Veteran who killed family and himself wasn't prepared for realities of war, fellow soldier tells N.S. inquiry
8 soldiers in Lionel Desmond's battalion have died by suicide since 2007 Afghanistan tour, inquiry hears
The Afghanistan veteran who killed his family and himself a decade after he served overseas is among eight soldiers in his battalion to have died by suicide following that tour, Lionel Desmond's friend and fellow retired corporal testified Thursday.
Cpl. Orlando Trotter met Desmond in 2005, at the beginning of a year of training with the 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment that was meant to prepare them for combat.
But there was no psychological preparation for the soldiers, Trotter said. Nor, seemingly, was there an understanding of who was psychologically fit to live with the sound of gunfire from the moment morning prayers ended until the noon-day heat forced the Taliban fighters to go silent, he testified.
There were between 300 and 400 soldiers in the battalion, and Trotter said many who left on that 2007 tour began to exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after they returned.
"That tour, that was a bad tour," he said. "It was a terrible tour — like going to hell, that tour.
"That's why so many people are struggling right now."
He said he knew each of the eight soldiers who died by suicide since coming back from that tour, and that it's hard for him to think about.
"I'm not sure how to help them," he said. "But they need help. They go overseas, they fight. And they need the help when they get back."
Trotter is the first soldier who served alongside Desmond to testify before the fatality inquiry that is looking into the circumstances leading up to his fatal shooting of his wife, Shanna, his daughter, Aaliyah, his mother, Brenda, and then himself at a Guysborough County, N.S., home on Jan. 3, 2017.
CBC reporter Laura Fraser was live blogging the hearing:
Preparing for the mental toll
The mandate of the provincial inquiry includes examining whether Desmond had access to necessary mental health treatment for his complex PTSD, among other things.
Judge Warren Zimmer can make recommendations, but federal levels of government — such as the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs — are not bound by the terms of the inquiry. Representatives from those federal departments do, however, have legal counsel at the inquiry and have pledged to fully participate.
The lawyer for Lionel Desmond's estate asked Trotter to give recommendations that those departments might use to help soldiers transition from their time in combat.
Trotter testified that it's critical to better prepare soldiers for the realities of war, including being prepared to shoot a human being instead of a target.
"I remember when we were first in Afghanistan, the warrant officer ... he's like, 'See this guy,' there were three dead bodies there. And he said, 'Look at them, look what the bullets do. This is what you have to do.' And nowhere in my training were we prepared for something like that."
Desmond and Trotter arrived in Afghanistan during a time of high Canadian casualties. They replaced a regiment that lost 12 soldiers in Operation Medusa. Their battalion lost 10 soldiers when a vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device during the tour, Trotter testified.
WATCH | Lionel Desmond's sister on why the inquiry matters:
During their tour, Trotter said he saw Desmond change from the "goofy" friend he'd met in training a year prior.
That tour challenged Desmond's core values of "family and humour and helping people," he said.
He was gentle and unsuited to handle that level of combat; Desmond would have been better at building schools and connecting with children, the retired corporal testified.
"You take somebody like him and put him in a war zone and [say] 'Take this rifle and that guy over there? Shoot him.' I would say it destroyed him," Trotter said. "You have to have a certain type of personality to go into battle, and he just wasn't one of those guys."
Battalion separated too quickly, soldier testifies
The battalion returned to Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in August 2007. Within weeks, many of the soldiers were reassigned, promoted and moved to different areas, Trotter testified.
That separation was a blow to "a family" that went through seven months of combat and a year of training together, and Trotter said one change to reintegration he'd suggest would be to keep the battalion together longer after their return from combat.
By 2009, Trotter had moved to Ontario. But he came home to Nova Scotia twice a year and would always visit Desmond and his wife as he drove through New Brunswick, where they were living at the time as Desmond was still serving at CFB Gagetown.
They'd talk on the phone every few weeks, and at that point, Trotter said Desmond still seemed like himself.
But by late 2010, he began to talk about "there being something wrong with his head." Trotter testified that Desmond told him about how he repeatedly checked to make sure his doors were locked and how he would survey the area around his home as if looking for threats.
Trotter said he tried calling several resources for Desmond within the military, but as far as he knew, nobody ever responded. He told Desmond about his own struggles with mental health, about how he'd gone for treatment at a military facility in Ontario.
In 2015, both Trotter and Desmond retired from the military. Trotter said many others within the battalion on that tour also suffered from PTSD and left the Canadian Forces.
Better continuity of care
Trotter testified that he felt Desmond didn't get the care he needed after he was released from the Quebec residential psychiatric facility in August 2016. That echoes the opinions of the counsellors who saw him in crisis in Nova Scotia that fall and winter.
It wasn't until November 2016 that a counsellor appointed by Veterans Affairs would connect with Desmond.
That three-month delay is unacceptable, Trotter said. The discharge process needs to be streamlined, he told the inquiry, both in terms of continuity of care and in getting access to a pension.
Trotter said that when he retired in 2015, it took between four and six months to get his first pension cheque. He recalled that Desmond also struggled financially waiting for his payments.
"You think about somebody who is mentally ill having to go through those struggles," Trotter said. "That's an area where they can help out."
Where to get help
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) crisisservicescanada.ca
In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre