The invisible wounds of war,
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.