Monday, June 22, 2009

The Conservatives Do Poor Job of Supporting Troops

Did you ever get cut off by a truck on the highway, only to see the words emblazoned on it's rear 'How's my Driving?'

Well that's exactly how the family of Stuart Langridge felt when they received a form letter, requesting they fill out a survey about how they were treated after the young soldier's death.

This after they made repeated complaints about how they had, and were still being treated by the military.

This is unacceptable. Our soldiers deserve better. Surely there is one person who could write a personal letter to each the families of our fallen soldiers. And a survey? Sounds like one of the Conservatives franking push polls to me.

Make a call or pay a visit if you really care.

This is not the first time this government has made disastrous errors in handling the victims of their new direction for the 'mission'. The repatriation of Karine Blais who travelled on the milk stop express. The attempts to silence the media and block them from covering the flag draped coffins. And even muzzling the military from speaking without approval from the PMO.

But their handling of Stuart Langridge reflects not only the control of information from the military, but the marginalization of a specific group of soldiers, that they are only now trying to politically recognize. Those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress.

Yes Peter MacKay is flitting about now encouraging soldiers to speak up, but the facts in the case of Corporal Langridge contradict this.

Parents of dead soldier felt deceived, marginalized by military
By David Pugliese,
Ottawa Citizen
June 21, 2009

A week after they buried their son, Sheila and Shaun Fynes received a letter from National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. They opened it and were stunned by the first sentence: "I hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits."

The letter was an invitation from the director of casualty support to complete a survey about how the military treated the family. Included were questions about the family's experience in CFB Trenton, Ont., the base where the bodies of soldiers, killed in Afghanistan, arrive by aircraft. The Fynes had never been to Trenton.

In the months following Cpl. Stuart Langridge's suicide by hanging in an Edmonton army base in March 2008, and his burial in Victoria, the Fynes got little peace. Instead they became trapped in a legal and bureaucratic nightmare they say the Army helped create.

The parents were still angry the Army recognized their 29-year-old son's girlfriend of 14 months - his spouse from the military's viewpoint - as the soldier's primary next of kin, even though the two had split up a couple of months before Stuart's death.

In fact, Shaun and Sheila were legally listed as Stuart's primary and secondary next of kin - and the Army knew it.

Unknown to the Fynes, several days after Stuart's death, a unit clerk in Edmonton had found key papers regarding the soldier, stuffed behind a filing cabinet. Included among the papers was a will and documents naming Shaun as executor for his son's estate. Other records existed naming him as primary next of kin.

The paperwork should have given the couple the right to plan their son's funeral. But military officials did not tell the Fynes about the discovery. Two soldiers went with Stuart's common law spouse to the funeral home to fill out a registration of death certificate - incorrectly, as it turned out.

Without a valid proof of death, Stuart's estate became, and remains, a legal minefield. Shaun Fynes found he could not settle his son's estate or pay the soldier's taxes as required under law.

Armed with a letter from the Alberta Funeral Services Regulatory Board acknowledging mistakes had been made on the registration of death certificate, the Fynes have spent about $10,000 so far in legal fees trying to correct the problems.

The military has declined to become involved in the legal issue. Canadian Forces spokesman Maj. Dave Muralt said the two soldiers who went to the funeral home did not provide any of the information now in question.

But the Fynes blame the Army for the legal mess.

"Is it normal to store personnel documents in between a filing cabinet and the wall?" asked Shaun.

Muralt said the unit is investigating how Stuart's documents were handled. "There were things that clearly happened the way we would not want them to happen," he acknowledged.

Even as their legal hassles continued, the Fynes were keen to see an inquiry into their son's death.

The military usually holds a board of inquiry or BOI into the deaths of its members on duty; in Stuart Langridge's case, that wasn't immediately done. Muralt said the Army tried to find trained officers to conduct the BOI but that was difficult in the beginning.

By January 2009 the Fynes were becoming frustrated at what they perceived as foot-dragging by the Army.

On Jan. 21, Maj. Stewart Parkinson, the officer assigned to help the family, wrote to headquarters that the Fynes were increasingly unhappy with the delay and the couple wanted to have input into the board, as was their right.

"You'll understand if after 10 months of being deceived, misled, and intentionally marginalized (at) various points that they have no faith left in the system," wrote Parkinson. "A bottom line for them at this point is some sign of real respect for Cpl. Langridge and a meaningful participation in the BOI."

In early March, the Fynes walked into a hearing in Edmonton, feeling that at last some good would come from their son's death. The purpose of a BOI is not to lay blame but to identify what the military could do to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

"We thought they would come up with recommendations so soldiers who are sick wouldn't fall through the cracks," said Sheila.

That hope disappeared. A parade of witnesses came forth to talk about Stuart's drug and alcohol abuse problems. A military doctor made a point of noting that the soldier did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

A psychiatrist voiced the opinion that Stuart shouldn't have been allowed to attend the funeral of a fallen comrade the day he committed suicide, adding that ceremony likely prompted him to take his own life.

The Fynes couldn't believe what they hearing. Their son had never attended the funeral in question - he was already dead at that point. The Fynes also thought it was highly unusual that the civilian doctor who diagnosed Stuart with PTSD and the base psychiatrist who evaluated him previously were not asked to testify.

"The whole thing seemed designed to put the blame entirely on Stu," explained Sheila. "It's like they took away our son and now they are trying to take away any pride we could have in him."

Maj. Muralt said he can't comment on the family's concerns about the BOI as the inquiry's report is still being reviewed.

Last month, the Fynes received another surprise.

A military officer phoned to inform them that their son had left a suicide note and it had been in the possession of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, the unit tasked with examining sensitive and serious incidents. It was the first time the family had an inkling that a note existed.

At first, the military sent the Fynes a photocopy of a photocopy of the note. Shaun was furious; he demanded and later received the original note.

In it, Stuart apologized to his mother, Shaun, his brothers, aunt and grandmother.

"Sorry but I can't take it anymore," he wrote. "Please know that I needed to stop the pain. Love Stu.

"P.S. I don't deserve any kinda fancy funeral just family."

The Fynes consider the NIS decision to keep the note from the family for 15 months unprofessional and callous.

Shaun said with the note, military investigators knew immediately that the death was suicide. There was no need to keep the family in the dark about Stuart's last wishes for more than a year.

The NIS has never contacted the family to explain, or apologize.

But in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, NIS spokesperson Maj. Paule Poulin said the service acknowledges that it made a mistake. She said a copy of the note should have been given to family right away, with the original released at end of the investigation.

"The CFNIS regrets the situation and has revised its procedures to make sure it doesn't happen again. In the case of deceased CF members the family of the deceased is the victim, really, so it's very important to treat them properly."

That is little comfort to the Fynes. Sheila said the military knew all along that her son didn't want a large funeral yet allowed such an event to proceed. She considers the NIS decision not to tell the family about the note another sign of disrespect.

"They took away my right to bury him and they interfered with his last communication with his family," she said.

The Fynes acknowledge that their son had some responsibility for his situation. He abused alcohol and drugs. At times he asked for treatment; other times he refused it.

But they believe their son had PTSD and died mainly because of a failure of the system. Sheila believes the sudden death of Stuart's estranged birth father, combined with his time in Afghanistan, sent him down a path of self-destruction.

"The board of inquiry appears designed to make sure no one gets the blame except Stu," said Sheila. "They had a soldier who they knew was sick and he killed himself on their watch. They have a problem."

"Our son is a damn good soldier but he's being remembered for something other than that," added Shaun. "They have no respect for him."

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