NEWS
09/17/2016 14:45 EDT | Updated 09/18/2017 01:12 EDT

Family of dead soldier once snubbed by government awarded Memorial Cross

The family of a Canadian soldier who killed himself after returning from Afghanistan was honoured Saturday with a Memorial Cross at a ceremony in Hamilton, Ont. — five years after his death.

Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell presented the mother of Cpl. Justin Stark, a reservist with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, with the cross shortly after 11 a.m. inside Central Presbyterian Church.

As rain poured down outside, the sanctuary was filled with the Argyll bagpipes' stirring song of mourning. In a statement read from the church's pulpit, a Department of National Defence official said that the Canadian Armed Forces honour the memory of their fallen comrades, whether they die on the job or "in that battle we call life."

The Memorial Cross — often called the Silver Cross — is awarded to the next-of-kin of a member of the Canadian Forces who loses their life while serving their country.

Saturday's memorial ceremony took place half a decade after Justin's death, because the military initially concluded that it was not service-related.

Stark had served in Afghanistan from May to December 2010, and killed himself 10 months after returning home at Hamilton's John Weir Foote Armouries.

While Stark's mother Denise has said her son was never officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the family believes Justin's deployment had serious repercussions for his mental health.

The family's pain was compounded by what former defence minister Rob Nicholson called "an insensitive bureaucratic screw-up": the receipt of a "release pay" cheque for Justin for an amount totaling one penny.

'Delays are to be expected'

This incident added momentum to pre-existing criticism of the former Conservative government's treatment of veterans, and ultimately the Department of National Defence reversed its decision about honouring Cpl. Stark.

Daniel Le Bouthillier, the head of media relations for the department, told the CBC that the reversed decision "is not precedent-setting."

Le Bouthillier did not shed light on any specifics of the decision-making process, only saying that the board initially determined Justin's death was not related to his service — and then, following a review, determined it was.

"Cause of death does not influence the entitlement to any posthumous medal," Le Bouthillier said. "It is dependent on the formal determination as to whether or not a death was attributable to military service."

"When the cause of death is not clear," said Le Bouthillier, "the Memorial Cross will only be issued once it has been officially determined that the death was related to military service."

"In such cases, delays are to be expected," he said.

dave.beatty@cbc.ca | @dbeatty