Sacrifice Medal a bad move for suicides

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The new Sacrifice Medal was designed to recognize and honour Canadian soldiers who “die as a result of military service or are wounded by hostile action.” The award’s name speaks loudly to the commitment of those who receive it; the word “Sacrifice” is boldly inscribed, along with a depiction of the statue named “Canada” (that is part of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France).

But the Department of National Defence (DND) announced this week it intends to broaden the criteria for this medal to include soldiers killed in service-related accidents and those who commit suicide (if the suicide is found to be service-related). In so doing, the DND risks stretching the definition of “sacrifice” beyond the point of legitimacy, leaving the word and the award devoid of meaning.

Reaction to this controversial decision appears to be mixed. For many, death from an accident in a war zone could be rightly included or is at least worthy of debate. Discussions of including suicide inevitably lead to the question:Why would Canada award a medal to those who commit suicide? Palestinians and Islamic extremists may applaud the deed as a job well done, but why would we?

Isn’t suicide an act of desperation? Or even cowardice?

Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who, for whatever reason, chose to end their own lives. But that can’t lead us to confuse tragedy with sacrifice.

According to Canadian Forces figures, the number of suicides among actively serving, full-time military personnel has remained relatively steady since the beginning of the Afghan war; the numbers range from 11 to 13 every year. The lone exception is 2008, when there were 15.

At a February meeting of the military’s mental health advisory committee, the chief of military personnel reported that up to 16 per cent of our soldiers could be suffering from mental health issues. However, only nine per cent of men and six per cent of women attribute their problems to deployment in Afghanistan. The link to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is similarly vague. Less than half of all men and about a quarter of all women suffering from PTSD link it to their overseas mission.

Based on these numbers, the DND believes “no consistent relationship has been discovered between deployment and increased risk of suicide.”

But the Canadian Forces also admit their data may be incomplete as they include only active soldiers. They are working to develop a more rigorous and accurate picture of mental health among active and non-active personnel.

There is no doubt combat can initiate or contribute to psychological problems. But the notion that all suicides stem from combat stress is difficult to support, since the vast majority of mental health issues are not associated with combat.

The changes result from a review initiated in response to criticism from the families of soldiers killed in accidents (and maybe suicides) and from those who served as peacekeepers in missions prior to October 2001. (The beginning of the Afghan war marks the starting date to gain eligibility for this award).

The review’s recommendations by the DND would be far more tolerable if they didn’t smack of the government caving in to keep the peace among Canadians who are less than enthralled about the long, drawn-out war we might not be able to win.

Most Canadians are absolutely supportive of our soldiers and the Highway of Heroes is evidence of our gratitude for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in battle. But they are far less enamoured by the war in Afghanistan. The federal government and DND don’t need devastated family members sending public messages that the military doesn’t care for the families of slain soldiers or, even worse, offer proper respect and gratitude to their memory.

Medals are typically awarded for undergoing some kind of an extraordinary experience or performing some kind of an extraordinary act—like being killed or wounded in battle. But if those who commit suicide receive the very same reward, it simply becomes recognition of one’s participation—not one’s sacrifice. Just like junior soccer leagues: the score doesn’t count and everyone gets sent home with a piece of paper or trophy certifying that they are a winner!

It simply doesn’t make sense to award the Sacrifice Medal to those who commit suicide. But, then, the circumstances of war and the killing of men don’t always make sense either.

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