N.S. probing how health system handled former soldier in apparent murder-suicide

The Canadian Press
Published on January 5, 2017

Shanna and Lionel Desmond hold their daughter Aaliyah in a photo from the Facebook page of Shanna Desmond. Police in Nova Scotia say autopsies are being performed today on the bodies of a former Canadian soldier and three members of this family who were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide.THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Facebook MANDATORY CREDIT

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says an investigation has started into how the province's health-care system dealt with a Afghan war veteran who died in an apparent murder-suicide that claimed the lives of his wife, daughter and mother.

McNeil said the "unspeakable loss" Tuesday in the close-knit community of Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., has prompted the Health Department and the province's health authority to review what services were offered and whether protocols were followed.

The premier said it's clear Lionel Desmond had received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder from the military, but he says it's unclear what level of care — if any — was provided by the province.

"There will be an ongoing process to make sure that the system responded," McNeil said after a cabinet meeting Thursday.

"There are times when accessing services of any kind in this province are challenging ... In this case, the department will be reviewing to make sure that the appropriate protocols and services were in place for this family."

McNeil also says he will be speaking with the federal Veterans Affairs Department to determine how federal officials handled Desmond's case.

Military sources have said Desmond received treatment for PTSD before he left the military 18 months ago, and relatives have come forward to say he was unable to get help more recently when he went to a hospital in nearby Antigonish, N.S.

The premier said the province will look into what happened at St. Martha's Regional Hospital, though it remains unclear when that will happen or if the province's findings will be made public.

RCMP said autopsies were being performed Thursday on the bodies, and they hope to be able to say more about the case on Friday.

Desmond, 33, was found dead Tuesday from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound, RCMP say. His wife Shanna Desmond, 31, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah and his mother Brenda Desmond, 52, also died of apparent gunshot wounds.

McNeil expressed his condolences to the family.

"Of course, your heart goes out to them ... It puts a tremendous strain on families. If you have a heartbeat, you have empathy for this family and this community."

Desmond served in Afghanistan in 2007, and had received treatment from a joint personnel support unit for a year prior to his release from the military in July 2015. Such units provide support to ill and injured soldiers, including mental injuries.

A retired soldier who served in Afghanistan with Desmond said Thursday he'll always consider him a hero.

Trev Bungay said there was a lot of death and destruction during their tour of Afghanistan in 2007.

Bungay said most of the soldiers he served with in Afghanistan are now living with PTSD, and no one comes back without being changed in some way.

Desmond told him last summer he had arranged treatment through Veterans Affairs and seemed to be on track to receive much-needed help, Bungay said. 

Desmond called him as recently as two months ago and while he was still seeking help, he seemed to be dealing with his struggles, he said.

Kevin Bissett and Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press