A week ago today a man, who had been living in a shelter, drove to the Parliament buildings in Ottawa and opened fire on Corporal Nathan Cirillo – one of the two guards at the National War Monument. The shooting was fatal and the shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau would later meet the same fate as he stormed Parliament and was shot and killed by the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons Kevin Vickers. That story has dominated news cycles in Canada and seen an international outpouring of support for Corporal Nathan Cirillo – all top U.S. Officials have sent their regards and tens of thousands of Canadians have visited a vigil outside of the Hamilton Armoury, or held vigil alongside and on overpasses of Ontario’s Highways as his body and casket were driven back to Hamilton. Numerous military personnel have commented on how Canada has not seen this amount of ceremony, eulogy, or support for a member of the military in some time – if ever. The way in which Canada has remembered the death and service of Corporal Nathan Cirillo is certainly vastly different than how Canadians typically eulogize the majority of dead soldiers in this country – or even other same ranking soldiers, in the same regiment, from the same City.
Another Hamilton Corporal, and member of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, Justin Stark passed away on October 29, 2011 – three years ago today. Like the majority of Canadian military deaths since 2002 – Justin took his own life. Over that span of time the Canadian Military saw 138 combat deaths in Afghanistan and 160+ military suicides. Justin’s death, like every other military personnel who has committed suicide, was not given national remembrance and he was never graced with a mention from Prime Minister Stephen Harper let alone a eulogy.
In fact, the largest media coverage around Cpl. Justin Stark came two years after his death when his parents received a .01 cent cheque in the mail – something which they felt was traumatizing and callous. Minister of National Defense Rob Nicholson did step up to apologize for the cheque, but the military still won’t budge on classifying Stark’s death as “not work related.” Stark shot and killed himself while inside the Hamilton Armoury – for context.
Horrific treatment of family of soldiers who have committed suicide is common in Canada though. Lt. Shawna Rogers suicide similarly received little media coverage, but the fact that the Canadian Military has threatened to sue her parents if they did not disclose personal information to the Military did.
In nearly even instance, families are left holding the bag trying to recoup final pay, claim what benefits exist, fight classification and the military over the record of the death and have to deal with a complete and utter lack of respect as the service of their loved ones is completely forgotten. This is how the majority of the Canadian military is dying. Mental health is a far bigger threat to the Canadian Military than ISIS or the Taliban and it is something that we can control to some extent.
Although the topic frequently comes up in the House of Commons, nothing substantive has changed in the Canadian Military. To my knowledge, the latest Canadian Military suicide happened in September – Master Corporal Denis Demers who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2010. Who knew of his name?
Suicide and PTSD rates in the Canadian Military are a runaway train that we can do something about. If we can muster this collective energy to eulogize an already dead solider, we can also use some of that energy to stop austerity for veterans, provide supports for military families already grieving, and we can ensure that full scale supports and programs are in place to deal with preventative care for soldiers. All signs point to some of these issues being inherent to combat and that’s another reason why we should be extremely cautious to ever send anyone into combat. The anti-war movement in Canada is in shambles and the political left still struggles with seeing soldiers as the representation of wars they oppose. It is in this kind of atmosphere that the political right has been able to succeed with “support the troops” rhetoric while the real world reality is anything but. A healthy anti-war movement is one that recognizes soldiers with compassion when the state no longer will – regardless of one’s stance on war.
What is all of this saying about us? Why do we ignore 160+ military suicides while we frame the death of one soldier as a national tragedy? All of these people have served. All of these people are gone. Nathan’s death, tragic, should be a point for sober analysis of how we remember soldiers – if not a condemnation of how the State currently views mental health as whole. Our current framing of Nathan’s death suggests that the State only cares about soldiers deaths to the extent that they are marketable commodities – eulogies that fall in line with political opportunity. Every journalist, politician and “mourner” who fits this bill should be thought of as a leech.
Many have also rightly made comparisons to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Wommen #MMIW in Canada – of which there are over 1,200+ open cases and no state eulogies. I completely agree, but focus on military suicide reminds us that even the people claiming to “support the troops” only do so when practice suits them. Why do we not challenge this? How is it that military suicide has not featured in ANY of the media coverage around Nathan Cirillo’s death?
Justin Stark grew up in Hamilton, close to my hometown of Dunnville, On. A few years ago, and back from duty, Justin led the Dunnville Mudcat Parade. Both born in 1989, Justin and Nathan served with each other in that Armoury in Hamilton. Justin’s funeral was the last military funeral at that Hamilton Armoury before Nathan’s. Both were excited about their service, but only one will be remembered as “Canada’s Hero,”and “Canada’s Son.” I despair when I think of all of the young people watching this news coverage, during this fervour, thinking of enlistment. How many will join to end up isolated, abandoned, and alone like Justin and 100’s of other military members who’s service will never be remembered? Many had small children, many had dogs that wondered when they would be home – but these are the stories we don’t tell. Nathan Cirillo has been dead for this entire conversation around his memory and it is important to remember that we are talking to each other, about each other, when we talk about his death. What does it say about us when everyone will remember Nathan’s name and almost no one will remember the names of any soldiers who have died by suicide?
*Dedicated to all those who have served who feel like no one cares.
UPDATE: There is an online petition that I have been asked to circulate calling on the Conservative Administration to classify Justin Stark’s death work related and to deliver Silver Crosses to his family. Please sign, and do what you can to circulate this petition. You can also expect some updates on this story here soon.
Final Justice for Cpl Justin Stark – https://www.change.org/p/hon-rob-nicholson-right-hon-stephen-harper-hon-peter-mackay-hon-julian-fantino-final-justice-for-cpl-justin-stark