An unnecessary bruise upon the CF’s reputation is the continued practice of deducting pain and suffering payments from injured veterans’ reduced income under long-term disability.
It is often said that a nation is judged on how it treats its most vulnerable. Canada’s treatment of injured and retired Canadian Forces (CF) personnel and their struggling families is beginning to reflect poorly not just on Canada but upon the CF itself.
It is sometimes difficult to perceive veterans who once brandished the latest in weaponry as vulnerable. However, the consequences of the complete and profound transformation of military indoctrination results in large numbers of veterans unable to fight for appropriate care against the very government for which they were willing to die.
For the greater part of the past 60 years, successive governments have had very little reason to fret about the treatment of injured and retired men and women of the CF. There have always been eager volunteers. In FY 2009-10, more than 7,500 young Canadians willingly replaced nearly 5,300 retiring or medically released members.
We are a compassionate people. Only the most jaded cynic would justify neglecting our releasing military and their families merely because Canada’s youth is a steadfast and fertile garden for recruitment. However, such cynicism appears justified.
Canada’s 600,000 CF veterans have been denied the comprehensive and universal programs given to the one million veterans of World War II and Korea. Injury rates for the CF over the past fifty years have been approximately 7.5 per cent versus an 8.5 per cent casualty rate for World War II. In fact, more Canadians have died or been injured in Afghanistan than suffered the same in Korea.
Why is a CF veteran with multiple tours in Bosnia, Rwanda and Afghanistan given far less benefits than a World War II veteran who spent a year in uniform safe in Canada or a single day overseas? CF veterans have been denied the universal programs for post-secondary education, business start-up assistance, mortgage assistance, land, house, and farm grants as well as multiple financial benefits afforded World War II veterans.
As a result, Canada has failed to benefit from investing in its CF veterans the way this nation benefitted from widely investing in its World War II veterans. Although the CF has been complicit in this unjustified neglect, most of the blame can be laid at the doorstep of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).
Veterans Affairs Canada
In 2006, VAC enacted legislation which replaced lifetime payments for pain and suffering with one-time lump sum payments. This new program, known as the New Veterans Charter, was passed in the House without a second of debate and only one committee hearing. Canada has since learned of the heavy-handed tactics some at VAC used to silence critics and manipulate the leadership of a select few veterans’ groups to blindly support the legislation.
In the past five years, more than 400 recommendations to fix the New Veterans Charter have been tabled by Parliamentary committees and VAC’s own advisory groups. Veterans Affairs makes fantastical claims that four partial fixes included in legislation rushed through just before the election addresses the 400 recommendations.
The list of VAC failings is long but the causes are few.
Not one director level employee or above has ever worn a military uniform. Few in VAC have any concept of the extreme hardships and sacrifices of serving in the CF. Fewer have the necessary insight into the psychological cost of such service for not just the soldiers but the families. Allowing such bureaucrats to design programs is akin to allowing a lawyer to design a nuclear reactor. As a result, highly vulnerable and injured CF soldiers, veterans and their families experience real-life meltdowns trying to break through endless red tape.
Veterans Affairs casually brushes aside criticisms as mere ‘communication problems,’ thereby placing most of the blame on the CF and veterans for not understanding the good intentions of VAC’s efforts.
Such smugness misses the point. The reality is that CF members are better educated about VAC than ever before and they don’t like what they see. Unfortunately, compassionate frontline employees at VAC must absorb the justified frustration of veterans and serving military. Much initiative and autonomy of frontline staff has been robbed in favour of shifting decision-making authority to faceless and distant central offices which have minimal comprehension of military service or have no contact with the individual asking for assistance.
The result is a department which, at its design, operations, and decision-making levels, has very little understanding of the veterans and families they claim to serve. VAC is the only federal department with its head office located outside Ottawa. Isolating such detached arrogance in Charlottetown, P.E.I., only compounds the extreme disconnect.
The scandals of Somalia, the Croatia Board of Inquiry, and other public revelations of the CF resulted in much needed improvements to military quality of life. The result is that the CF has taken the lead in assisting the injured and releasing military members far more efficiently and comprehensively than VAC. There have been some notable successes such as the Integrated Personnel Support Centres which combine administrative points of contact for programs within the CF and VAC.
The CF however needs to rethink its “universality of service,” the standard for which decisions to release under medical limitations are made. For the past half decade or more, CF commanders have accommodated individuals in the military longer than “universality of service” would otherwise permit. Such accommodations have provided dignity and flexibility for the injured wishing to remain in the CF but offer no guarantee that commanders won’t change their mind.
An unnecessary bruise upon the CF’s reputation is the continued practice of deducting pain and suffering payments from injured veterans’ reduced income under long-term disability. This affects no more than 6,500 of the most vulnerable veterans. Considering that approximately 10,000 serving military continue to collect full salary as well as payments for pain and suffering, refusing to fix this is hypocritical at best. That the military just spent $130-million to buy 1,300 smart bombs when that amount would address all retroactivity for this unfair practice sends the message that personnel are expendable and equipment is far more important.
Mandatory levels for hiring veterans and their families in DND and VAC are a necessity as such expertise is essential to developing and running effective programs. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employs more than 30 per cent veterans with more than 25,000 disabled veterans on staff.
The U.S. also puts Canada to shame in funding more than 23 million veterans and their families in post-secondary institutions. A similar universal and retroactive program for the CF would not only benefit the dignity of the injured and retired members but the increased opportunities and income provided by such education would pay Canada back many times over.
Unlike the Forces, Veterans Affairs has not had a public inquiry in more than four decades and has never had a public inquiry about issues affecting CF veterans. A judicial royal commission would offer the independent perspective Parliament, veterans, the CF and Canadians need in order to understand the plight of CF injured, veterans and their families while recommending much-needed solutions.
Such an inquiry would ask and answer many questions such as the continued wisdom or lack thereof in having VAC senior management located outside the interplay of ideas and necessary accountability in Ottawa.
The CF continues to over-extend its mandate in filling the many gaps in VAC’s patchwork of often inadequate programs. A new universal approach which has veterans, the CF, their families, medical, and business experts needs to be driving veterans’ policy. Canada does not have to reinvent the wheel.
We did it right after World War II. The ingredients are the same: income bridging, comprehensive post-secondary education, business start-up assistance, housing assistance and extended medical care all working towards a program of complete and universal financial, professional and psychological transition.
Either Canada relearns a universal and comprehensive approach to caring for its releasing and injured military or one day the eager recruits may dry up. Otherwise, a military collective bargaining unit may be the only way to force government to act where once Canada was only too eager to care.
Sean Bruyea is a freelance journalist, advocate for the rights of disabled veterans and a retired Intelligence Officer who served in the Persian Gulf War.
The Hill Times