Harper urged to award Memorial Cross to mom of ‘one-penny’ soldier

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TORONTO — The mother of a Canadian soldier who was sent a one-penny government cheque after her son killed himself following a tour of duty in Afghanistan deserves a Memorial Cross, supporters say in a new petition.

They say it is unfair for military authorities to refuse to award Denise Stark the medal — often called the Silver Cross — for what they see as the service-related loss of Cpl. Justin Stark.

“It would be a sense of a closure, which we don’t have, knowing that Justin’s service would be recognized — a recognition that I feel is long overdue,” Stark told The Canadian Press Tuesday from Hamilton.

“It’s time for the government to step up and just do the right thing.”

The petition calls on Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, his predecessor Justice Minister Peter MacKay, and Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino to intervene in what they call the “gross injustices” perpetrated on the family.

Stark, 22, a reserve soldier 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 in March that his tour in Afghanistan did not cause post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — which contributed to his suicide.

“It seems to us that any investigating body could not have determined one way or another that his death was or wasn’t attributable to his military service,” the petition states.

“Therefore we believe that the Canadian Armed Forces should have erred on the side of fairness, justice and compassion.”

Petition co-organizer Keven Ellis, who heads the North Wall Riders Association veterans support group, said the issue crystallized for him at a recent Christmas gathering, where other moms were wearing the Silver Cross, which has been awarded in suicide situations.

“How do you know why someone committed suicide?” Ellis said.

“For Justin to go to the armouries in Hamilton — his place of employment — and to kill himself there is a real indicator to me that it was workplace related.”

In March, Nicholson was forced to apologize amid a public furor after Public Works sent a one-cent cheque — marked CF Release Pay — to Stark’s mom. The minister called it a “bureaucratic screw-up,” while Treasury Board President Tony Clement accused a civil servant of making an “insensitive and terrible error.”

Nicholson also promised at the time to take another look at whether the death was related to his military service.

However, in a letter to Stark in June, Nicholson reiterated the board’s findings, although he pledged to address the family’s concerns “to the maximum extent possible.”

Nicholson had no immediate comment on Tuesday.

Stark and her husband Wayne stressed there would be no financial gain in getting the recognition they want.

Marion Foster, of Edmonton, one of about 450 people to have signed the petition to date, said she believed in the Starks’ cause.

“As a military mom I know first-hand the struggles of what PTSD has on a person and my heart hurts for how little help is really out there,” she said on the petition.

“Recognition of these service members needs to be in the forefront because it is a job-related injury.”

Stark said she was grateful for the supportive comments on the petition at change.org, which comes amid widespread criticism of the Harper government’s treatment of veterans.

“Some have even brought me to tears,” Stark said.

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