11/29/2013 06:41 EST | Updated 01/29/2014 05:59 EST

Three soldier deaths leave more questions than answers

As the Canadian military investigates the possible suicides of three Afghanistan veterans in the past week, mental health experts are warning that there may not be enough help to address a surge in post-traumatic stress injuries.

The Canadian Forces confirmed that investigations are underway into the deaths of the three soldiers:

- Warrant Officer Michael McNeil of the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, died on Wednesday at Garrison Petawawa, northwest of Ottawa.

- Master Cpl. William Elliott of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, was found dead at a home just outside Canadian Forces Base Shilo in Manitoba on Monday.

- Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast of the 20th Independent Field Battery in Lethbridge, Alta., was found "in distress" last Friday at a local corrections centre and died in hospital on Monday.

Halmrast had been transferred this past summer from CFB Shilo to a reserve unit in Lethbridge.

Canadian Forces officials would not comment on the investigations into the soldiers' deaths because they are all underway.

The RCMP is investigating Elliott's case because he was found outside the base, and a "civilian police authority" is investigating Halmrast's death for the same reason. Military police are investigating McNeil's death because it happened on a base.

All three soldiers had served overseas, including in Afghanistan, according to the Canadian Forces.

While it has not been confirmed, military officials have indicated that all signs point to suicide as being the cause of death in all three cases.

Military has shortage of health-care providers

Figures released by the Department of National Defence show that 10 full-time Canadian Forces members committed suicide in 2012, and 21 members took their own lives in 2011.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson defended his department's health-care services during question period on Thursday, saying it has "increased the annual health-care expenditures by over $100 million."

But Pierre Daigle, the ombudsman for National Defence and the Canadian Forces, said the military is 15 to 20 per cent short of the number of health-care providers that are needed.

At the same time, he said 76 assessed candidates are on hold, waiting to be hired.

"The chronic short under-manning is definitely a key issue here," Daigle said Friday.

"Because of bureaucratic impediments, because of [a] cumbersome and lengthy hiring process, I'm afraid that if they're waiting too long to bring them in, that there will be a potential loss of those qualified candidates and maybe further delays."

Those who provide mental health support to former and current soldiers say they are dealing with those delays daily.

"They're facing an amount of calls, an amount of soldiers with problems so big that they just can't keep the pace up," said Dominique Tremblay, who helped establish a support group called Military Minds Canada.

Dozens of inquiries remain incomplete

The Canadian Forces will conduct boards of inquiry into each of the three deaths.

But NDP defence critic Jack Harris said there are 50 outstanding boards of inquiry into suicides, with some dating as far back as 2008.

"If it had occurred during the war — directly in combat — it would be regarded as a national tragedy, and it should be no less so in this case because they are victims of that combat," Harris said Friday.

Cpl. Glen Kirkland, who served in the same unit as Elliott, said he was "in absolute shock" when he learned of Elliott's death this week.

Kirkland, who has fought a high-profile battle with the Defence Department on behalf of soldiers being medically discharged against their will, said Elliott had sought his advice two weeks before he died.

"He was concerned that because of his back issues and other issues that he had that he was going to be released from the military," Kirkland said of their conversation.

"So he wanted any advice that he could get from me on how to successfully transition into civilian life."

Kirkland said the federal government needs to step up support and services for soldiers, who he said are avoiding medical help amid fears of being discharged.

But Tremblay and others say they fear the problem of mental health issues among current and former soldiers will get worse before it improves.