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'It destroyed him.' Lionel Desmond's friend and fellow infantryman recalls firefights

PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — While serving in Afghanistan in 2007, Cpl. Lionel Desmond was well liked among the members of his platoon, mainly because of his goofy sense of humour.

PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — While serving in Afghanistan in 2007, Cpl. Lionel Desmond was well liked among the members of his platoon, mainly because of his goofy sense of humour.

"He was very funny," Desmond's best friend and fellow platoon member, Orlando Trotter, told a provincial fatality inquiry Thursday. "He was a good morale booster."

But the intensity of the fighting and the sometimes ghastly chores of war took their toll on the young corporal from Nova Scotia. Desmond's gentle and caring nature was at odds with being a warrior, Trotter said.

"You take somebody like him and put him in a war zone ... It destroyed him," Trotter told the inquiry, which is investigating why Desmond killed three family members and himself four years ago. 

"You have to have certain types of people going into battle. He wasn't one of those guys."

Trotter described how he and Desmond trained for about a year before they were deployed to Afghanistan, where they took part in firefights with the Taliban on an almost daily basis over a seven-month period. The two men were "almost like brothers," he said.

"We'd go out at midnight and patrol (on foot) for about four hours," Trotter said. "Once the sun started coming up ... and the enemy had their prayers, it was just bullets. Boom, boom, boom. Just constant fighting, and that would last until 10 or 11 a.m. when it got too hot, and they backed away."

Some of Desmond's relatives told the inquiry that he didn't say much about what happened in Afghanistan, but there were some stories about seeing bullet-scarred corpses and having to collect severed body parts from the battlefield.

"(Desmond) said it hurt — the things we saw," Trotter, also a former corporal with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, told the inquiry. "That's when I saw changes in him ... That was a bad tour. It was like going to hell."

The inquiry has heard that Desmond had suffered three head injuries while serving in the military, which led to speculation that he could have been suffering from a traumatic brain injury. He was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder in 2011.

Trotter said the military's Joint Personnel Support Unit did an awful job of helping soldiers with PTSD. "When you're in JPSU, you are very alone," he said. "It's once a week for two or three hours. Then you have six and a half days of, 'What do I do now?'"

Desmond was transferred within the military to become a member of a pipe-and-drum band, and he later trained to become a mechanic, but he soon lost interest in both of those options. He was medically discharged in 2015.

In May 2016, Veterans Affairs arranged to have him sent to a residential treatment program in Montreal, where he was expected to stay for six months. He left less than three months later, complaining that treatment wasn't working for him.

During earlier hearings, the inquiry learned Desmond received no therapeutic treatment for four months after he left the program.

On at least two separate occasions, he sought help from emergency room doctors at the hospital in nearby Antigonish. But they were unaware of his complex medical conditions.

Trotter said he stayed in touch with his friend after they both left the military, and he recalled how Desmond turned to heavy drinking after he returned home to Big Tracadie, N.S., in August 2016.

"He was a lot more depressed," Trotter, who now lives in Nova Scotia, said. "He was telling me that his head wasn't right and no one was helping him."

Desmond's wife had complained that her husband appeared to be "shell-shocked," a term she used because the military was still getting used to the idea of PTSD, Trotter said.

Earlier this week, two of Desmond's sisters — twins Cassandra and Chantel — told the inquiry their brother and his family received no help from Veterans Affairs. 

On Thursday, his older sister, Diane, said he was easily agitated by loud noises and often appeared distant — a shadow of the energetic, fun-loving man she grew up with. "He wasn't the Lionel that I knew," she testified. "When the kids were yelling, he had a very short fuse and had to leave." 

When asked if the military or Veterans Affairs offered any help, she said: "Absolutely none."

On Jan. 3, 2017, Lionel Desmond bought a semi-automatic rifle in Antigonish. Later that day, he shot his 31-year-old wife, Shanna; their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah; and his mother, Brenda, 52, before killing himself in their rural home.

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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