly pointed out: "People will come home from Afghanistan needing help. We're not mental health professionals, but we now know how to detect certain signs of PTSD. There are highs and lows in life, and people need to know that they don't have to suffer in silence."

It's hard to disagree with that sentiment: the troops do need to know that they are not alone and that help is there.

But, General, isn't it a bit late to be suggesting this has only now become an issue because we are wrapping up the Afghanistan mission? Troops have been coming home mentally wounded from Afghanistan for more than a decade. Then there are the people who served in the missions during and before that one: Haiti, the former Yugoslavia, Eritrea, Kosovo, the Swissair disaster, and the recent Philippines-typhoon mission, to name a few. Plus all the other missions not related to major events: the search and rescues, training missions, accidents, and all the other 'normal' traumatic events which can take massive mental tolls on someone in service to the nation.

One thing General Hainse deserves credit for: encouraging people to watch each other, to help each other, and demonstrating that it is the job of commanders to look to the welfare of those who serve under them. So good work General. I just hope you don't get burned for going off message. Because the message from Government, National Defence, and much of the CF brass, is that it is up to the soldiers, sailors, and airforce personnel to ask for help -- they are putting the onus on the individual.

Much has been made of the stigma against mental illness in the Forces, but what is not mentioned is the stigma against reporting any illness or injury. From basic training on, soldiers are taught to "suck it up" and "soldier on", to push themselves to their limits in order to succeed. Hike on that sprained ankle. Stand perfectly still on the asphalt parade square wearing a bearskin hat in +35C, "No fainting on parade! Many other ways. This is instrumental to training. You need troops to know their limits, and know how to overcome them. An Olympic athlete is considered brave for competing with sprains and tears.. and they aren't being shot at! But the downside of this is that soldiers themselves are not inclined to speak up and say, "I'm hurt." That's military culture, and that's why troops are supposed to keep an eye on each other. It is also why commanders are charged with monitoring those that serve under them.

That makes the current narrative from Government, National Defence, and Canadian Forces brass very troubling. Never mind stigma against mental health issues - over the past few months, they have continually promoted the idea that it is up to soldiers to seek out help. This is runs completely counter to military psychology. It is the opposite of the troops' training. It denies any responsibility of commanders to provide for and to watch over those under their command. What the brass is promoting is not only shifting blame to the victim; it is denying all moral and actual responsibility to those who serve. It is undermining the foundations of military culture.

What Government, National Defence, and the Forces' command are promoting is dereliction of duty.

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