Walking to get soldiers and their families talking about mental health

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Sgt. John R. Little in Afghanistan

Sharon Little isn’t sure why her son stopped talking.

Sgt. John R. Little, who grew up just outside of Wyoming and joined the Canadian Armed Forces at 18, had long used his parents, Sharon and John, and his siblings as sounding boards as he battled post traumatic stress disorder after two tours of duty in Afghanistan and through a divorce and custody issues over his four sons.

But on Nov. 22, 2021, instead of calling his family, the veteran went into the bathroom in his Owen Sound home, locked the door and died by suicide.

Saturday, the family hopes a military march from the Sarnia Armouries, where he finished his military testing in 2003, to the Wyoming Cemetery, where he’s buried, will help bring an end to he stigma surrounding the mental health issues veterans face. And they hope it will encourage families with military members to openly talk about the mental battles they’re facing.

John Little was still in school when the idea of military service grabbed his attention. He’d heard a local veteran talk about his service in Bosnia and started considering the move. By 18, he’d signed up. Little was part of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry when the government announced it was sending troops to Afghanistan. His parents were terrified.

Little gave Sharon and his sister, Lisa Mason, a book, – A Thousand Splendid Suns – written by an Afghan girl about what it was like to live under the Taliban. “He said, ‘this is why I’m going,’” Sharon said.

So, the family supported him. John Sr. would get calls while he was out driving his truck where his son would talk about his day. Sometimes, his son relayed stories of their close calls, leaving Little Sr. to worry about what was going on so far away.

The sergeant returned from his first tour of duty and his family noticed a change. There was a twitch and he was jumpy said his sister.

While he was home, Mason and her brother went to Bayfest. “You can tell something’s kind of off. And as we were leaving somebody let off fireworks behind us and he dropped to the ground. And I was like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
Later Mason tried to convince him not to return to Afghanistan. “You’re not going back. Like there’s something wrong with you.”

But his mom, Sharon, says he was proud of what he was doing, so they watched again as he left for overseas.

When he returned, everyone noticed he had changed. What wasn’t as obvious, Mason says, was his drinking. It’s one of the common problems returning servicemen face as they try to deal with their post traumatic stress disorder.

Little was diagnosed with PTSD, got treatment in BC and then “settled back nicely into regimental life,” she says.

He was married and welcomed the first of four boys while he lived in Edmonton.

Before long, Little and is wife and boys moved to Owen Sound, so he could realize his life-long dream of becoming a sergeant in the military.

But Mason says military life in Owen Sound was much different than Edmonton. And he was no longer with the men and women he went with to Afghanistan – the support system he needed, says Mason.

When his marriage broke up and his children moved with their mom back to Lambton County, Little turned to his parents and siblings to vent his frustrations.

“The stress of that was just too much of a toll with what he was already coping with,” says Sharon. “It would be harder to calm him down every time,” added John Sr.

Sharon says Little drove hours three hours, three times a month to spend the weekend with his kids at his parents home.

In late 2021, things were far from perfect but Little seemed happy. He had a fiancé and he was about to sign a mortgage for a home. Days before he went to the bank, Little died by suicide.

“I think that’s one of the hardest things that we deal with is why we didn’t get that phone call that day to just you know, (scream) instead of closing the door,” says Sharon. “Last time we spoke it was on the Friday. That’s a wonderful conversation.

“Things were starting to sort of go his way a little bit. And you know, he just needed some time to take just a little reflection on life. He had a fiancé … they were going to spend time together.”

“He was as happy as he could be,” added John.

“It never really occurred to us that this (suicide) was ever a possibility,” Sharon said.

After his death, the military investigated Little’s death, as they do with all active service members. They found his death was due to his post traumatic stress disorder and therefore he died in the line of duty.

The investigation also found that when Little’s long-time therapist went on leave, he wasn’t assigned another one. At the time, all military members receiving mental health care had only one therapist assigned to their case.

After the investigation into Little’s death, the Canadian military ordered that two people must be assigned to each member to avoid the loss of service.

While the family is glad the military made the change, they want to do their part to make sure veterans get the help they need.

The family formed an organization to talk about mental health and support organizations which support military members and first responders.
“So, Operation Talk to Me Johnny is to make first responders and veterans and military personnel are aware that there are people out there that care and that we have to look after our mental health because we can’t let it get to a point where it’s beyond their control because then their pain just gets dispersed to the family that they leave behind,” Sharon said through tears.

Saturday’s walk will see nearly 50 people walking with 25 to 45 pounds on their back starting at the Armouries at 9 am and arriving in Wyoming at the cemetery around 3 pm.

Mason says they wanted to hold the walk close to the memorial day of Little’s death and near Remembrance Day, noting often people stand at a service on that day, but don’t think about veterans any other time of the year.

The family plans to make the walk an annual event, holding the next one in Edmonton where Little spent much of his career.