PORT HAWKESBURY – “When I read this, I hear my brother’s cry for help.” Lionel Desmond’s sister Cassandra reflected on reading her brother’s words from a 2015 document as she spoke at the Desmond Fatality Inquiry at the Port Hawkesbury courthouse Tuesday, Feb. 16. In the letter – part of an application to Veterans Affairs for disability benefits – Lionel Desmond wrote about head injuries he sustained in military service and his search for help.
The inquiry resumed hearing evidence after adjourning March 2, 2020. Hearings were expected to resume late May 2020 but were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to make changes – including moving the inquiry to Port Hawkesbury – to meet new health and safety protocols. Judge Warren Zimmer noted that the delay “has not been easy” on those impacted by the tragedy of January 2017 in Upper Big Tracadie.
In the document, Cassandra Desmond read aloud that Lionel was “out cold for 20 minutes” following a fall from a LAV (light armoured vehicle) during a training exercise in 2006. He also recalled a bad fall when a 10-foot mud wall collapsed while he was climbing it and a difficult landing when he was on a jump course, jumping out of a plane for the first time. “I hit my head on the ground; it hurt like hell,” Lionel wrote of the airplane jump. “I was shocked and scared that maybe I could have brain damage … I went to the medical centre and asked if I could have an MRI,” he wrote, noting that he explained what had happened. “They said I was Googling too much.”
Lionel’s words on the document, she said, shows he advocated for himself. “He was doing the best he could … looking for help.”
When Lionel returned home after his two tours of duty in Afghanistan, Cassandra said the family saw that he had changed.
“It was like his soul was lost,” she said, adding that he didn’t talk much about how he was suffering. “You couldn’t get anything out of him … He just kept to himself.”
As her testimony began, Cassandra talked about Lionel’s upbringing in Lincolnville.
“My Mom was a single mother of all five of us,” she said, “with the help of her mother and father.” Cassandra said her grandfather, Wilfred Desmond, had been a “father figure” to the children.
She said her grandparents were the foundation of the family and her mother was “the glue that held everything together.”
Cassandra described Lionel as the “comedian” of the family and “the helper … He was just so funny, but he was so loving and genuine and caring too.”
She talked about how hard it was when the grandparents’ home, where they were raised, was destroyed by fire in 2018 – just a year-and-a-half after the shooting deaths. “We were able to salvage a few things,” she said, which included Lionel’s Oath of Allegiance. “He was so proud” of that plaque, she said. “It was a big thing for him.”
Cassandra spoke about the many older members of the family who had also served in the military. “Lionel continued that tradition.”
She noted that the older generation was not able to get beyond the rank of private at that time, because of the extent of racism in the military.
“It was a big thing when Lionel got that rank and title [of corporal],” she said.
Of their mother, Brenda, Cassandra said: “My Mom was my great support, my Mom was my rock, my Mom was my everything.”
It was the same for all her siblings, she said.
“That’s why she was with my brother and Shanna … Mom made everything okay. When days were dark, she would always remind you that there was a light.”
The family was very proud of Lionel when he signed his oath of service, said Cassandra. “My brother signed an oath [to protect Canada]. Not everybody has that courage … to sign up for the military and to sign up as an infantry soldier.”
While in training before going to Afghanistan, Lionel was proud of what he was doing, she said.
“He loved doing what he did. He loved fighting for his country … But after Afghanistan, that pride … it was just deteriorating away from him … You knew something happened.”
Return from Afghanistan
Cassandra said her brother had trouble with noise after returning from Afghanistan. “Lionel couldn’t go in an area with a ceiling fan or anything … Noise became the enemy for Lionel. Certain noises … would trigger him” and interfered with his sleep, she said. That was among the signs the family would see of just how much Lionel needed help.
They were hopeful, she said, when in Dec. 2015 they learned that Lionel would go to St. Anne’s Hospital in Montreal, Quebec – a residential treatment centre for veterans experiencing operational stress injuries and posttraumatic stress disorder – for six months.
“This is where we realized that Lionel was very sick,” she said. The six-month term made their mother “hopeful that he would get the help he needs.”
But Lionel only stayed at St. Anne’s for two-and- a- half months, from May to August 2016. Cassandra said she had thought, at the time, that they wouldn’t have released him “if he didn’t check the boxes that needed to be checked off before leaving.
“I figured it was a good thing … They were releasing him to home.” She soon realized he had not received the treatment he needed.
Back in Nova Scotia
Cassandra’s lawyer, Adam Rodgers, asked her about a letter from a veterans’ affairs case worker saying Lionel had local therapeutic support back home in N.S. in Oct. 2016.
“The only time that my brother had any support with a community therapist in 2016 was when he got assigned to Catherine Chambers in November [He didn’t see anyone locally for professional care.] before walking into St. Martha’s [Regional Hospital] doors on Oct. 24 of 2016.”
Rodgers asked Cassandra what effect she thought it may have had on Lionel if he had access to local care earlier that fall.
“OSI (Operational Stress Injury Clinic) Halifax would have been in communication with my brother and I believe that my brother would have been able to continue with his treatment like he was with OSI New Brunswick …”
Testimony continues Tuesday to Friday over the next four weeks.
The inquiry’s mandate is to determine the circumstances around the Jan. 3, 2017 tragedy in which Desmond fatally shot his wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, and Desmond’s mother Brenda at a home in Upper Big Tracadie before he took his life.