I believe that, even if never used, this subsection provides an unintended negative consequence simply by remaining in force.
In 2007, while completing the last phase of training towards his next promotion, Stuart admitted in a questionnaire that he suffered from chest pains. That triggered a return to his unit, where he was placed under military medical care. We did not know at that time that chest pain is symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder. In the year following, until his death, Stuart was dispensed multiple prescriptions, but went progressively downhill and suffered nightmares and night terrors. He also began to self-medicate, primarily with alcohol, supplemented by marijuana, the latter now being an accepted and provided treatment.
As his condition deteriorated, Stuart began what became a series of suicide attempts and accompanying emergency hospitalizations. He became more and more isolated from his military comrades and began to see himself not as a good soldier but rather, as he put it, “one of those losers”.
In desperation, towards the end, he took himself to a local civilian psychiatric hospital for help and was admitted. At the end of the standard 30-day mental health certificate, he wanted to continue in treatment but was surprised when he was ordered back to base instead. A few days later he was placed on what were later described as restrictions, but they in fact closely resembled defaulter's discipline. He was subjected to a curfew, as well as an extended work day. He had to report all his movements on a form at the regiment and report in every two hours. He was required to sleep with the door open in the defaulter's room behind the duty desk at the regiment. He was completely shamed and humiliated.
Reportedly, a decision had also been made that he would not be allowed to attend a treatment program at a cost of about $50,000, and Stuart became even more dysphoric. He gained access to a room at the barracks, purportedly to do laundry, where he instead hanged himself.
Fifteen months after his death, we were informed that Stuart had left a note apologizing to his family that he could not take the pain anymore. The application of quasi discipline to a mental health problem was a spectacular failure that cost our family a son, a brother and a grandson. It also cost the military a dedicated, extremely well trained and experienced soldier.
Indicative of the prevailing attitude at that time was a bizarre suggestion at the board of inquiry that followed: Officers opined that Stuart could not have acquired post-traumatic stress disorder from his deployment as a recce soldier and his patrols in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Thankfully, much has been learned since then, and post-traumatic stress disorder or, more generically, operational stress injury, is now accepted as a bona fide injury. In that paradigm shift, effectuated by a new generation of leadership in the forces, extensive new suicide prevention strategies have been implemented and more treatments are becoming available. Victims are no longer written off as just discipline problems. The institution now encourages a more contemporary warrior ethos, which recognizes that soldiers, however exceptional, are humans and not machines. Even thinly disguised discipline is misplaced abuse of the subordinate and is no longer a default alternative to medical treatment.
Currently, the military justice system has come under general scrutiny, and a review headed by former Supreme Court Justice Morris Fish has been undertaken. Hopefully it will address the broader issues of impartiality and fairness within the system.
Contrasting section 98(c) to civilian criminal justice in Canada, I would point out that a possible sentence of life imprisonment equates self-harm in the military to the most serious offences, such as murder or treason. I believe that the concept of punishing for self-harm is a relic of the World War I era. Back then, some soldiers weighed the lesser evil of self-harm against that of charging on foot through no man's land against waiting machine guns. Canadian soldiers were punished and some even executed for perceived cowardice. Of note, all those executed have since been pardoned on humanitarian grounds.
Now, in the age of a professional, volunteer military, trench warfare-era punishment for self-harm has lost any true relevance.
In recent times, our military has suffered a slow-drip epidemic of soldiers being lost to suicide. Today, any soldier inflicting self-harm is more likely to be suffering from an operational stress injury than trying to avoid combat. Suicide attempts resulting in self-harm should summon immediate help, not punishment.
By contrast again, in Canada the criminal offence of attempted suicide was repealed almost five decades ago. Such incidents are now managed under mental health provisions rather than by criminalizing and punishing victims.
I worry that the lingering stigmatization of operational stress injuries faced by members of our military inadvertently dissuades them from seeking help. That reality is oppositional to the hope that early medical interventions can offer better outcomes.
Members of the military intuitively understand the difference between “talk the talk” and “walk the walk”. It is not enough to tell them to put their hands up and ask for help when they see that they may be punished instead. In this instance, continued reliance on arbitrary discipline undercuts efforts to support members who may be struggling. To a soldier attempting to end their pain by taking their own life, the possibility of future discipline holds no deterrent.
Because section 98(c) prescribes punishment for self-harm, it frames it as a discipline problem. Because discipline is administered for misconduct or failure, it invokes shame and thereby actually reinforces the stigma around mental injuries. Members of Canada's military have earned our respect and support, not disdain or punishment.
Our sincere hope is that some good will come from Stuart's death and that positive changes regarding treatment of victims of OSI will form a part of his legacy.
The provisions of section 98(c), when applied to those with mental injuries, are a travesty and opposite to how wounded Canadian patriots should be treated. It is inconceivable to me, and hopefully to you, that threats of Code of Service Discipline and possible life imprisonment will in any way help address the high numbers of suicides in the forces.
In a volunteer military with professional leadership, punishments under section 98(c) of the National Defence Act have become inappropriate and may, in a deleterious way, undermine good order and discipline. I would respectfully suggest that there is no appreciable downside to removal of that section.
Proper administration of the forces should rely not simply on threats but on effective leadership. Our injured troops are not to be treated as disposable military assets, and if repeal of section 98(c) saves even one life, you will have had a profound impact.
Thank you for your efforts to effect positive change and to look after the best interests of each and every one of our service women and men.