PORT HAWKESBURY: Chantel Desmond went to go pick up her niece on Jan. 3, 2017 at her brother’s house in Upper Big Tracadie, but rather than finding her ready to go to an after-school program, she discovered a gruesome crime scene.
Specific information from what she described as to be a “normal evening” is etched in her memory; the house completely lit up, the truck sitting in the driveway with four flat tires, the keys still in the door, the smells of cooking onions, curried chicken and then blood.
From the window she could see a lifeless foot and she could see blood.
“I still smell the blood, when I explain the story I still smell the blood, the smell of what they’re cooking in the house,” Chantel testified on Feb. 17. “I have flashbacks thinking about this, having to come up here and talk about it… It’s something I’ll never get over, but I’m trying to work with it and (the inquiry) is a step in my healing.”
Chantel was the first person to discover the bodies of her brother retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond and his wife Shanna after the veteran who was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) killed his wife, mother, and 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, before taking his own life.
“I walk in and I see Shanna, she was lying on her side, she had a white tank top on and pajama bottoms, and there was blood underneath her,” Chantel told the inquiry. “I look over and I can see my brother’s boots; Dunlop’s, and I immediately went into shock because I remember seeing a hole in his face.”
When she discovered the bodies of her brother and his wife, Chantel had no clue that the bodies of her mother and niece, were inside as well.
“I called my mom,” she said. “But I didn’t know she was in there.”
The night before Chantel was at bingo with her mother, sister-in-law and niece, and she recalled she felt something was off. She told her mother “don’t get caught in the crossfire.”
Chantel provided her testimony from inside a vulnerable witness room at the Port Hawkesbury courthouse, having only the audio version of her testimony to the inquiry.
She explained as a result of the tragedy, she herself is now dealing with PTSD, something that provides her with somewhat of an understanding of her brother’s near decade-long fight with the same mental illness.
“That man that was in that house that night was not my brother,” Chantel said.
She described her mother as the family matriarch who was a tomboy with a twin sister, who developed a passion for flag-work in construction, someone who loved bingo, and was very religious.
Her voice quivered when she was asked about her niece Aaliyah, someone who loved animals, especially her dog and cat, enjoyed horseback riding, and wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up.
“She loved to eat, so that’s why we got along,” Chantel said with a laugh. “She was a great kid.”
Sharing a special bond with her niece, Chantel said she just wanted Aaliyah to be a child, despite all the turmoil in the home. On occasion Shanna would open up to Chantel about her personal experiences.
“She told me ‘Chantel I love my daddy, but he’s angry a lot,’” she said. “And I said ‘Oh baby, it’s going to be okay.’”
Chantel explained she recognized her brother wasn’t the same person he was when he returned home from the war in Afghanistan as early as when the family went to pick him up at the airport.
“I remember the look in his eyes and I was like, ‘Whoa,’” she said. “It was very dark and distant.”
Chantel recounted the car ride home from the airport, and when her grandfather hit a small bump on the road, her brother became overly concerned with the seemingly minor occurrence. He offered to drive and persisted to be concerned over the road conditions for the remainder of the drive.
She never pushed her brother for information on his tour in Afghanistan, as she was intimidated by the fact she didn’t know what was going on with her brother and she didn’t want to cause a trigger while he was having a “good day.”
He did confide in her about the time he was required to shoot an individual to protect a child and also talked about carrying the body parts of his fallen comrades.
“Sometimes you’d have to snap your fingers,” Chantel said. “That’s when his eyes would go dark.”
As for his PTSD treatment, she said she believed “it was complete bulls—-,” highlighted by her argument prescribing him medical marijuana wasn’t at all helpful and he needed a more complex treatment for a more complex disease.
After returning home from a short stint at an in-patient treatment facility at the St. Anne’s Hospital in Quebec, Chantel said when her brother first returned, he seemed more like his old self, but after a few weeks he seemed to deteriorate.
A deterioration that was occurring she said, because he wasn’t getting any treatment.
Chantel explained her brother’s family didn’t receive any support from Veterans Affairs after he returned home to Nova Scotia in 2016.
She recommended to the fatality inquiry that Veterans Affairs should be required to provide more assistance to the families of military members who are medically discharged.
“As soon as a family member (in the military) gets a diagnosis, there should be a meeting to explain what is going on,” Chantel said. “Develop a tool kit and set dates where you can meet and discuss things. From a medical standpoint, you need that. The family has to deal with it, so they need to know how to do that.”
Desmond’s cousin, a retired warrant officer, testified an easy measure that could avoid another tragedy would be to give military personnel their health records before they are medically discharged.
Albert (Junior) MacLellan suggested had Desmond received his medical documents, in which he could have provided to his healthcare providers in his home community, they would have known the true scope of his illness.
“So that (when) they can go home, see their family doctor, they have somebody in the know. That could be a step to keep this from ever happening again,” MacLellan said. “Four people are dead because they didn’t make one simple step. One step, that’s all it takes.”
The 20-plus witnesses throughout the inquiry already described how the use of different databases across government levels and departments prevented the sharing of critical information.
Getting the proper medical documentation upon discharge is crucial, MacLellan said, even though it’s all digital now. He himself had to wait 35-weeks for his own medical files when he was medically discharged.
“I was lucky that I had someone,” he said.
A member of the Canadian Armed Forces for 31 years, a part of MacLellan’s role in the military was trying to recruit more members of African Nova Scotia decent.
During one of those recruitment sessions, Desmond asked him about whether he thought he should sign up.
MacLellan, who was a distant cousin of Desmond and was also very close to his grandfather, Wilfred Desmond, told him with the Afghanistan conflict going on, if he wanted to enlist, he needed to ask himself whether he’d be “willing to die.”
He testified he found out about the deaths when Desmond’s grandfather called him the night of Jan. 3, 2017.
MacLellan said that he became the family liaison with the Canadian Armed Forces, and was told that the Last Post fund would only cover the cost of Cpl. Desmond’s funeral.
“That wasn’t good enough,” he said. “There’s never been a tragedy that’s been connected to the Canadian Armed Forces as big as this one.”
When MacLellan protested and said that the family would go public, he was told by a military representative that they’d figure something out.
Because of his three-decade-long career in the military, he was able to be a face that those in federal institutions knew, he said, and was able to help the families at the same time.
“I’ve always went through my life knowing that I owe my people in my community something,” MacLellan said. “I didn’t have the greatest childhood in Lincolnville, but the Desmond family were one of the ones that if I was hungry I got fed.”