The culture of shame and stigma around mental illness and suicide in the Canadian Armed Forces is changing for the better, says a Winnipeg mother who spent the past year bringing much-needed recognition to veterans who lost their lives in the aftermath of war.
As Anita Cenerini reflects on her tenure as the 2018 National Silver Cross Mother, she says she feels encouraged by the progress.
"A year ago, I wanted to bring awareness to our country about soldiers who came home with invisible wounds," Cenerini said Saturday. Her year-long post as Silver Cross Mother ended on Oct. 31.
"I wanted for the entire country to recognize that a hero is represented not just in an individual who dies in theatre, in battle, in peacekeeping, but a hero is a soldier who puts on the uniform."
Cenerini’s son, Afghanistan veteran Pte. Thomas Welch, died by suicide at the age of 22 after returning from the war. He and soldiers like him are "worthy of the same honour as somebody who dies in theatre (of war)," Cenerini said.
The Winnipeg woman’s year as Silver Cross Mother gave her the chance to present her son’s story as one of hope. When he died in 2004, services weren’t available to help him, she said.
"However, the story of hope comes from the fact that since Welch’s death, during the mission in Afghanistan — albeit years into the mission — the military did begin to recognize the needs of the soldiers with regards to their emotional and spiritual needs, (and) physical needs as well."
Attitudes towards suicide and mental illness are shifting outside the military as well, she said.
"We have people in the limelight, we have famous people, we have athletes, we have all these people who take a public position to combat the stigma about mental illness, and it shouldn’t be any different for the military."
Although Cenerini said the work is far from done, she feels the Canadian military listened to her message and embraced her role as Silver Cross Mother. She recalls attending the August 2019 rededication of a cenotaph that was originally built by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan and later repatriated to Ottawa.
"That was a very meaningful opportunity for me, because of course it was the memorial monument that was built by soldiers themselves in Afghanistan, to remember their fallen comrades," she said.
"And even though Thomas didn’t die in theatre, his death was very much an effect of his time serving in Afghanistan.... That was a real poignant ceremony to be a part of. It really gave me a sense that the military, and all the other agencies, organizations, are truly embracing the reality that our soldiers come home with invisible wounds that take their lives after they’ve come home."
Those wounds can’t be healed without overcoming the stigma around mental illness, PTSD, and operational stress injuries, Cenerini said. In some cases, soldiers impose that stigma on themselves. Other times, the pressure comes from outside. The solution, she believes, starts with believing veterans when they say they need help.
Cenerini described last year’s Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa as unforgettable, and was invited to attend this year. Monday, she plans to find a small Remembrance Day ceremony to attend with her family in Winnipeg.
"Because I have learnt something in this past year, and it’s the value of being with the people at the grassroots as much as all of the people who have the ability, resources, means to affect change... I would like my Remembrance Day this year to be quiet, and to be reflective, and to stand alongside the people in our community — it was really important for me to be back here in Winnipeg, to be in our community."
Cenerini plans to stay involved in her work advocating for veterans and their families in the future.
"I do plan on continuing what I believe is the legacy that Thomas left for me to continue on," she said.
The Royal Canadian Legion announced the 2019 Silver Cross Mother on Nov. 1. This Remembrance Day, Reine Samson Dawe will place a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on behalf of all Canadian mothers of fallen soldiers. Her son, platoon commander Cpt. Matthew J. Dawe, was killed in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb along with five other Canadian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter in July 2007.
Solomon Israel is a full-time reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and for two years, the lead writer for Free Press cannabis news site, The Leaf News. He continues to provide coverage of the cannabis beat while covering business in the city and province.
Updated on Saturday, November 9, 2019 at 10:23 PM CST: Edited