PORT HAWKESBURY: A former platoon member of retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond says the intensity of the gunfights and the grim duties of war took their toll on the then 24-year-old infantryman.
Testifying on Feb. 18 at the Desmond Fatality Inquiry, retired Cpl. Orlando Trotter said Desmond was one of eight soldiers within his unit of the 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment who committed suicide since returning home from Afghanistan in 2007.
Like family members, Trotter again described his best friend as projecting a well-established goofy sense of humour, which made him well-liked among his military peers.
“He was a good morale booster,” said Trotter, who shared a similar sense of humour and naturally bonded with Desmond. “We were almost like brothers.”
Having first met in 2005 in Gagetown during a year-long training excursion to prepare the battalion for physical combat, Trotter explained the group of about 400 soldiers didn’t receive any preparations for the psychological combat they would endure.
The battalion arrived following Operation Medusa, which saw 12 Canadian casualties. He said their directions weren’t for peacekeeping, as over a seven-month period they were engaged on a daily basis in firefights with the Taliban.
“It was just going after the enemy at this point… We’d go out at midnight and patrol (on foot) for about four hours,” Trotter indicated. “And (once) the enemy had their morning prayers, it was just bullets. Boom, boom, boom. Just constant fighting.”
He suggested despite showing strong physical capabilities and being at peak fitness, Desmond was simply not cut out for combat mentally. He could see that in the heat of battle, Desmond was alone, needed his help and was struggling.
“You take somebody like him and put him in a war zone and say, ‘Take this rifle and that guy over there? Shoot him.’ I would say it destroyed him,” Trotter said. “You have to have a certain type of personality to go into battle, and he just wasn’t one of those guys.”
He explained a countless amount of soldiers out of the battalion’s 2007 tour returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“That tour, that was a bad tour. It was a terrible tour, it was like going to hell,” Trotter said. “That’s why so many people are struggling right now.”
He testified it’s crucial to improve preparations for the realities of war, including the realistic necessity of shooting another human being.
“I remember when we were first in Afghanistan, the warrant officer, he’s like, ‘See this guy,’ there were three dead bodies there,” Trotter said. “And he said, ‘Look at them, look what the bullets do. This is what you have to do.’ Nowhere in my training were we prepared for something like that.”
The inquiry heard that Desmond had suffered three head injuries while serving in the military, ultimately being diagnosed with severe PTSD in 2011.
Trotter told the inquiry the military’s Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU) did an awful job of helping their soldiers with PTSD.
“When you’re in JPSU, you are very alone,” he said. “It’s once a week for two or three hours. Then you have six and a half days of, ‘What do I do now?”’
Desmond’s older sister, Diane, said her brother went from the jolly person the family knew to having to be on their tiptoes around him.
“You think him coming home, he would have been smiling and all happy, but he just wasn’t Lionel,” Diane testified. “I know my brother, and it wasn’t hard to pick up something was wrong.”
Keeping to himself, Desmond didn’t speak openly about his mental health or his deployment to Afghanistan.
“There were certain people he would talk to, he would confide in,” Diane said. “But there were not many.”
On Feb. 19, it was the first time the inquiry heard from members of the Borden family.
Shanna’s parents, Thelma and Ricky Borden, each provided their testimony through written affidavits, while her younger brother, Sheldon, took the stand. They all forgave Desmond and didn’t want to demonize him for what he did.
Ricky’s affidavit explained Desmond had “frequent outbursts” and had “not responded well” to the psychiatric treatment he received prior to the tragedy.
According to Thelma’s testimony, in a three-way call between Lionel, Shanna and herself the night before the shootings, she said Lionel told her Shanna was trying to keep him in the hospital.
“I’m not going to stay in the hospital,” he told them. “They’re going to find me in a body bag.”
Thelma recounted how Lionel expressed that there was something wrong with him as he could hear the sounds of guns and the explosions of bombs in his head.
“Every time he closed his eyes, he saw dead people, or was walking over dead people,” Thelma testified. “Many of his (platoon members) in Afghanistan were killed alongside him. He had to pick up the bodies.”
Thelma also highlighted an intense flashback Desmond had one night in which the former infantryman choked her daughter as she slept. When he snapped back to reality, he didn’t know what he was doing as he believed he was back in Afghanistan.
Shanna’s younger brother, Sheldon, who himself served with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force for 11 years, said his parents still live in the house where the tragedy took place.
“It’s hard enough to come home and them to be in the house,” he said. “It’s almost like you’ve got to ignore every feeling in yourself because you’re worried about seeing your mom and dad happy.”
Sheldon, like his mother, also shared vivid personal details on the time Desmond strangled Shanna as she slept; as he was there when it happened.
“I remember hearing in the room a very low ‘Lionel,’ and I remember hearing again ‘Lionel,’ and then it was pretty much yelling ‘Lionel,’” he said. “Somewhere along the lines, he connected the dots that this was reality and he was not somewhere else, and (when) he woke up, I could see he had tears in his eyes.”
Sheldon expressed the fact he personally felt guilty he was not able to help the person he viewed as his big brother; the person that was the influential reason he joined the military.
“I never had a brother, so with him coming around, he embraced me as, you know, his little brother and I embraced him as my big brother,” he said. “I’m only a kid, I didn’t have the tools or resources to help him in a way that a professional could have.”
As for the Bordens, Sheldon said his parents haven’t been able to find a buyer for the house and still struggle everyday living within the four walls that act as the constant reminder of the tragedy that took away three generations of one family.
“I don’t want them to be in the home, most people would want their parents be able to live,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it living at this point, it’s just trapped.”
Following a week of emotional testimony from those who knew Desmond best, the fatality inquiry is now set to hear from the military medical professionals who provided care to Desmond while he was still serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.