Guest Commentary

Hon. Erin O’Toole

Heroes In The Shadows

The first time I heard the medical term “post operational stress” was in 1998. I was an RCAF navigator with 12 Wing in Shearwater, N.S. assigned to search and rescue duty on Sea King helicopters. That year Swissair flight 111 crashed off Peggy’s Cove. Our team recovered the bodies at sea, 229 people. There were no survivors. It was a horrible experience.

The military opened its first operational stress clinic in 2002. This is how recent the response has been to mental health issues in the military. We still don’t talk about it as openly as we should. Mental injury is the same as a physical ailment; sufferers are anxious and sleepless. Retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire told me that sufferers never fully recover, but can get to a better place with therapy. Veterans deal with this on a day-to-day basis; there are suicides and survivors who struggle with a life of sadness.

We must strip away any stigma of mental health within the military. The more we discuss this openly, the more sufferers will see there is help and treatment. This brings me to Samuel Sharpe, MP from Uxbridge, Ont.

In the First World War, 27 MPs went on active service. They were brave men. One of them, Cyrus Peck, a salmon broker from Skeena, B.C., remains the only sitting member of any Parliament ever to win the Victoria Cross. Another, George Baker from Brome, Que., was killed in action at the Battle of Mount Sorrel in 1916. Baker is immortalized in a life-size statue in the foyer of the House of Commons. And there was Sam Sharpe.

I feel a connection to Lt.-Col. Sharpe. We’re both lawyers; both served in the military; both represented Uxbridge, Ont. in the House of Commons. This much I knew. One day a local historian asked me, “Do you know how Sharpe died, and why he’s not well known in Canada?”  Sharpe had fought at Vimy and Passchendaele and I’d assumed he was killed in action. No; in 1918 he had a nervous breakdown and threw himself out a hospital window in Montréal. My heart sank on hearing the news. I can’t forget his story.

The military is a demanding job. Seventy-five percent of members who retire will suffer some kind of injury. Mine is hearing loss, the result of a simulated explosion at basic training in Chilliwack, B.C. The damage is permanent; my doctor says it will get worse as I age. My wife says she notices I turn my head in a crowd to catch the words as others’ speak. My condition is not so bad; I still think I gained more from my military experience than I gave.

Veterans are candid with me because they know I have served. I’d worked on mental health issues before arriving in Parliament; I know military life. It helps in this job.

I discuss my physical injury frankly. Yet for many years mental illness was hidden, and sufferers were isolated.  One Yukon MP, George Black, commanded a machine gun company in WWI that left him deeply scarred. As Speaker of the Commons, Black patrolled Parliament Hill with a .22 calibre pistol shooting rabbits. He was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown in 1935; the newspapers said only that Black “was not well”, that “the disability is said to be an aftermath of service in the Great War.”

In that era everyone hid from mental health issues. Now we say, don’t hide; don’t feel you’re isolated. Help is out there, but unless you come forward you can’t start that journey.

So, I honour Sam Sharpe. He was a casualty of war as certain as if he’d been killed in action. In 1918 Sharpe did not get the help he needed, and took a wrong turn. He’d fought in the some of the worst battles of the First World War, won the Distinguished Service Order, was re-elected in absentia – then took his own life. It is a sad epilogue to a tale of triumph, and few know his name.

(Editor’s note: the author is MP for Durham and 1995 graduate of the Royal Military College)

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