National Newswatch

OTTAWA - It was chilly March day when former master corporal Collin Fitzgerald — one of the country's most highly decorated Afghan war veterans — decided that the way he wanted to go out was in a spray of police bullets.

It was, he believed at the time, the only thing he could do to wash away the pain of his crumbling marriage and to erase from his mind the faces of dead Taliban fighters that haunted him each night, every time he closed his eyes.

"I was done with life and everything," Fitzgerald told The Canadian Press. "And I cannot truly say to you what that feels like, but is a very hollow, shallow, cold place to be."

He tried everything. Nothing worked.

"Therapy. The alcohol had run its course, the (prescription) drugs had run their courses; I was done," he said. "You just want the pain to be done. I get it."

But the fact he found the strength to go on living for his daughter, and to eventually face justice after holding police at bay for five hours at his home in Iroquois, Ont., south of Ottawa, was just the start of his nightmare.

Fitzgerald soon encountered another chilling reality: that Canada's justice system often treats troubled veterans as threats to public safety.

After an eight-month investigation, The Canadian Press has found that the federal government allowed key findings in the tragic shooting death of another troubled veteran with severe post traumatic stress disorder to gather dust.

The B.C. coroner's office investigated the September 2012 RCMP killing of retired corporal Gregory Matters and made several recommendations to both National Defence and Veterans Affairs, including making mental health professionals available to police emergency response teams who deal with troubled veterans.

Letters obtained by CP, dated from the summer of 2014 and addressed to the coroner, show that both federal departments believe they are doing enough to reach and treat troubled military members.

The fear of violence among returning returning soldiers is not entirely without justification, if a small but growing list of serious crimes perpetrated by ex-soldiers is any indication.

In Ottawa former warrant officer Howard Richmond is on trial for the 2013 stabbing death of his wife. Richmond's lawyer is arguing his client should be found not criminally responsible due to post-traumatic stress.

And there have been others, including the case last year of Guillaume Gelinas, 22, a former Quebec reservist and Afghan veteran who is accused of killing his father and stepmother.

In Calgary, Glen Gordon Gieschen hatched a plot to attack a local Veterans Affairs office, but was stopped before he could carry out the bloody rampage. And police in Ottawa last year took a man into custody who walked into the local veterans office with a duffel bag that he claimed contained explosives.

It's tough for society to know how to deal with people who carry around the unseen scars of war, Fitzgerald acknowledged, but he argues law enforcement and the justice system in Canada need a more sophisticated approach to dealing with potentially violent veterans than simply sending in the emergency response team.

In his case, he has been taken down at least twice by a police team with Kevlar vests and high-powered rifles — once at his parents' home last year when the Ontario Provincial Police only suspected him of breaching bail conditions.

Caution should be expected, but Fitzgerald said the full militarized response of some forces is a recipe for tragedy.

"I was a soldier and I was trained to close and destroy the enemy," he said in an interview. "What do you think goes through a soldier's mind when they see someone coming at them like that? The response is instinctive."

Faced with his own life-and-death decision, Fitzgerald — who received the Medal of Military Valour for action in Kandahar — surrendered. Following the standoff with police on March 9, 2013, he was charged with a number of offences to which he pleaded guilty.

But since then, the run-ins with the law have kept coming, and Fitzgerald claims to have been on the receiving end of a police campaign to run him out of his hometown of Morrisburg, Ont.

At the moment, Fitzgerald still faces a series of charges, including intimidating a police officer and breaching bail conditions — both of which he denies. The Crown, in the case of the breach charge, has evidence that proves the ex-soldier's innocence, but recently told his lawyer that they'll proceed to trial in early December.

He said he feels lucky that he didn't end up with a bullet in his back like Matters, who was involved in a 30-hour standoff and battled his own demons after 15 years in uniform on some of the most gruesome overseas tours, including Bosnia.

Sometimes only soldiers can talk to other soldiers, and having a veteran on call with police and local emergency response teams is a common-sense idea that needs to be addressed as more cases emerge, said Fitzgerald, who was joined in his criticism by the lawyer for the Matters family, a former veterans official and a military legal expert.

"Sometimes, the police look like they get armed, prepared, trained and most importantly psyched up for a rural confrontation," said Jason Gartl, who represented the Matters family out of Vancouver.

He said understands the public safety argument, but there has to be a counter-balance to all of that adrenaline in confrontations with not only veterans, but natives and homeless.

"Police officers being shot at — or even killed — by one person is not justification for shooting someone else in a totally different location," he said.

Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and expert in military law, said the country has faced similar social problems following previous conflicts, and is learning how to deal with it all over again.

And while he's not in favour of letting soldiers off the hook, Drapeau said he does believe that mitigating circumstances such as post-traumatic stress need to be taken into account during the sentencing process.

Retired lieutenant-general Walt Semianiw, who until last year was working at Veterans Affairs, said the department's mandate needs to pivot towards the crisis-response business.

"It makes eminent sense that the police have all the tools at their disposal to resolve and diffuse a situation without the use of violence," said Semianiw, who is now part of a group called Veterans Emergency Transition Services, which provides peer-to-peer support for ex-soldiers in crisis.

"You need a crisis management capability for veterans who are in trouble with the law. That's not something the department is structured for right now, but it could be."

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