Monday, March 12, 2007

Dead soldier's dad seeks answers; they deserves an answer now!

Dead soldier's dad seeks answers
Told virtually nothing seven months after apparent accidental shooting

Mar 12 2007 Alison Auld The Winnipeg Free Press

The Winnipeg father of a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan seven months ago in an apparent accidental shooting says the military has told the family virtually nothing about his death, leaving them frustrated and pleading with Defence officials for details.

Up until this past January, Ben Walsh knew only that his son, Master Cpl. Jeffrey Walsh, had been killed when a gun went off during a routine patrol somewhere outside Kandahar on Aug. 9.

The father of three young children was based at Canadian Forces Base Shilo near Brandon.

Walsh said he repeatedly asked military officials probing the case to answer questions that tormented the family in the weeks after they were told of the death.

In particular, Walsh wanted to know three things: if his son had been shot twice, as he had heard; whether he was in or outside the vehicle; and whether the shot came from outside his military jeep.

For each query, the military's National Investigation Service, which was looking into the incident, said they could not reveal any more information.

"They have no concern about the families of fallen soldiers," Walsh said in an interview.

"They don't know how to deal with the families. It's terrible I have to bang on doors to get information, even (to) tell me that my son is dead. They should be treating families, especially grieving families, with a little bit of compassion and concern and they're not."

Walsh stepped up his attempt to find out what happened to his son just before Christmas. He sent out e-mails and letters and made phone calls to a handful of military officials, including the chief of defence staff, Gen. Rick Hillier.

He said he received a handwritten letter from Hillier, who stated that he understood the process of determining what occurred was "painfully slow, but it is unfortunately necessary."

However, another official responded that if Walsh wanted more information, he should file a request under Access to Information legislation.

"That is a slap in the face for a grieving family," he said angrily.

After contacting senior military officials, Walsh said he was finally given some of the basic circumstances of the incident from the military prosecutor involved in the case.

Walsh was told that his son, who was with the second battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, was inside the G-wagon, seated behind the driver, and that another soldier's gun discharged from inside the jeep, hitting his son with one fatal shot.
Still, Walsh, a retired RCMP officer, said the whole process of trying to learn more about the circumstances of his son's death came as a surprise. He said it left him and his wife, Margie, saddened that military families would have to fight to get any insight into their loved ones' final moments.

"I just hope the next family doesn't go through what we went through," said Walsh, 60, whose son died just six days after Jeffrey was re-deployed to the country for his second tour and just one day after his 33rd birthday.

The family's complaints come in the wake of the death of Cpl. Kevin Megeney, a 25-year-old reservist who was shot in his tent at the NATO base in Kandahar earlier this month.

The military informed his family of the death at their home in Stellarton, N.S., but it's not clear how much detail they were given. Officials have refused to reveal anything about the incident because of the ongoing investigation, saying only that it was a non-combat shooting.

But a family member told The Canadian Press that it was another soldier who accidentally shot Megeney inside the tent.

The incidents present difficult challenges for the military and the families of soldiers killed in accidental, negligent or friendly fire shootings.

While wanting to provide grieving loved ones with as much information as possible, Defence officials say they must also protect the integrity of their investigations, particularly if there is the possibility that charges might follow.

"We're very sensitive to the need of the family to have some understanding of what occurred and we try and provide them with as much information as we can, stopping short of anything that may jeopardize the integrity of the investigation," Maj. Robert Bell of the National Investigation Service said from Ottawa.

"So that is a very difficult balance."
Bell said the investigation into Walsh's death is in its final stages and a report could be released in the coming days.

When asked why it has taken seven months to discern what happened, even though the apparent accidental shooting likely took place within view of other officers, he said military investigators have "to make sure that we were very thorough and that we examined every aspect in detail."

Walsh said he and his wife wanted just the barest of details, if only to dispel rumours that had been going around.

At one point, they heard he had been shot more than once and that the rifle that went off was found to be faulty. The father said he was wracked with thoughts of how his son could have died.

"I jumped out of bed one morning at three in the morning and I was wondering if my son's rifle went off or what and if he accidentally killed himself," he said. "I told them 'even if you gave me two sentences saying that my son died, he was in the vehicle, he was shot in the right side, I would have been happy.' We need information here. We're going crazy."
-- Canadian Press