The Unremembered

The Unremembered

Organisation: The Globe and Mail (Canada)

Publication Date: 04/08/2016

Size of team/newsroom:large


It began with a straightforward question left unanswered after a cluster of four military suicides in late 2013: How many Canadian soldiers who served in the Afghanistan war had killed themselves? But if the query was simple, Globe and Mail investigative reporter Renata D’Aliesio discovered, the path to an answer was anything but. And so began an 18-month quest to unravel what should not have been a mystery in the first place. Little was known about the members who were dying by suicide or about the families they left behind. To the first question of how many, Ms. D’Aliesio added several more: Who were they? Had they been diagnosed with a mental illness? How many were in treatment and was that treatment adequate? The Canadian Forces, however, repeatedly refused to disclose the information, citing the Privacy Act. Attempts to get the suicide figures from provincial and territorial coroners proved futile, because military service is not tracked among Canada’s dead. The roadblocks and refusals required a determined push to break through the federal wall of secrecy. Ms. D’Aliesio submitted more than two dozen requests to National Defence and Veterans Affairs under the Access to Information Act – seeking reports on suicide reviews and inquiries, audits of injury clinics, reports on addictions treatment, and data on suicides of members who had deployed to Afghanistan. In some cases, it took more than a year for the requested records to be released. Many were heavily redacted. The Globe’s work uncovered serious flaws in the system intended to support and care for mentally ill soldiers and veterans. The Unremembered has given a voice to families and military members who have long felt abandoned. Most importantly, the investigation has prompted meaningful commitments and action from the new federal government and the Canadian Forces. Here is a snapshot of the revelations and pledges: • Ms. D’Aliesio’s reporting revealed that military brass had rejected recommendations to improve mental-health care that stemmed from an inquiry into one soldier’s suicide, that the Canadian military was expelling wounded members at an ever higher rate and had rejected an internal recommendation to expand its addictions program, that Veterans Affairs has yet to adopt an expert group’s recommendation to regularly review veterans’ suicides, and that a military support unit created to help ill soldiers has been chronically understaffed and under-resourced. • The Globe series has helped trigger significant commitments to improve mental-health care and reduce suicides. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directed National Defence and Veterans Affairs to work together on a suicide-prevention strategy. The Defence Minister ordered the military’s top commander to make suicide prevention a priority and to examine why an increased number of army members are taking their lives. An expert panel is being assembled to review the military’s mental-health programs.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

The previous federal government was notoriously opaque, wrapping its departments and military in a cloak of silence and secrecy. As a result, documents and data – not military sources – formed the backbone of The Globe’s investigation. However, the thousands of pages of government and military records obtained through the Access to Information Act did not tell the whole story. The records excluded the names of soldiers who had taken their lives. To locate those names, Ms. D’Aliesio scoured more than a decade’s worth of death notices using at least 10 different websites, both military and journalistic – a painstaking task made even more daunting by the fact suicide is almost never disclosed publicly as a cause of death. Some notices make no reference to Afghanistan or the military at all. Ms. D’Aliesio searched the notices for words and phrases with talismanic significance – “PTSD,” “Wounded Warriors,” and “died suddenly” to name a few – to pinpoint military deaths that appeared to be suicides. Her search included former soldiers, whose suicides are not tracked by the Canadian Forces or Veterans Affairs. She identified more than 50 probable cases. She then began the emotionally fraught work of finding families for confirmation and persuading them to share their stories. This tenacious, innovative and compassionate reporting led to vital revelations and powerful storytelling that have broadened the public’s understanding of the Afghanistan war and its ongoing toll on soldiers and their families. The Globe uncovered that at least 54 Canadian soldiers and vets had died by suicide after serving on the Afghanistan mission – in addition to the 158 who perished in theatre. Analysis showed that in the final years of the operation, suicide became a far greater threat to Canadian troops than did insurgents. From January, 2011, to April, 2014, two soldiers were killed in combat in Afghanistan; in that same period, at least 29 took their lives after returning home from war.

Technologies used for this project:

To lay out the piece online we used an in-house tool we call Paste Up. It allows editors to post feature stories with multimedia, including photos, video and small interactives, without having to code. We used Motion to create the the silent video at the top of the article. Excel was used to manage the Freedom Of Information requests but when it came to the thousands of pages of documents the reporter received, she took the time to through each page.
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