The in­vis­i­ble wounds of war,

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE -

When we think of the weapons of war that have killed tens of mil­lions of sol­diers around the world, we most likely think of bombs, grenades, poi­son gas, bay­o­nets and bul­lets.

Less likely to come to mind is the emo­tional trauma that can lead some sol­diers to take their own lives af­ter they have re­turned home.

For far too long, in fact, sol­diers and vet­er­ans who suf­fer from men­tal ill­nesses, such as post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (or oper­a­tional stress in­jury, as it’s called in the mil­i­tary) be­fore tak­ing their lives have been not only ig­nored, but shunned, re­gard­less of their brav­ery on the bat­tle­field.

That in­jus­tice will rightly come to an end on Re­mem­brance Day when this year’s Na­tional Sil­ver Cross Mother, Anita Cener­ini, lays a wreath at the foot of the Na­tional War Me­mo­rial in Ot­tawa on be­half of all wid­ows and moth­ers of sol­diers who died for their coun­try in war.

That’s be­cause Cener­ini is the mother of the late Pte. Thomas Welch, the 22-year-old ri­fle­man with the 3rd Bat­tal­ion of the Royal Cana­dian Reg­i­ment in Petawawa, Ont., who ended his life on May 8, 2004, months af­ter re­turn­ing home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

This is the first time the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion, which has named a Sil­ver Cross Mother each year since1936, has cho­sen a mother who lost her child to sui­cide to lay the wreath.

It’s some­thing that the chief of the de­fence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, de­scribes as “an im­por­tant recog­ni­tion that demon­strates how the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice is not al­ways at­trib­ut­able to phys­i­cal wounds, but in­vis­i­ble ones as well.”

This ges­ture will touch the lives of many par­ents, wid­ows and wid­ow­ers across Canada whose loved ones have com­mit­ted sui­cide af­ter en­dur­ing the trauma of war.

In­deed, while Welch was the first Cana­dian sol­dier to end his life af­ter serv­ing in Afghanistan, sadly he was not the last. In fact, Welch is among more than 80 Cana­dian sol­diers and vet­er­ans who killed them­selves af­ter re­turn­ing from that war.

Im­por­tantly, the sym­bolic act will hon­our both those who suc­cumbed to men­tal trauma and those who are cur­rently suf­fer­ing from it.

It was done to “break down the stigma,” says the Le­gion’s Steven Clark. It shouldn’t be a “ca­reer-end­ing move to iden­tify the fact you are suf­fer­ing from an oper­a­tional stress in­jury.”

The Le­gion is not alone in rec­og­niz­ing the val­our of sol­diers who fought coura­geously be­fore tak­ing their own lives.

The Cana­dian Forces are re­view­ing the cases of sol­diers felled by their own hands to en­sure that if the sui­cides were con­nected to mil­i­tary work their fam­i­lies re­ceive Sil­ver Cross medals and their names are in­scribed in the Books of Re­mem­brance that com­mem­o­rate sol­diers who made the “ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice.”

Last week, too, a plaque was un­veiled in Par­lia­ment’s Cen­tre Block to hon­our Lt.-Col. Sam Sharpe, a mem­ber of Par­lia­ment who fought in the First World War and killed him­self just days af­ter ar­riv­ing back in Canada.

Sadly, Sharpe was not hon­oured at the time of his death even as an­other MP who died in that war, Lt.-Col. Ge­orge Baker, was.

The dif­fer­ence? Baker died on the bat­tle­field. Now Sharpe will fi­nally be re­mem­bered.

“We have to make sure that peo­ple know that there are phys­i­cal and men­tal in­juries from ser­vice,” says former vet­er­ans af­fairs min­is­ter Erin O’Toole, who led a years-long ef­fort to have Sharpe rec­og­nized as a ca­su­alty of war.

Fi­nally, on this Re­mem­brance Day, Canada we do.

Pri­vate Thomas Welch killed him­self less than three months af­ter re­turn­ing from Afghanistan.

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