On the evening of Jan. 3, 2017, Lionel Desmond, a 32-year-old former Canadian soldier, murdered his 31-year-old wife, Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his 52-year-old mother, Brenda, in their home in tiny Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. Then, he turned the rifle on himself.
In the immediate aftermath of that horrific quadruple murder-suicide, we as a society desperately tried to comprehend what had happened and, more importantly, why.
It wasn’t — isn’t — easy.
Unsurprisingly, many of us zeroed in on Desmond’s diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and the military’s failure to make sure he got the help he so clearly and desperately needed.
During his deployment to Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008, we learned, Desmond’s unit had engaged in almost daily gun battles with the Taliban. The rifleman saw things no one should have to see — “the partial remains of an enemy fighter” — and did things no one should ever have to do, including picking up “the bodies and the pieces” of his fellow soldiers “after they were blown up.”
Even before he left for the war zone, Desmond had suffered the first of three traumatic head injuries when the armoured vehicle he was driving rolled over during training. In Afghanistan, his head was injured again after a mud wall collapsed under him during a nighttime patrol. Less than a year after that, he struck his head once again while parachuting from an aircraft.
Desmond himself feared he’d been left brain damaged.
In 2011, he was diagnosed with severe PTSD and major depression.
In 2015, he was medically discharged back into a civilian life he couldn’t cope with.
You could almost draw a straight line, some of us suggested at the time, from Afghanistan to Upper Big Tracadie.
Not so fast, argued others, particularly those who deal with the results of domestic violence on a daily basis. A counter-narrative soon emerged. Blaming PTSD, which seemed more likely to lead to suicide than homicide, was a convenient way of diminishing the banal but pervasive reality of what really happened. A man had murdered his partner and his family.
Four years later, we’re still trying to find sense in the senselessness of it all.
The province’s “non-fault-finding inquiry” into the Desmond murder-suicide began in early 2020, holding 17 days of hearings before COVID derailed the proceedings. Last month, 11 months later, the inquiry finally resumed hearing witnesses in a Port Hawkesbury courthouse.
While we still don’t have a definitive picture — if there is even such a thing — the inquiry’s witnesses are at least beginning to colour the canvas.
A number of family members testified last month, including Lionel’s sister, Cassandra, who spearheaded the campaign for this inquiry. Before his two tours in Afghanistan, she and his three sisters noted, Lionel had been a fun-loving “practical joker,” athletic, a family man.
Shanna’s brother, Sheldon Borden, who followed Lionel into the military, also described him as a “big brother.” Shanna’s mother, Thelma, echoed those positive recollections of the Lionel she’d known. “My evidence is not intended to demonize Lionel Desmond or destroy his character,” she told inquiry commissioner Warren Zimmer.
Lionel’s decision to join the military was described in equally positive terms. “He just wore so much pride,” Cassandra said of her brother. “He loved doing what he did.”
Fellow soldier Orlando Trotter recalled the Afghanistan in which they both served as “brutal and horrific… You take somebody like [Lionel] and put him in a war zone … It destroyed him.”
Cassandra again: “Every bit of pride that man wore all those years was just gone,” she said of his return to Nova Scotia in 2016. “You could tell that something deep and dark was on his mind. It was almost like his soul was lost.”
The Lionel who returned from war “wasn’t the same,” agreed his mother-in-law, Thelma Borden. There were “guns and bombs” going off in his head. He had nightmares. Thelma’s daughter, Shanna, told her that Lionel “would wake up in bed at night in sweats, and the whole bed would be soaked. One night, Shanna woke up in bed to Lionel choking her, and she had to holler at him and say, ‘Lionel, Lionel!’” Desmond, Thelma explained, then told his wife “he was sorry because he didn’t know what he was doing because he thought he was back in Afghanistan.”
After his initial diagnosis and while he was still in the military, Desmond began seeing a psychologist who told the inquiry he’d been “showing progress” when his treatment was derailed in 2013 after he was subject to racist comments about his African Nova Scotia heritage.
In June 2015 following his medical discharge, an increasingly despondent Desmond wrote to Veterans Affairs Canada demanding disability benefits. He was “angry, confused, stressed out,” he explained in the handwritten letter. “The government should have a better solution for this. It is making soldiers worse… It’s making crime rates and suicides go up. There’s no support in place. I feel like you are thrown to the wolves and the rest is for the seagulls.”
Another psychologist, Mathieu Murgatroyd, who worked with Desmond from June 2015 to October 2016, testified the former soldier’s issues changed during that period. He talked less about what had happened to him in Afghanistan and more about an increasingly angry but delusional “fixation” that his wife was mishandling the family finances and cheating on him. He had dreams of catching her with someone else and, later, finding the man’s severed head.
Before Desmond left for Afghanistan, Thelma Borden testified, Lionel and Shanna — who’d begun dating as teenagers — “got along well.”
By April 2016, however, Desmond had revoked permission to allow the psychologist to even talk to his wife or seek information from her.
But then, in June of that year, desperate to saved his disintegrating marriage, Desmond agreed to enter a six-month intensive inpatient treatment program at an occupational stress injury clinic at Ste. Anne’s Hospital in Montreal. Three months into the program, he checked himself out and returned to his family in Upper Big Tracadie with no follow-up plans in place.
Three months after that, Lionel, Shanna, Aaliyah and Desmond’s mother, Brenda, were all dead.
How did Lionel’s PTSD connect with Desmond’s delusions about his wife, and with his increasingly violent tendencies in the months leading up to the murder-suicide?
Sheldon Borden remembered one day when he watched Lionel and his sister fighting. Lionel had stormed out. When Sheldon offered to go and check on his brother-in-law, Shanna said no. “Do you want him to come back here and kill us all?” she said.
There is much still to learn about what happened and why.
The truth is we may never know.
What we do know is that Lionel Desmond reached out for help on more than one occasion.
After she read his pleading letter to Veterans Affairs Canada into the record at the inquiry last week, Cassandra Desmond was asked what she thought her brother was attempting to convey.
“When I read this,” she replied. “I hear my brother’s cry for help.”
That help didn’t come soon enough for Lionel, for Shanna, for Aaliyah, for Brenda. Or for the families left behind.