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No Man Left Behind

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Issue: 69 Section: Health Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: veterans, Canadian Military

April 19, 2010

No Man Left Behind

Canadian veterans failed by 2006 Veterans Charter

by William Ray

Image: Caitlin Crawshaw

MONTREAL—Military training prepares you for many things.

Here are a few it doesn’t: Being utterly isolated in crowded rooms because of the nature of your experiences. Facing a lifetime of stunted potential and awkward glances because of a maimed body. The teeth-grinding rage that drives away all those closest to you. Going to funeral after funeral of once bright and strong but now unrecognizable young men and women who have died with needles in their arms in filthy alleys.

The military teaches its soldiers to never leave a man behind on the battlefield. And yet, through a lack of reintegration support and a privatized compensation program, a new generation of young Canadian veterans are being systematically left behind by their government and, by extension, their society.

The new Veterans Charter was released in 2006, promising veterans a new era of reintegration and support. One of the motives for the change was that under the old system, governed by the Veteran’s Act of 1939, even a small pension of $1,000 a month for an expected lifetime of a 27-year-old could cost the treasury $4.5 million.

“We were spending a lot of money [prior to 2006],” explained Raymond Lalonde, head of Veterans Affairs Canada’s (VAC) national centre for operational stress injuries.

The 2006 Veterans Charter uses a lump sum model. Lalonde explained that the workers compensation programs of Australia, Germany and the Nordic countries were studied in the creation of the new charter.

Robert Oliphant, Liberal critic for veterans affairs, stated in an interview that these lump sums are an inadequate way to deal with the payment system because the Government of Canada should have a lifetime relationship with veterans. Under the new system, the burden of support is passed off to Service Income Support Insurance Plan, what some allege is simply a thin veil for Manulife Financial, the multinational insurance giant. The most a veteran can expect today is a one-time lump sum of $276,079.70.

"My instincts tell me the last thing you want to do when a young soldier comes back from overseas, perhaps with an operational stress injury, or with a dependency on alcohol or drugs, is give him $250,000 to self-medicate," said Veterans Ombudsman Col (Retired) Pat Stogran, a veteran of Afghanistan and missions in the former Yugoslavia, in an interview with the Ottawa Sun.

Many of the soldiers and their families are not receiving the social and psychological support they need. Private Frederick Couture lost his foot to a land mine. He attempted suicide several times. Despite this obvious indicator, the Canadian Forces (of which he was still a member) left him at home in the care of his mother, in whose arms he died after shooting himself.

Dawson Bayliss, wounded in an improvised explosive device strike in 2006, spent years fighting for treatment while displaying classic symptoms of a closed head wound. He was handed a lump sum of $30,000 and disappeared into haze of alcohol and drugs. He died in his sleep at 24 beside his pregnant wife. She receives no support.

Warrant Officer Fielsamier, a veteran of Yugoslavia, Haiti and repeated Afghan tours, killed himself after asking for help at the base clinic for symptoms of Post Tramatic Stress Disorder and being sent home with pills.

This is not an exhaustive list. The Forces recorded 16 suicides by serving members of the military this year, its highest level since tracking began in 1994. (And, according to Janice Summersby, chief public relations officer of VAC, suicides of released veterans have still not been tracked accurately.)

Veterans groups have called for sweeping changes to the Veterans Charter. Denis Manogue, a veteran who returned his medals to the Governor General because of dissatisfaction with his treatment under the new system, put it most eloquently:

“The government needs to do the right thing now. The issue some say is complex is not really a complex issue at all. It is about fundamental fairness and doing the right thing on behalf of those of us souls who were willing to sign a blank cheque made out to the people of Canada for an amount up to and including our lives."

Canadian men and women are fighting a war they didn’t start and the history of the Afghan state indicates they cannot win. They return to a society that is largely indifferent to their experiences, and to their future. This is no small problem: to date, more than 130,000 Canadians have rotated through Afghanistan, and Canada is now paying the price of their neglect through social violence and lost potential.

William Ray is a writer living in Montreal and 10-year veteran of the Armed Forces.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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