Let’s not forget young veterans

 They’re still fighting – this time for benefits

By Robert Smol-THE TORONTO STAR-Section: Editorial, pg. A24

Sean Bruyea is a retired air force officer and disabled war veteran. But you will not see him in the next few days selling poppies in the local mall or attending meetings at the Legion.

In fact Bruyea, who just turned 40, looks more like the teacher at your local school or the teller you last spoke to at the bank.

But his medals and his disability tell another story.

Bruyea is suffering from the combination of ailments known as Gulf War Syndrome.

“I was basically on survival mode,” the former intelligence officer says, describing his life since returning from the Gulf War in 1991.

Bruyea is part of a steadily growing number of young disabled veterans who are dealing with a variety of physical and psychological diseases resulting from their overseas service.

But like many veterans his age, the hardest and most costly battle is getting recognized as disabled veterans.

“They still don’t recognize them as war veterans” says Conservative MP Peter Goldring (Edmonton East), a former veterans affairs critic. “There is a sense that a war veteran is one who has been in a war zone for two to three years like they had in the second World War.”

Now released from the military, Bruyea, a one-time triathlete, is unable to work and because of his sickness, is too afraid to start a family.

“Veterans Affairs does not recognize Gulf War Syndrome,” says Bruyea who was initially shunned by the department and had to use his own money to have his condition, clearly documented in his medical files from the forces, analyzed by medical specialists.

“All those symptoms which comprise Gulf War Syndrome have to be fought separately and proved that they originated from the war. And you can imagine that this is an almost impossible thing,” he says.

Three years and $30,000 later, Bruyea was granted a partial pension under Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A victory of sorts, but it did little to restore his faith in Veterans Affairs.

“Veterans Affairs is a ridiculously cumbersome, adversarial bureaucracy – it is horrific,” says Bruyea, who today spends part of his time helping others negotiate the bureaucracy at Veterans Affairs.

“I’m an English major, experienced in administration and analysis, and I had a brutal time negotiating that obstacle. So I dread to think of how less-educated, less-experienced members of the forces can do this, and the truth is they don’t, they just give up,” he says.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs is going to fight to say, ‘No, you are not entitled to this, or ‘No, you do not have this problem’,” says Warren Swansburg, 47, who, after actually having been diagnosed with PTSD, had to go to his Member of Parliament to get Veterans Affairs to consider his application for a pension.

“My personal feeling is that had my MP not intervened, they would not have helped me,” says the former infantry soldier and veteran of three overseas tours with the Canadian Forces.

Much of the problem with modern veterans today is that of perception. Disabled or not, veterans are the living legacy of the conflict they survived.

And our perception of them is naturally influenced by the way we, as a society view the conflicts that produced the veterans.

Few, if any, would argue today that a World War II veteran who was in uniform when Canadians stormed Juno Beach or fought through the streets of Ortona should not be considered for benefits. The war is perceived as both real and just.

Modern veterans, on the other hand, are forced to live with the perception that they are too young to be taken seriously, and that their service was merely “peacekeeping.”

They may have been sent to the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, or the war on terrorism, but in Canadians’ collective psyche their service is seen as naive, politically palliative “peacekeeping” rather than actual war service.

Yet Goldring, a former serviceman himself, believes that the government may also be trying to avoid setting a precedent for a new generation of veterans dependent on public support.

“There is a reluctance to open the floodgates, if you like, to war veteran services, and of course we have an aging, retired military population during a time when they are shutting down war veteran senior homes,” he says.

For the young veterans in need of such services now, most will have to hope that they will still be around in the future to see their military service blessed with the passage of time.

Robert Smol, a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

Copyright (c) 2004 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved.