Patchwork of care for veterans under scrutiny after apparent murder-suicide

There was one common, horrified refrain in the aftermath of the tragic, brutal rampage in rural Nova Scotia that left retired soldier Lionel Desmond and his family dead.

Relatives and friends almost universally said the former soldier was among the nicest, happiest people you’d ever meet.

“It makes no sense,” Shonda Borden, Desmond’s sister-in-law, told CBC Radio’s The Current. “He was such a loving person. He loved everyone. He was great was with kids.”

Former comrades who served in the same unit as Desmond in Afghanistan say what happened in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., could not have been the work of the man they fought alongside in the scorched hinterlands of Kandahar.

“He was not a monster,” said Trevor Bungay, a veteran of the 2nd battalion Royal Canadian Regiment’s India company, who kept in touch with Desmond after their tour.

‘I think the military should have done more for him.’

Shonda Borden, sister of Shanna Desmond

That is not exactly the kind of thing you expect to hear about a man who apparently murdered his 10-year-old daughter, his wife and his mother.

RCMP have remained tight-lipped about the deaths of Lionel Desmond, 33, Shanna Desmond, 31, their daughter, Aaliyah, and Brenda Desmond, 52, Lionel’s mother.

The fact Lionel Desmond, who retired as a corporal, returned from India company’s deployment in 2007 a changed and troubled man is without dispute, but his shocking and violent end — and that of his family — puts the spotlight on the patchwork of services and access to them that veterans face once they are out of uniform.

That tour was among the most bloody and brutal of the Canadian military’s five-year combat mission in Afghanistan, with dozens of casualties as the Taliban ramped up their guerilla campaign.

Duty of care?

Borden, who was close with Desmond and often defended him to her sister, says his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) made him an unstable powder keg who would “freak out” when something reminded him of the horrors of war.

Lionel Desmond

Lionel Desmond was part of the India Company, 2nd battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment in Afghanistan in 2007. (Facebook)

“I think the military should have done more for him,” said Borden. “He tried to get help, multiple times. He had all the family support you can imagine.”

Desmond could have accessed one of the military’s operational stress injury clinics, but that would have meant travelling to Dartmouth, N.S.

The heartbreak is echoed by the Canadian Forces ombudsman, Gary Walbourne, and Barry Westholm, a veteran’s advocate, who both held up the tragedy as an example of a failure of the military transition system, which is supposed to guide soldiers and their families safely and securely back to civilian life.

Often, it does not go that way, and there have been many stories lately about veterans who are not getting paid, or wait months for benefit coverage to kick in.

But Desmond had already transitioned out of the military and was squarely under the jurisdiction of Veterans Affairs and, perhaps more importantly, the provincial health care system.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said an investigation has started into how the province’s health-care system dealt with the Afghan war veteran. McNeil said the “unspeakable loss” has prompted the Health Department and the province’s health authority to review what services were offered and whether protocols were followed.

Sought treatment

Medically released from the army in June 2015, Desmond sought help and tried to hold his life together. At one point, he was sent to Montreal to a rehabilitation centre.

He felt himself slipping just before his alleged killing spree and tried — through St. Martha’s Hospital in nearby Antigonish, N.S. — to check himself into the provincial psychiatric system. His sister, Cassandra Desmond, told CBC News on Thursday that he was turned away because the hospital didn’t have his medical records.

It is a problem ex-soldiers across the country face, said Peter Stoffer, a veterans advocate and former New Democrat MP.

Patchwork system

Veterans Affairs pays for services and benefits, including priority access to long-term care and psychiatric bed waiting lists for ex-service members. But that access can often be subject to the strains, backlogs and snap judgments of the individual provincial systems.

Stoffer says Veterans Affairs should have the flexibility to access private care for troubled ex-soldiers so they can get immediate help in cases where the provincial system is unable to accommodate them.

He also said caseworkers assigned to individual veterans should be invested with the front-line authority to make those kinds of decisions, in consultation with medical staff on the scene.

Front-line staff should not have to seek spending approval from higher up, a process that can lead to extraordinary delays, he said.

NS Bodies Found 20170104

Shanna Desmond recently started working at a registered nurse in Antigonish, N.S. (The Canadian Press/Facebook)

“It should be done fairly seamlessly and fairly quickly,” Stoffer said. “These recommendations were made to the previous government and the current government.”

Walbourne, the Canadian Forces ombudsman, says there’s merit to Stoffer’s argument and describes it as a good “stopgap.”

But he says many problems for transitioning soldiers, including potentially violent ones, would be addressed if the military delayed releasing them until all benefits and care were arranged.

“Before we talk about acute [cases], let’s talk about continuity of care,” Walbourne said. “I think holding the member is vital.”

Walbourne has repeatedly made that recommendation, but it seems to be falling on deaf ears because a draft transition strategy for military members, obtained by CBC News last month, contains no mention of such a plan.

The tragedy in northern Nova Scotia also has the potential to affect the way police forces interact with ex-soldiers who have mental health problems. Advocates have said there is already a growing stigma surrounding soldiers and first-responders with PTSD, and these kinds of tragedies only reinforce those perceptions.

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