Exclusive Access on Board Canadian Warship

I’ve covered many¬†interesting stories around the world, but consider this one of my more memorable assignments.

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Reporting somewhere along the Black Sea on board HMCS Toronto

My colleague Jonathan Austin and I were recently embedded on board Canadian warship HMCS Toronto as it patrolled the Black Sea under NATO’s ‘Operation Reassurance’ mission – tasked to promote security and stability in Eastern Europe in the wake of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Spanish Warship sails along side HMCS Toronto

Spanish Warship sails along side HMCS Toronto

It was a first hand look at the mandate and the mission. And in what may be a Canadian first, we transmitted our daily reports via satellite off the back of the flight deck Рdeep in the middle of the Black Sea.

For 7 days, we lived in crammed quarters and experienced the living and stressful working conditions of the dedicated crew of 200+.

Working to Deadline

Jonathan Editing while I write our story inside our cabins. The Black Sea was very choppy at times, and rocked the vessel back and forth.

On Board 1 Deck

View from outside our quarters

We chronicled real-time emergency maneuvers – including exclusive access inside the ship’s Command Centre – which picked up a ‘buzz’ after a pair of Russian fighter jets flew ‘provocatively’ close to the vessel (the night I filed this report, the Black Sea was particularly¬†choppy):

There were also questions about the status/future of the mission after HMCS Toronto reached its maximum patrolling limit in the region under international rules:

Of course, there were military hardware issues that could not be ignored. The only helicopter on the vessel broke down, and HMCS Toronto is showing its age:

Some interesting sidenotes:

Ship Commander Jason Armstrong imposed a strict no-alcohol¬†policy on board the vessel. This was put in place¬†after 3 incidents of “personal misconduct” on board HMCS Whitehorse earlier this year.¬†All crew members we spoke to respected it and understood why this was necessary.

Mission Accomplished

Jonathan poses with HMCS Commander Jason Armstrong after he guided the vessel to dock in Crete.

On shore leave, crew members were limited to maximum limit of 2 drinks per day.

And yes, I felt¬†seasick – despite plenty of gravol. But it wasn’t¬†anything to be ashamed of. Many of the seasoned crew wore preventive medical patches behind their ears to prevent sickness. ¬†And for¬†a few¬†days, the Black Sea was very rough.

Crisis in the Canadian Forces


It’s been heartbreaking to report on the tragic suicides of 7 Canadian soldiers in as many weeks. ¬†Many of them were young with new families, like ¬†28 year old¬†Cpl. Camilo Sanhueza-Martinez, a reservist belonging to The Princess of Wales‚Äô Own Regiment based in Kingston, Ont., who was discovered in his apartment last week.¬†


The body of Cpl. Martinez, who served in Afghanistan in 2010, was found in his apartment in Kingston, Ontario (CTV News Photo)

The military told me Martinez had no medical history of mental illness, or PTSD. But health experts say the symptoms of mental illness can take years to fester, and the smallest thing can trigger thoughts and feelings that lead to tragedy.


Cpl. Leona MacEchern drove into an oncoming semitrailer after leaving a note to her family. (CTV Photo)

For Cpl. Leona MacEchern, it seemed the stress of dealing with her treatment resulted in a horrific “final desperate act”. ¬†Her husband tells me she purposely drove into¬†into an oncoming semi-truck on Christmas Day.

He says his wife Рa 20 year veteran of the service Рhad been battling Veterans Affairs over benefits stemming from dental work going back decades.  You can read his full statement here.

Ever since I first reported on the rash of suicides in the military in November, I’ve been flooded with emails and calls from veterans and/or soldiers who’ve been dealing with the aftermath of war. But this email stands out:

“After reading your report about suicide and mental health in the military, the article about Corporal Leona MacEachern, and her family’s statement, I am hoping that you can pass along my deepest sympathies to the MacEachern family. I wish I could have known her so that I could give her a hug, tell her that I know what she is going through because I have also been through that hell, and tell her that it does get better.

A year ago about this time of year, I was commuting an hour each way on the highway. ¬†I would drive to work and think about crossing over in to the path of a semi. ¬†The only thing that stopped me was wondering if it would be a ‘successful suicide’ or not.

I am the mother of four children and married to a Canadian soldier. Like Corporal MacEachern, I also thought that ending my life would help my family.  They would receive a large life insurance payment and not have to put up with me anymore.

I sought help through my work’s Employee Assistance Program, but the counsellors they put me in touch with were not helpful at all. ¬†One counsellor said that she thought I had ADD. ¬†I told her that even if that was the case, I did not want to live anymore, so what did it matter?

I remember walking my son in his stroller, thankful that it was raining so that no one would see my cry, knowing that I was not going to make it. ¬†I did not know why I was so sad. I was angry and frustrated with myself for feeling this way and the help I sought through EAP and the Community for Mental Health was not helping. Finally I called two psychologists. ¬†One called me back. ¬†The other didn’t. ¬†He said that he had many patients and there was a waiting list but he could see me in a few months.

I took a deep breath and said that I wouldn’t last that long.

Fortunately for me he agreed to see me that Friday.  It was three days.  I agreed to wait three days.  The days were unbearable, just like every other day, but I made it.  That was June 15th, 2013. I have been seeing him on a weekly basis ever since and working on the issues that eventually led me to a deep and dark pit of despair. My recovery from my major depressive episode has been a long and painful process, but I am feeling much better and expect to return to work soon.

I would like to help other people, like Corporal Leona MacEachern, that are struggling.”

The Canadian Forces Member Assistance Program has a confidential 24/7 toll-free telephone advisory and referral service for all military personnel and their families: 1-800-268-7708.

An Afghan Veteran and his Struggle for Health Benefits

Few stories have generated as much feedback as my recent series on Corporal Glen Kirkland, the 29 year old Afghan war veteran and his very public struggle for health benefits.

Arrival at Ramp Ceremony, 2007. (CP Photo)

Kirkland barely surived an ambush by Taliban snipers back in 2007.  Three of his colleagues died in the attack.  To this day, he suffers from PTSD along with a long list of other injuries:

“I’ve lost a part of sight in my right eye, I’ve lost 75% of my hearing, and I’m still picking out metal in my face when I shave in the morning” he told me in an interview.

Kirkland is upset that injured veterans who serve less than 10 years won’t qualify for a military pension. He fears he won’t be able to pay his extensive medical bills or psychological therapy when he is discharged.

So last week, Kirkland accepted an invitation to appear before the House Defence Committee studying the impact of injured veterans.

Yet hours before his appearance, he said his commanding officers called him, and threatened him if he spoke out against the military.

“In a very threatning way,” he described their tone.¬† “In the past,¬†I’ve been threatened with a dishonourable discahrge, and i felt the same threatning presence from them”.

Glen Kirkland given parliamentary immunity for speaking out against the military (CTV News)

The committee took his claims very seriously.  And in another rare step, committee members gave him parliamentary immunity for his testimony against the military.

Kirkland then gave one of the most compelling speeches I’ve ever witnessed.¬† It clearly shook members who listened intently.¬† (you can watch his full testimony here).

The day after we aired his story, Defence Minister Peter MacKay made an unprescidented pledge in the House of Commons:

“[Cpl. Kirkland] will receive every and all benefits to which he is entitled. I will go further to his and his family. that he will suffer no ramifications from his testimony … in addition to that he will continue to serve as long as he decides to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces as long as he wishes”, said Mackay.

What happened next was just as extraordinary.

The following day, Kirkland flew home to his base at CFB Shilo, just outside of Brandon, Manitoba.

In his mailbox was his discharge notice from the military.¬† He said he was “shocked … speechless” it happened. He said calls to his direct commanders were not returned, and he was getting no answers from the military.¬† For someone¬†dealing with PTSD, he said the added anxiety wasn’t helpful.

When we aired that story, I’m told defence officials were floored.¬† An official told me privately there was a “colossal breakdown in the chain of command”.¬† MacKay and his staff went in full damage control and eventually reversed the decision.

MacKay called the vice-chief of defence staff and ordered him to tear up the discharge notice.

MacKay then ordered the Chief of Military Personnel, Gerry Blais, to call Kirkland personally and smooth things over.

The military reversal lets Kirkland serve until 2015.¬† He will have reached his 10 year mark and will be eligible for a pension. (Here’s an explainer on Canadian military pensions & benefits)

So Kirkland’s issue may have been resolved.¬† But he adds he won’t stop his latest battle to get all sick and injured veterans a full pension …. regardless how long they’ve served.