TORONTO - The mother of a Canadian soldier who killed himself after serving in Afghanistan will finally be honoured with a Memorial Cross this weekend, ending a long battle to have the military recognize his death as service related.
In an interview ahead of the ceremony, Denise Stark said she was both stunned and overjoyed when told the family's fight over the death of her son, Cpl. Justin Stark, was over.
"I just sat there and cried — tears of joy and what not, a whole mix of emotions," Stark said of the call that came earlier this year. "The next day, I went down to the cemetery, so I could tell Justin the good news."
Stark, 22, a reservist with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, served a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan. In October 2011, 10 months after his return to Canada, he killed himself at the John Weir Foote Armouries in Hamilton.
A board of inquiry concluded more than two years ago that his tour in Afghanistan did not cause post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — which contributed to his suicide and his mother and family would not be honoured with the Memorial Cross — frequently called the Silver Cross.
Stark said she had no doubt her son's suicide was related to his military deployment, although he didn't talk much about what was bothering him. He was, she said, a "suck it up, be strong, carry on" type of person.
"Justin had never had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, was never being treated, but we saw the changes over time that were happening," Stark said.
The government had already sparked outrage after it sent Stark a cheque for one cent in "release pay" for her dead son in February 2014 — prompting then-defence minister Rob Nicholson to apologize for what he called an "insensitive bureaucratic screw-up."
The board's finding, which devastated the family, spawned a protest petition to then-prime minister Stephen Harper and helped fuel criticism of how his Conservative government was treating veterans.
Nicholson promised to have the board of inquiry's findings reviewed, resulting in a new decision from the Department of National Defence to honour the family as it does families of other members of the Armed Forces killed in the line of duty.
The Defence Department did not explain the about-face, saying only that the government had now determined Stark's death was related to his military service.
"His name will be recorded in the Book of Remembrance and his family will receive the various memorials to which they are entitled," said department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier. "We look forward to honouring Cpl. Justin Stark's memory the right way, and invite the general public to commemorate this very important event."
The awards ceremony is scheduled to take place Saturday in Hamilton. Members of Stark's regiment will parade from the armoury to the downtown church where his funeral was held. Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell will present the Memorial Cross and Sacrifice Medal to the family, her spokesman confirmed.
While Stark and her husband, Wayne, stressed there was no financial gain in the service-related designation, the welcome recognition was long overdue, she said.
"I feel some sense of peace as the right decision has been made," Stark said. "I wouldn't call it closure, as closure for me will be the day I am reunited with my son, gone too soon."