LETHBRIDGE — A British war veteran recently held in the same Alberta jail where a Canadian soldier killed himself says the justice system doesn’t properly deal with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder.
John Collins, diagnosed with PTSD about six years ago, was arrested last month at his home in Lethbridge on various charges, including assault.
He said he sat alone in a cell for six days until he was released on bail.
“I mentally shut down,” said Collins, 61. “I prayed to die.”
“You are on automatic, back in the wars. Once the adrenalin is gone, there is no hope.”
Collins believes no one took into account his mental health. He said he should have received support and instead he felt abandoned.
Then, last week, he learned about the suicide of the artillery soldier at the same facility.
The man, identified by friends as Travis Halmrast, was being held on charges of domestic assault. He was found in distress at the jail and later died in hospital.
The Defence Department is looking into the death and investigations are also underway into the recent suicides of three other Canadian soldiers. All four men had served in Afghanistan.
It’s not clear if any of them suffered from PTSD, but their suicides have put a spotlight on supports available for people dealing with the effects of the disorder.
Collins didn’t know Halmrast and doesn’t know the circumstances of his death, but has strong feelings about the case.
“He shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “From the moment they found out he was ex-military, alarm bells should have been ringing.”
Military psychiatrist Col. Rakesh Jetly said there has not been an increase in suicide rates among Canadian soldiers, but the number of soldiers dealing with PTSD is expected to rise within the next decade as the stress of combat takes hold in those who have returned from fighting in Afghanistan.
“Your soldiers are starting to come back. They’re stressed to the eyeballs. They do not know how to deal with civilian life.”
Collins served in combat with the British military in Northern Ireland, Falkland Islands, Persian Gulf, Cambodia and Cyprus. He wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until after he retired from service and moved to Canada with his wife, a counsellor.
He said he finds himself doing constant reconnaissance in his daily life: looking for wires crossing highways and showing up early for appointments to search for exits. Hearing a plane overhead can also give him flashbacks. If he feels himself getting stressed out, he said he goes for a drive or takes a walk for a few hours to cool off.
He said his arrest was unwarranted.
His wife was out shopping and stopped an officer on the street to inquire about PTSD services in the community. The couple had recently moved to Lethbridge from Victoria, B.C.
Anne Collins, who uses a wheelchair, said that while she was talking about her husband, the officer got the wrong idea that she was in danger.
“He said … ’This sounds to us like this soldier is abusing you. We don’t trust military men.’ And the next thing you know there were six police there, all bombarding me with questions and saying, ’We are going to go and get him out of there. I said ’No. He has not done anything.”’
Police then went to the couple’s home and questioned her husband, she said. They charged him with threatening to cause damage, assaulting her and mischief for breaking a plate. She said none of that happened.
Lethbridge police wouldn’t talk specifically about the case, but said officers have training to deal with people with mental health issues, including PTSD. Once a person is arrested, there are avenues in the system to get them any help they may need.
A spokeswoman with Alberta Justice said the physical and mental health of inmates is assessed at the time they’re admitted to provincial remand centres. If they need intervention, they are placed in appropriate units. Staff are also trained to watch for signs that they may need further help.
Collins said from his experience, officers and guards don’t know how to handle someone with PTSD.
“It sounds awful, bloody bad and it’s not. We’re just normal people who’ve dealt with a lot of stress in our lives.
“We don’t go out killing people. We don’t go out beating people up. And we’re not criminals. We’re just people living a life, who have episodes of PTSD where we disappear for a few hours, calm down and get back to normal.”
— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton