Lionel Desmond inquiry: letter from former soldier describes his mental challenges

·4 min read

PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — Soon after Lionel Desmond left the Canadian military in 2015, he wrote a letter to Veterans Affairs Canada to complain he was feeling "confused, angry and stressed out."

The veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who is at the centre of an inquiry investigating why he killed his family and himself in 2017, said the military had failed to help him deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and head injuries that may have left him brain damaged.

Portions of Desmond's handwritten letter, written July 25, 2015, were read aloud to the inquiry Tuesday by his younger sister Cassandra, who helped lead a campaign to establish the provincial inquiry.

In the letter, Lionel Desmond makes it clear that he felt a rehabilitation program he took part in before leaving the military on June 26, 2015 was of no use.

"The government should have a better solution for this," Cassandra Desmond said, reading from the letter in a strong, clear voice.

"It is making soldiers worse .... It's making crime rates and suicides go up. There's no support in place. I feel like you are thrown to the wolves and the rest is for the seagulls."

At the time the letter was written, Desmond was seeking disability benefits because he had received a medical discharge after diagnosed with severe PTSD in 2011.

"I've had a lot of trauma to the head area," the letter says, adding that he was injured three times during his service.

The letter describes how he hit his head during training in 2006 when the armoured vehicle he was driving rolled over. He said he hit his head a second time during a nighttime patrol in Afghanistan in 2007 when a mud wall collapsed under him. The third injury occurred in 2008 when he parachuted from an aircraft and hit his head when he reached the ground.

"I was shocked and scared that maybe I could be brain damaged," Desmond wrote.

"As the years went by, my night sweats, nightmares, anxiety, depression worsened. They mentioned to me that my PTSD is related to all my head traumas."

When she was finished reading the letter, Cassandra Desmond was asked her opinion of what her brother was trying to say.

"When I read this, I hear my brother's cry for help," she told the inquiry, which is being held at the courthouse in Port Hawkesbury, N.S.

The letter is important because members of the Desmond family have long argued that Lionel Desmond struggled for years to get the help he needed.

On Jan. 3, 2017, the former infantryman fatally shot his 31-year-old wife Shanna, their 10-year-daughter Aaliyah and his 52-year-old mother Brenda before killing himself in their home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.

During 17 days of hearings in early 2020, which were suspended until Tuesday because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the inquiry heard that Desmond received no therapeutic treatment in the four months before the fatal shootings.

As well, the inquiry heard from a psychiatrist at the local hospital in Antigonish, N.S., who examined him in late 2016 and concluded he had "fallen through the cracks" and was badly in need of an exam to determine if he had a traumatic brain injury.

On Tuesday, Cassandra Desmond told the inquiry that her brother was devoted to his young family and was an athletic, fun-loving man before he served two tours in Afghanistan in 2007.

"He just wore so much pride," she said, describing how he felt about his role in the military. "He loved doing what he did."

By contrast, she said it was clear her brother was desperately ill when he returned home to Nova Scotia in 2016. "Every bit of pride that man wore all those years was just gone," she said. "You could tell that something deep and dark was on his mind .... It was almost like his soul was lost."

As she closed her testimony, she read from a letter she wrote to her brother several weeks after the killings.

"I love you, Lionel, and I wish I ... could have helped you more," she said. "But know that I forgive you. I know it wasn't you, and I know you're sorry."

Sobbing and dabbing her eyes with a tissue, she said the country her brother had sworn to defend had let him down.

"I'm sorry this system and country ... failed you and did not provide you with the proper health care and mental health care needs you cried out for."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2021.

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax

The Canadian Press