Why Do We Neglect Our Veterans?

By SEAN BRUYEA-THE GLOBE AND MAIL-Last updated Wednesday, Jun. 08, 2011 3:51PM EDT

Sean Bruyea (REUTERS)

For the first time in decades, a federal election witnessed all parties promising assistance for our serving and retired Canadian Forces personnel. Debate on the issue quickly died, but the problems confronting our veterans remain painfully alive.

Those problems escalated in 2006 when a 90-year proven system of payments for lifelong injuries was unilaterally replaced with a one-time lump sum. Studies by Queen’s University and Veterans Affairs Canada’s own advisory groups show that, when all benefits are counted over the lifetime of the injured soldier, the lump-sum program pays out about half of what the lifetime payments provide.

But it isn’t just about money. This lifetime commitment provided the security that injured veterans needed to pursue opportunities to make their lives somewhat whole again.

Returning Second World War veterans were treated better. All of them, injured or not, were provided comprehensive income assistance as well as extended medical and dental care. All were given a choice of land, housing and farm grants, schooling and income assistance or a generous government credit to help them optimize their potential to fully participate in the society for which they’d sacrificed so much.

If the veterans were injured, they were also given lifetime payments for pain and suffering as well as comprehensive medical care.

Inexplicably, only lifetime payments and scaled-back medical care were granted to injured Canadian Forces veterans. Now, these lifetime payments have been replaced with the one-time lump sum.

Injured and retired Canadian Forces members and their families have never understood this discrimination. Why would a veteran who had multiple tours in the Persian Gulf War, Cyprus, the Golan, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and/or Afghanistan that spanned 10 or 20 years receive none of the benefits of a Second World War veteran who may have enlisted for only a year safe in Canada or spent only one day overseas?

Although the casualty rates for the Canadian army in the Second World War are more than 10 per cent, the rates for the 700,000 serving and retired members of the Canadian Forces are 7.5 per cent (46,000 and climbing). They are higher than the Second World War casualty rates for service in the navy (2.1 per cent) or the air force (6.9 per cent).

Canada understood that the rigours of military service meant that all those serving needed comprehensive assistance to transition out of uniform. Just as civilians need basic training to enter the military, our soldiers need basic training to re-enter civilian life. Canada also understood that we must mobilize a nation to care for our returning soldiers.

This investment in our veterans was repaid many times over. University campuses doubled their enrolments in only five years. The energy and skills of returning soldiers fuelled Canada’s economy and social machinery. Veterans’ programs produced almost 3,000 doctors, 5,000 teachers and 8,000 engineers, not to mention 85,000 veterans entering more than 250 trades.

Sadly, these programs were denied to our country’s 700,000 serving and retired Canadian Forces personnel. Instead, those who retired have had to muddle through life without any universal programs. Those under the lump-sum program returning from Afghanistan are particularly affected. Veterans Affairs’ own studies show that the lump-sum recipients are having far greater difficulty adapting to civilian life. These veterans and their families have incomes not only lower than those uninjured but lower than the recipients of the lifetime monthly pain and suffering payments.

South of the border, the U.S. has put Canada to shame for more than 50 years, providing postsecondary schooling to almost 23 million military men and woman and their families.

Last year, when issues affecting our injured and retired Canadian Forces personnel made headlines, the government promised $2-billion. The number even made it into the budget, but not into the accounting. That’s because this $2-billion represents $40-million annually over 50 years, an amount to be paid long after most of us will be dead.

While the costs for the F-35 fighter planes are being grossly underreported, commitments to care for our injured and retired Canadian Forces members and their families are being overreported in some bizarre multigenerational hyperbole. Must we now have a rule against politicians taking credit for funding commitments that exceed the lifespan of the recipients?

Canada is all too willing to accept debt in sending young Canadians to war. Why can’t we make a modest fiscal sacrifice in welcoming home those who’ve already made the sacrifice caring for us?

Sean Bruyea is a freelance journalist, an advocate for the rights of disabled veterans and a retired intelligence officer who served in the Persian Gulf War.