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Langridge suicide inquiry hears how military thought Citizen reporter ‘needs to be curbed

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OTTAWA — When the 2008 suicide of Afghan veteran Stuart Langridge started to attract news media attention two years after his death, the military’s public relations machine went into overdrive in an effort to head off criticism, an Ottawa inquiry heard Thursday.

In one memo, the chief of the Canadian Force’s National Investigative Service (NIS) told his media relations officer that an Ottawa Citizen reporter’s insistence in asking about discipline of his officers “needs to be curbed.”

But there was also some disagreement within the military about the treatment of Langridge’s mother and stepfather, Shaun and Sheila Fynes, who claim NIS investigations into their son’s death were biased and designed to protect the military’s image.

A 2009 email written by a civilian manager in the Esquimalt branch of a unit created to help grieving military families, lambasted her military commanders for responding to the Fynes “crying for help” with “cold email traffic.”

Dozens of emails were submitted in evidence to the Military Police Complaints Commission, which is investigating the validity of the Fynes’ claims against NIS.

The Fynes say they were embroiled in a bureaucratic nightmare that began in the weeks after their 28-year-old son hanged himself at Canadian Forces Base Edmonton.

The military rejects the Fynes’ claims that Stuart was emotionally damaged from his tour in Afghanistan and say alcohol and drug abuse was the root of his problem.

The parents’ efforts to get information about the NIS investigation, and a subsequent military board of inquiry, were ignored, they say.

The couple remains outraged that they were only told 14 months after their son’s death of a suicide note he had left for them.

But after being told by Defence Department officials to stop contacting the department except through a lawyer, an angry Sheila Fynes travelled from her home in Victoria, and called a news conference in Ottawa to get political and public attention for her case.

Her story generated national media attention and, the inquiry heard, resulted in control of media messaging reaching as far as the office of Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk.

The Fynes’ story previously had been featured in Ottawa Citizen articles written by defence reporter David Pugliese, who twice contacted NIS media relations officer Maj. Paule Poulin to ask why it had taken so long for the NIS to deliver the suicide note and whether any officer had been disciplined because of it.

In a June 2009 email to Poulin, who was seeking answers to Pugliese’s questions, NIS Commanding Officer Dan Dandurand said it was too early to say whether his officers had made a mistake.

“In a nutshell,” he wrote, “the investigator and case management team did everything in good faith and at no point was the family’s well-being pushed aside.”

Although he didn’t specify Langridge’s suicide note, Dandurand said experience had taught investigators that some personal items are better not returned to grieving families.

“There are personal belongings that families of deceased have no reason to be given,” he said, “and we make those careful decisions … By returning those items they only serve to tarnish the remaining image a mother, spouse, loved one has of their deceased family member.”

Dandurand urged Poulin to discourage Pugliese.

“Mr. Pugliese’s insistence in asking about disciplinary measures needs to be curbed because it would be completely inappropriate for any actions to be taken against anyone in this case.”

Another Pugliese interview request about the Langridge case caused a further flurry of apparently nervous email activity — one that the Fynes’ lawyer Michel Drapeau told Poulin he found “fascinating.

“Is this routine?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “You try to get the questions in advance so you can check the facts in advance.”

“What is your job?” said Drapeau. “To polish the image of the military or inform the public.”

“Our motto is vérité,” she said.

The military has about 150 public affairs officers.

In response to a series of internal emails prompted by the Fynes’ abortive requests for information about their son’s death, grieving family support manager Norma Mcleod was scathing.

“I am deeply concerned,” she wrote to numerous military colleagues who had been exchanging emails. “The family is clearly crying for help and understanding and they continue to receive cold email traffic in response.

“I would not want to see these types of emails released to the media by the frustrated and hurt family as our Dept. is just going to look really bad again.”

Mcleod urged her military colleagues to deal with the Fynes in person.

“I know the army cares,” she said, “but this is not being adequately articulated to the family … it looks like we really do not care and that their son’s death is a low priority.”

The hearing continues June 4