Returning soldiers deserve better

By Scott Taylor-THE OTTAWA CITIZEN-May 16, 2006

THE FEDERAL CONSERVATIVE CABINET recently approved a special order-in-council which authorized a $250,000 one-time payout to the families of four Canadian soldiers killed on active duty in Afghanistan during the previous fiscal year. At the time this compensatory payout was announced, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was embroiled in what has become known as the “flag flap.”

The decision not to dip official flags to half-mast each time fatalities occur in Kandahar, coupled with the restriction prohibiting media from photographing the repatriated bodies as they were unloaded from transport planes, generated a public backlash. Many felt that by taking these measures, Harper was borrowing from George W. Bush’s playbook and trying to sanitize the war in Afghanistan in order to maintain support for a controversial mission.

Given the timing of the $1-million payout package, cynical citizens and even some of the recipients openly questioned whether the federal government was trying to buy its way out of the flag flap. Jim Davis, the father of Cpl. Paul Davis, who was killed in a vehicle accident on March 2, acknowledged the quarter-million dollars would be welcome. “I can’t certainly kick a gift horse in the mouth,” Davis told reporters. “However, I hope it’s not tied to the flag issue; I hope it has nothing to do with it.”

As events unfolded, the special compensation payout garnered very little media comment either pro or con. It was difficult for journalists to comprehend exactly what this stipend represented. Admittedly, it is not an easy equation to solve, but here goes.

Under the old Veterans Affairs legislation, families of service members killed in action would receive a one-time (modest) supplementary death benefit and at least approximately $1,500 a month in ongoing support. For those injured in the line of duty, there was only a fixed disability pension. However, in May 2005 the Liberal government passed the new Veterans Charter, Bill C-45, which came into effect this year on April 1.

Under the terms of this new charter, families of a soldier killed in action will receive a $250,000 death benefit plus an assortment of “earnings loss benefits” which would be paid up until the victim would have turned 65 years of age. As well, under the new charter, soldiers disabled by injury will get a lump sum payment up to a maximum of $250,000, depending on the injury.

In essence, all the Conservatives’ order-in-council on April 6 provided was a compassionate legal loophole to enable those four families to access the new Veterans Charter benefits that were “approved” but not yet fully in effect.

But now, several other questions have arisen. According to official statements, the four soldiers killed in Afghanistan during the specified time period are Pte. Robert Costall (firefight with Taliban, March 28), Master Cpl. Timothy Wilson and Cpl. Paul Davis (traffic accident, March 2) and Pte. Braun Scott Woodfield (vehicle rollover, Nov. 24).

However, a spokesperson at Veterans Affairs confirmed the first three recipients, but stated Woodfield was not included in the payouts. Citing privacy considerations, Veterans Affairs would not identify the fourth soldier who qualified for the benefit. No explanation was given as to why Woodfield was exempted, nor could anyone explain why families of soldiers killed on domestic training exercises during that timeframe — such as Pte. Patrick Dessureault (vehicle rollover, Wainwright, Alta., Sept. 20) — were not similarly compensated.

For most veterans, however, the main concern about Bill C-45 is not the payout of one-time death benefits, but the new policy of one-time disability payments. On March 22, just prior to the bill being enacted, a group of retired veterans held a press conference urging Harper to delay the legislation. A spokesman for the group, former Capt. Sean Bruyea, argued that the new lump sum payment could be exhausted within a few years. Formerly, ex-soldiers were guaranteed monthly disability payments up to $2,300 indefinitely. As well, soldiers used to be entitled to free legal advice when they challenged a Veteran’s Canada pension ruling. Now, that legal assistance will only cover the initial negotiations to determine the amount of the disability lump sum.

Also of concern to Bruyea was the fact that the new Bill C-45 income assistance payments for disabled veterans will be discontinued at the age of 65. “They will have to live after age 65 in a standard of living that we call poverty,” Bruyea told reporters. Despite the public plea to amend these policies, Harper did not delay the new Veterans Charter.

The decision to award $250,000 payments to four grieving families is laudable, but now it begs the question: What about the other dead soldiers’ relatives? And more important: What about those who are returning home permanently disabled as a result of their service in Afghanistan?

It is one thing for Harper’s Conservatives to beat their chests and boldly proclaim their support for the troops.

However, it won’t fool the rank-and-file for long if soldiers see that their broken comrades are not being properly cared for. The new charter deserves to be reviewed as veterans who served Canada have requested.