In The Field: The Unremembered

This account describes the efforts it took Globe and Mail reporters to obtain a more complete picture of suicides of Afghanistan war veterans who fought in a combat that officially began in late 2001 and ended in March of 2014. 


Standing at a kitchen counter in a home not far from the military base in Gagetown, N.B., teenager Élody Martin lamented the silence that followed the death of her father. There were no public acknowledgments of Sergeant Paul Martin’s long-time military service and multiple overseas tours, which included deployments to Croatia, Bosnia and Afghanistan. The caring husband and father had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress not long after his Afghanistan tour and ended his life just two years after returning home from the war. "They didn't die at the war, but they still died after it. It's still the same,” Élody said.

Her sentiment was echoed by other distraught families, who feared their loved ones had been forgotten because their deaths were suicides and occurred away from the Afghanistan battlefield. Then-Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr pledged on Remembrance Day in 2015 to find a way to commemorate these soldiers, but action from the federal government was uncertain and suicides of Afghanistan war veterans kept mounting.

Building on its investigative work in 2015, The Globe and Mail launched a commemoration project last year to tell the stories of Afghanistan war vets who died by suicide and to examine whether the military and Canada did enough to help them heal from their trauma. More than 70 Canadian military members and veterans who served on the mission have taken their own lives, The Globe’s ongoing investigation has uncovered. 

Suicide is complex and often many factors are involved, such as alcohol abuse, relationship breakdowns and mental illness. The newspaper's work showed that many of the soldiers were dealing with post-traumatic stress or other mental illnesses connected to their experiences during the dangerous deployment and some were struggling to get the right care. 

The commemoration project required time and careful consideration. Before we began reaching out to families, the newspaper consulted mental-health specialists, suicide-prevention experts and veterans’ advocates about its project plans and how best to approach and interview families dealing with the aftermath of suicide. Telling stories of suicide was a long-held taboo in society and in journalism. But the silence allowed misinformation to spread through social media and public institutions to elude accountability. Many experts now advocate sensitive reporting of noteworthy deaths by suicide.

Upon the advice of mental-health specialists, The Globe drafted a letter that outlined the commemoration project for families. Where possible, we confirmed the cause of death before mailing and e-mailing the letters, which included a message of support from Roméo Dallaire, the retired lieutenant-general and former senator. Several suicides involved Quebec soldiers. Reporter Les Perreaux, who is based in Montreal, reached out to their families in their mother tongue, collected francophone stories in French, and translated them into English. 

Names of the soldiers and veterans were identified through nationwide obituary searches that reporter Renata D’Aliesio began conducting in 2014. Suicide is almost never disclosed publicly as a cause of death. D’Aliesio searched about a dozen online sources for suggestive words and phrases, such as “military”, “tragically”, “unexpectedly”, “Afghanistan” and “PTSD”. Nearly 100 military deaths were identified through these searches. The Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of Veterans Affairs will not divulge whether a soldier died by suicide. Most medical examiners and coroners won’t either, which meant confirmations had to be done with family or close friends. 

Of the nearly 100 deaths examined by The Globe, 54 turned out to be suicides of military personnel who had served on the Afghanistan mission, which included Camp Mirage in Dubai. There are at least 16 soldiers who killed themselves after returning from Afghanistan that we haven’t found through our investigation, but know that their deaths occurred because of military statistics initially obtained through an access-to-information request. 

Thirty-one families agreed to share their stories for the commemoration project, many speaking publicly for the first time. Globe reporters travelled to five provinces to meet with them. Interviews were also conducted by phone. The conversations were emotional and difficult. Calgary-based reporter Allan Maki, Perreaux and D’Aliesio asked the families a series of questions for profiles and data analysis and collected military and government documents, when available. Families provided photos for a compelling multimedia presentation. It was a collaborative effort. 

The 31 soldiers who succumbed to suicide were proud military members from communities across the nation. They were sons, brothers, husbands and fathers who left 40 children behind. Collectively, their stories painted a disturbing picture of delayed care, ineffective medical treatment and insufficient mental-health support. The 31 accounts are the most comprehensive public record of Canada’s Afghanistan war veterans who died by suicide. 

The Globe’s commemoration project was designed to serve as an enduring remembrance of these lost lives and as a permanent reminder of the action needed to prevent further military suicides. The multimedia presentation, created by Jeremy Agius and Laura Blenkinsop and edited by Catherine Dawson March, is richly layered, with profiles and photos of the 31 fallen and data analysis and graphics of our findings. A social-media strategy was developed to help ensure sensitive language was used in sharing the project. The multimedia presentation included video stories, by Deborah Baic, of Afghanistan war veterans who have contemplated suicide or attempted to end their life, but found a way forward and are coping with PTSD. Their stories show that healing is possible.  


  • Keep digging. Don’t shy away from doing more reporting on an important issue just because a big feature was already published. There is always more to uncover.
  • Be patient with families and don’t pressure them to talk. Accept that not all will want to publicly share their story.
  • Take care of your own mental health and give yourself permission to take breaks. Reporting on suicide and other tragic events is difficult. There will be days when you aren’t in the right mindset to talk with a grieving family. 


The recipients in the CAJ / MARKETWIRED DATA JOURNALISM AWARD: Renata D’Aliesio, Les Perreaux, Allan Maki, Jeremy Agius, Laura Blenkinsop for The Unremembered inThe Globe and Mail.

Renata D’Aliesio, Les Perreaux and Allan Maki are reporters with The Globe and Mail. 

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