the Bill of Rights preventing the military from intervening in suicide attempts and cutbacks to medical professionals involved in suicide prevention in the Canadian military may have aided in the death of a 27-year-old Afghanistan and Bosnia war veteran.
After six previous attempts, Cpl. Stuart Langridge committed suicide by hanging on March 15, 2008 at CFB Edmonton and his parents are still grappling with the fact that a lack of psychiatric help may have led to his death.
Sheila and Shaun Fynes were being aided through the grieving process by veteran army officer Major Stewart Parkinson. Parkinson, a Sooke resident, served for over 42 years with deployments to Iraq, Cyprus and Germany. He still carries bits of shrapnel in his body and is now a part-time Class A Reservist.
Parkinson was the Assisting Officer assigned to the Fynes after their son’s death. He said that when a casualty happens what kicks in is a casualty support system with an officer assigned to the family to help them through the process. A formal Military Police Complaints Commission is sitting in Ottawa to probe complaints laid by Langridge’s parents. The Fynes’ case is based on the Military Police actions after the suicide.
“There are a number of things the family is entitled to,” said Parkinson. “Documentation is then passed through me back up through the military line.”
He said the Assisting Officer would have normally come from the Lord Strathcona Horse through Edmonton, Langridge’s regiment, but in this case was assigned to the closest unit.
There is some controversy as to whether Langridge suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, said Parkinson. He was not injured during his tour in Afghanistan and it was two years after that he hung himself.
“When he came back a combination of things affected him adversely and he spiraled down due to drug and alcohol abuse, said Parkinson.
“He was still on active duty. Somewhere in that period he had enough problems to try and kill himself.”
The crux of the problem, according to Parkinson, is that on his sixth suicide attempt the military had to deal with ineffective civilian psychiatric help being available. Langridge had recently spent time in a dependancy treatment program that he was withdrawn from as a treatment failure and was then sent back to base. “I got the distinct impression he wasn’t accepting treatment,” said Parkinson.
It has been reported in the media that the Canadian military is cutting the jobs of medical professionals involved in suicide prevention and PTSD monitoring, at the same time as Defence Minister Peter Mackay is stating there is no question that the effects of multiple deployments to Afghanistan “have had a debilitating effect” on the mental health of Canadian troops.
In 2011, defence department statistics show 31 cases of attempted suicide.
A Board of Inquiry is formed to investigate any deaths (suicides) along with a review called a psychological autopsy. Other reports from civilians who provide much of the care of mentally ill soldiers describe the system as one that leaves the soldiers waiting for months before seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist. A Department of National Defence report states that suicides have increased in the military (20 in 2011, 12 in 2010) since 1995.
Although Langridge was suicidal (after six attempts) the civilian psychiatrist on his case told him not to do drugs and drink and sent him on his way, related Parkinson.
“If they are sending a guy away with rope burns around his neck, you are not doing your job,” Parkinson said.
“The unit has its hands tied,” he said. “They never used to have more than one chance (to commit suicide). The unit realized they had a problem but had no means to deal with it. They created a “suicide watch.” The military has since reneged on that terminology said Parkinson. “They did what they thought they could do but they were not trained. They let him go to his room and two hours later they went looking for him and he had finished the job.” Parkinson feels the unit erred on the side of caution.
Parkinson said Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very real disorder. In the old days it was called shell shock, it’s all the same stuff, he said.
“The human mind is overcome by what it has to deal with. If it is treated quickly, as close to where it occurred the better the success rate. PTSD is a debilitating mental injury caused by one or a series of horrific incidents that the mind cannot cope with. If you give service and you are injured you should benefit from it.”
Psychiatric reports state that Langridge was not suffering from PTSD but drug and alcohol addiction.
The Fynes and Parkinson grew close during those tough times. Some military members thought Parkinson was too close to the Fynes and was told not to pass on any conjectural email correspondence he might receive to the parents, although he was not relieved of his Assisting Officer’s duties.
“I didn’t care about career consequences as I was doing my duty,” said Parkinson. “I wasn’t so close, I was expressing the way the Fynes felt they were being treated.”
There was a number of ways Parkinson thought the Fynes were being wrongfully treated. One of them was the next-of-kin. His short term ex-girlfriend was listed as next-of-kin and she was the one who had all the say about the funeral. The flag was presented to her rather than the parents. The girlfriend, Rebecca Hamilton-Tree, gave incorrect information on the Proof of Death Certificate, which Parkinson says was illegal in Alberta. The Fynes spent close to $12,000 to amend the Proof of Death certificate. The parents were not informed about a suicide note left by Langridge until well over a year later. There were also a number of other issues, like the Board of Inquiry which should have been carried out within 30 days after the death and was done 14 months later. Parkinson said he thinks the Brigade staff may have forgotten about it.
The Fynes were looking to the Board of Inquiry to see that whatever came out would aid in preventing this from happening to others and they felt this aim was not achieved by the results.
There is no litigation being carried out by the Fynes. When the Fynes began this long process they were looking at investigating possible negligence causing death by the military police and this resulted in a full-blown hearing.
“They don’t do these hearings lightly or often,” said Sheila Fynes. “We’re very pleased that finally somebody gets it.”
She said their ultimate goal is to shed enough light on the system that resulted in Stuart’s death. Fynes said they did not want the inquiry done quickly, just done right. “They knew he was sick, and at which point did they drop the ball? We wanted a full investigation.”
The hearing will go to the end of June, then break for the summer to resume in September.
“The military is spending $18 million to protect its image and at the same time they are closing mental health centres for our soldiers. This shouldn’t be happening. This isn’t just Stuart’s story,” said Fynes.”If you don’t admit the system is broken how can you fix it? I don’t ever, ever want Stuart’s story to happen again, it’s been a nightmare.”