War is always a brutal business. Soldiers fall in battle, or have their bodies mangled by horrific wounds. But in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, many troops survived injuries that would previously have proved fatal. According to the Canadian Forces Surgeon-General’s report of 2010, a Canadian soldier arriving at the military hospital at Kandahar Air Field with vital signs has a 97% chance of returning home alive — a heartening statistic for troops and their families. But this reality also presents new challenges: specifically, how Canada supports our injured veterans once they come back to our shores.
At the end of 2010, the Canadian Forces reported that 1,859 soldiers had been wounded in Afghanistan. Those who suffered injuries too severe to treat in the field — severe burns, brain trauma, missing limbs — were transferred from military to civilian care back in Canada. Soldiers living in major cities generally fell into capable hands, in the form of large hospitals with state-of-the-art technology. But many troops come from small, rural towns. For ongoing care or physiotherapy, they now have to travel for hours, several times a week, often with the assistance of friends or family. Some must consider uprooting themselves from their support networks and moving to urban centres, to more easily accessed care, adding emotional freight to their preexisting pain.
Tragically, these veterans also often have limited financial means to cope with their new situations. This is due in part to supposedly well-meaning changes enacted in 2005 by the Liberal government of Paul Martin, with the full support of the Stephen Harper-led Conservative opposition, in the form of the New Veteran’s Charter. Previously, soldiers could have relied on a permanent monthly stipend for life, the amount determined by the severity of their injury. But under the Charter, the monthly payouts were replaced by one-time lump-sum payments, to a maximum of $276,000.
This paltry sum — far less than what many MP pensions pay out over a mere handful of years — was considered sufficient to see a soldier through his or her transition to civilian life. The payout also terminated the government’s responsibility for the wounded soldier; once the cheque was cashed, he or she had no further claim to any support from the government he had fought and bled for — with often tragic results.
Many of the soldiers who have received one-time payouts from the government were emotionally traumatized, suffering from “operational stress injuries,” the bland term the Canadian Forces uses to describe post-traumatic stress disorder. Common complications of operational stress injuries include substance abuse and impulse control issues — both of which would compromise anyone’s ability to manage a lump sum of money. Yet Ottawa saw nothing wrong with making these payouts to wounded vets, and washing its hands of them once they got their cheques.
The Harper government has promised to look into the matter, having recognized that the Charter has left Canada’s wounded warriors worse off than the veterans of prior conflicts. But, troublingly, it also shunted aside former Veteran’s ombudsman Colonel (ret.) Pat Stogran, who accused Veteran’s Affairs of adopting an “insurance company” mentality, which prioritized saving money over caring for wounded veterans.
Veteran’s Affairs has not helped its case by its ham-fisted handling of recent several high profile cases. It is being sued by a group of veterans led by Dennis Manuge over allegedly inappropriate clawbacks of disability payments, and was forced to reach a settlement with Sean Bruyea, a veteran and critic of the department, which leaked his confidential medical records in an effort to discredit him.
The picture for Canada’s wounded veterans is not uniformly bleak, however. The government has worked hard to establish practices and facilities to care for their physical and emotional wounds, and the improved public profile of the Canadian Forces will help pressure Ottawa to do even better. But with the Conservatives looking for $4 billion in budget cuts, and given the track record of the military as a source of easy “savings,” it will be up to the Canadian public to make it clear that veterans’ compensation needs to go up — not down. Our soldiers’ sacrifice in Afghanistan will not be worth the price if they are not cared for with all the resources that a prosperous, grateful nation can provide.
This entry was posted on Monday, July 4th, 2011, Posted In: Comment