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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

I'm glad my war-veteran father isn't a soldier today Add to ...

This time of year, it’s hard for me not to think of my father more than usual. It’s the red poppy. I miss him.

Like many of his comrades, my father didn’t like talking about the war. I had to drag details out of him. He joined the Air Force at 17 with the help of his father, who signed an affidavit saying his son was a year older than he actually was. A couple of years later, Dad was sitting in the bottom of a Lancaster, dropping bombs on Germany.

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He was never ashamed to tell me just how scared he was each time he climbed aboard the big plane to head out on a mission. He wasn’t sure he’d come back alive, and many of his friends didn’t. His crew’s luck ran out the evening of Feb. 19, 1944, when they were shot down over Stendal. He was taken to the most renowned German prison camp of the war – Stalag Luft III, made famous in The Great Escape.

The break happened while my father was there.

My dad was a funny, gentle and often quiet man. I wondered how much of a burden his wartime role was. It couldn’t have been easy knowing that each time he flicked a switch to release more bombs, he was likely killing hundreds or thousands of people below. And if the weight of that responsibility wasn’t particularly onerous in the heat of battle, it surely grew heavier as he got older and he developed a more profound sense of the part he played in the Second World War – what a deep psychological toll that must have taken on him.

At least when they got home, soldiers like my dad were treated with the admiration they deserved. They were regarded as heroes. They were. They had their university educations paid for. They were ensured pensions and benefits that recognized their service and, in far too many cases, the physical and mental damage the war exacted.

I’m so thankful my father isn’t a soldier today. Each month, someone else seems to be issuing a report cataloguing just how poorly his successors are treated.

Canada’s Veterans Ombudsman recently released findings that outlined how inadequate the funding and benefits are for so many of the men and women who head off to war for Canada. According to the latest review, there are more than 400 veterans who face their retirement years in poverty because of inadequate pensions.

The ombudsman also found that the funding to help soldiers transition to civilian careers is woefully inadequate. Meantime, 53 per cent of veterans assessed to be totally and permanently incapacitated as a result of their tours of duty are not being awarded benefits they’re eligible for.

Another report issued earlier this year by the Ombudsman of the Department of National Defence painted a scathing picture of just how difficult life is for military families, children in particular. Thousands are living in dilapidated houses with asbestos, mould, water leaks and other problems.

Meantime, the federal Conservative government, which likes to talk about how much it supports its troops, plans to appeal a B.C. court ruling that clears the way for a class-action lawsuit by a group of veterans of the war in Afghanistan. They’re upset with the New Veterans Charter, brought in seven years ago.

It’s their contention that soldiers making application for disability benefits primarily get a one-time payment, with some getting forms of guaranteed funding. But the total benefits under the new act are significantly less than those benefits provided to veterans under the previous Veterans Affairs Canada Pension Act, they contend.

It’s difficult to find anyone who believes today’s veterans are being treated with the same decency as those who came before. And that is a sad and terrible indictment of a government that likes to score political points by talking about how important the Canadian soldier is in our country. Talk is cheap.

I couldn’t imagine being 19 and dropping bombs on Germany. At that age, I was a hard-partying university student with hardly a care in the world. Those years were some of the best of my life, ones my father sacrificed in the name of his country.

There have been many others who have followed him, and continue to. We must honour and respect these brave, selfless people and offer them the same care and level of support we showed my father and others. There is only one veteran.

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