12/07/2013 12:57 EST | Updated 02/05/2014 05:59 EST

Soldiers Commit Suicide Because of Invisible Wounds

In seven days, Canada lost four soldiers to suicide. They died of despair. Suffering mental wounds from their service, able to foresee the end of their careers but unable to see how they could survive after, they succumbed to their injuries and took their own lives.

We might give it fancy clinical names, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Operational Stress Injury, but that doesn't change the condition: broken mind. People with rational minds get sent off to witness horrors and return with irrational minds.

Author LesleyAnne Ryan is one of them. She may have turned her Bosnia Peacekeeping experiences into the award-winning Braco, but Corporal Ryan almost didn't make it home.

I'll let her tell you about it. - JRM


On March 10, 1994, I sat on the cot in my tent space in Visoko, Bosnia. I pulled my rifle out from under the cot, stood it up and pointed it at my head. I was in excruciating pain from a wound no one could see. I didn't understand what was happening. I didn't understand the nightmares, the panic attacks, the flashbacks. I didn't understand why I couldn't sleep or eat. I didn't understand why I couldn't see a future.

Five months earlier, I had been a different person. I was a university graduate, a former athlete who had competed in the Canada Games, and I was going to leave the army in 1995 in order to go to law school. I had everything going for me -- a good job, good health and a future.

And it all disappeared in five short months.

Sitting on that cot, I did the one thing anyone contemplating suicide should do: think it through. That's what I did. I hadn't loaded the weapon. I simply didn't have the energy, and that gave me time to think. I didn't think of family or friends. They didn't factor in. I thought of only one thing. What can I do to stop the pain?

My mind sorted through all the options. If I had none, I would have loaded the weapon, but as it happened, I knew there was one person I could talk to. One person who might be able to explain why I could find myself hiding in a porta-potty shaking until I threw up. I made a deal with myself to give that person a chance and I put the rifle away.

As it turned out, that individual gave me the support I needed in Bosnia, and, when I returned to Canada, I went back to work with people whose friendship was unconditional. They never knew or understood exactly what I was going through; they just knew I needed a friend. They were there for me. (Thank you Guy, Paul, MJ, DA and Mike.)

I was diagnosed in 1996 with PTSD, and once I was able to put a name to what was going on in my head, I knew I could fight it. It wasn't easy. I spent the next six years fighting the system, the harassment, the accusations of faking, the attacks on my character -- all while fighting the symptoms and the irresistible lure of suicide. When you're that tired, that worn out, in that much pain, it can be attractive. I had grown up believing that those who commit suicide were cowards. I was wrong. People who commit suicide are in pain, and, as with any type of physical pain, we all have our limit.

I know of others who committed suicide after Bosnia. PTSD was not well understood, and the harassment by peers and supervisors made it impossible to get well. The simple fact of the matter is you can't stitch up a wound while others are still jabbing at it with a knife. The harassment got so bad that in October of 1997, I got up from my desk and walked out. I haven't worked since. I was released 3B (medical) in 2002.

But I was lucky.

Unlike the Afghan vets coming home today, I had more options. Under the Pension Act, I was entitled to a disability pension that was payable from the date of submission. It didn't matter if I was in five years or 15. All disabled vets were covered. I had a pension to rely on, and the financial security goes a very long way to helping a vet piece together a life after they leave the Forces.

But most Afghan vets today are not entitled to this pension. It was replaced in 2006 with a lump sum payment that is a fraction of what they would have gotten under the Pension Act. As a result, Afghan vets with PTSD are left with that catch-22 choice: stay in the military and face the stress of the job, as well as the stress of peer harassment; or get out and face the stress of financial hardship. When you have PTSD and the future looks that hollow, is it any wonder that the suicide rate is so high?

At least I knew I had financial support that would be enough to pay the bills. Knowing that, I was able to focus on taking care of myself. With help, I learned how to cope with the worst symptoms of PTSD to the point that I was able to put together some semblance of a life. I started writing as therapy and wanted to do more. I went back to school, got another degree and a diploma in creative writing. It's the one thing that I've found that fits my life with PTSD. It allows me to write when I feel good, or put it aside when I don't. It has given me purpose.

Twenty years after I served in Bosnia, I finally have something going for me.

It's not the life I wanted in 1993, but it's the life my pension has made possible, and it's worth living. Granted, even after 20 years, I still can't shake the feeling that I'm walking on a tightrope. It's my pension that is keeping me balanced. I know without it, I would fall. The only question is how far.

And today, I see my fellow vets falling and all I can do is say please, don't do it. Stop and think about it. There are options. There are always options. I know that you can't always see them when you're in pain, but trust me, they are there. Things do get better. It might take months, even years, but, for me, those first eight years of fighting got me another few decades of life.

We are soldiers. We are trained to fight, and usually we fight for those who stand next to us. That's easy. The hard part is learning how to fight for yourself. It is the most difficult fight imaginable, but it can be done. I am proof of this.

All you have to do is fight. Fight first for your life. Then fight for your health, your job, and the benefits that are out there. And join the fight to get the benefits of the Pension Act for all veterans. It's not enough to simply exist under the current benefit system. We need the Pension Act benefits so all veterans can live a life.

- Cpl (ret'd) LesleyAnne Ryan

If you are a veteran in crisis, help is available. Military Minds can assist you in figuring things out. If you need immediate help stopping the pain, you can call the Veterans Affairs Crisis Line: 1 (800) 268-7708 or the OSI Social Support line: 1 (800) 883-6094


Remembrance Day 2013