Family of Canadian soldier who killed himself after returning home from Afghanistan awarded the Memorial Cross
A 22-year-old soldier who committed suicide after his deployment in Aghanistan was honoured in Hamilton. John Musselman reports.
The family of a Canadian soldier who killed himself after returning home from Afghanistan was awarded the Memorial Cross on Saturday, ending a half-decade battle to have his death officially tied to his military service.
Three members of Cpl. Justin Stark’s family – his mother, Denise, his father, Wayne, and sister, Jennifer – accepted the medal presented by Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell in front of hundreds of observers at the Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ont.
Stark, 22, a reservist with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, served a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan. He killed himself on Oct. 29, 2011, 10 months after returning to Canada.
“He was a soldier who was definitely respected by his peers and certainly had a lot of friends in the regiment,” Capt. Michael Wonnacott, Stark’s platoon commander when he returned from Afghanistan, told CTV News. “(He) certainly was worthy of the respect of his peers and community.”
The Stark family did not speak to the media after the ceremony. In a statement, Denise Stark thanked her son’s regiment and the family’s advocates across the nation.
The Stark family’s struggle to have Justin’s death recognized as a consequence of his service received a groundswell of support when Ottawa sent the family a cheque for one cent in “release pay” in February 2014. Then-defence minister Rob Nicholson apologized for what he called an "insensitive bureaucratic screw-up."
Denise Stark has said she had no doubt that her son’s death was related to his military deployment, but a board of inquiry ruled his tour in Afghanistan was not responsible for the post-traumatic stress that contributed to his suicide.
The board’s ruling sparked outrage among military and mental health advocates, leading a military support group to launch a petition to lobby then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper to grant the Stark family the Memorial Cross. Over 1,300 people supported the Change.org campaign initiated by a chapter of The North Wall Riders Association, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts dedicated to supporting veterans.
The Defence Department did not explain the about-face, saying only that the government had now determined Stark's death was related to his military service.
“Some of this is very difficult to reconcile at a personal level,” said Capt. Wonnacott. “It provides us the opportunity for closure, and also the opportunity to provide support for the family to also achieve that closure.”
The Memorial Cross has been awarded to the families of Canadian soldiers who died during active service since the First World War. Eligibility rules were amended in 2007 to include all service-related deaths, such as training accidents and suicides linked to service.
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