Leonard Wrightman was 19 years old when he flew a bomber plane over the beaches of Normandy.
A few months before D-Day, Mr. Wrightman says, his participation was in jeopardy after his plane crash landed during an operational training exercise on an air base in England. Despite the crash, in which he says the front of his plane – a twin-engine Wellington bomber – caved in on his legs, he was cleared to continue with his military duties shortly afterward.
But when injuries he says were sustained in the crash landing resurfaced three years ago, Mr. Wrightman, now 90, says, the country for which he risked his life would not give him additional financial support without proof that they took place during his time in the service.
He does not have any proof.
“At the time, my commanding officer, an Australian fellow who was a wing commander, and a medic came out [after the crash] and found me and he [the medic] said, ‘Leonard, nothing’s broken. … You’ve crushed nerve centres in the leg. … You may live out a regular life or it may come back to haunt you later on,” Mr. Wrightman told The Globe and Mail, adding that the other members of his five-man crew have since died. “[Since then] the doctor died, the CO died….and now the veterans say they have no proof [of the accident]. That’s not my fault.”
According to Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), veterans need a diagnosis indicating they have a medical condition and evidence to establish it is related to their military service to receive benefits under the pension act.
Retired colonel Pat Stogran, a former veteran’s affairs ombudsman and an outspoken critic of the government’s treatment of veterans, says it is all too common for paperwork to get lost in a war zone and he has encountered situations similar to Mr. Wrightman’s.
“I know from the military that COs and RSMs [regimental sergeant majors] will always go and say, ‘Suck it up,’ and, of course, the paperwork gets lost,” he said. “Especially when you’re fighting a war, you’re not really going to worry about [paperwork].”
Mr. Wrightman was an Ontario Provincial Police officer for two years after the war, then worked for various companies until he retired in 1970. Today, he lives in a brick house on a quiet road in Keswick, Ont., with his 85-year-old wife.
Sitting in his living room, he asks his wife to retrieve a large three-ring binder from their basement. He would usually do this, but is hesitant to leave his chair after some serious falls over the past few months, including one that broke his hip. He said the falls were in part caused by tinnitus, vertigo and the weakened legs that are a result of the crash.
In the binder are dozens of letters he has received from VAC over the years that include everything from benefit updates to appeals of unfavourable decisions in his current claim, and even one that informed him his appeal advocate had retired and he had been assigned to another case worker.
“It’s really difficult,” he said of his dealings with VAC. “They’re waiting for us to die.”
Mr. Wrightman receives just under $1,700 a month from the government, which goes toward daily living expenses including rent, hydro and groceries. He also gets just under $4,000 a year for housekeeping and ground maintenance. His medical expenses are covered by the government.
That money, plus the couple’s pension and old-age security cheques, makes up their annual income. With his increased medical, wellness and living costs, Mr. Wrightman said, it is barely enough to get by.
“There’s a lot of other miscellaneous things that you have to buy on your own to maintain a standard and what happens is everything is going up and the affordability has gone down,” he said.
Dorian Baxter, an archbishop with the Federation of Independent Anglican Churches of North America, met Mr. Wrightman while the veteran was in the hospital seeking treatment for his legs two years ago, and has been advocating for him to get about $350 a month in extra funding. According to Mr. Baxter, the claim has been denied several times.
“He’s in a situation, where, if he’s going to have proper snow removal and housekeeping and upkeep, he can’t manage to pay his grocery bills along with that,” Mr. Baxter said.
The padre of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch in Newmarket, Ont., Mr. Baxter calls the amount Mr. Wrightman receives “a total insult” and says the process of applying for additional money is designed to discourage people from seeking help.
“The fact is that they [war veterans] went and risked their lives … we should be taking care of them right to the grave,” Mr. Baxter said.
Sandie Williamson, the director for long-term care and disability benefits for VAC says evidence for veterans to receive benefits under the pension act includes anything from a medical or accident report to witness statements and medical opinions.
Once the medical condition is established, if it worsens, the department can re-assess the situation and grant an increase. Veterans can appeal the department’s decision.
If veterans have no supporting evidence or documentation, the claim is denied because “there is evidence that is needed to substantiate that there is a disability” and prove that it is related to service, Ms. Williamson said.
She said the system is not adversarial and that if “the disability is related to service or is not related to service, the benefit of the doubt is provided to the favour of the veterans.”
A tribunal hearing is set for Aug. 15 for Mr. Wrightman’s additional funding request, although he is trying to get it changed to Aug. 18 so Mr. Baxter can attend.
But until then, he will live by an old Air Force expression he picked up during in the war: Press on regardless.