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Retired colonel Pat Stogran, shown near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2002, was praised by Canada's top soldier for his vocal defence of veterans' rights. (Stephen Thorne/The Canadian Press)
Retired colonel Pat Stogran, shown near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2002, was praised by Canada's top soldier for his vocal defence of veterans' rights. (Stephen Thorne/The Canadian Press)

Canada's top soldier backs ombudsman's campaign for veterans Add to ...

Canada's highest-ranking soldier is praising wounded veterans for exposing the federal government's failure to take care of them and says ombudsman Pat Stogran is raising the right issues in his aggressive campaign on their behalf.

Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk would not comment directly on the Harper government's decision not to reappoint Mr. Stogran, a retired colonel, as veterans ombudsman, but gave credence to what the watchdog had to say in an emotionally charged news conference this week with disabled and frustrated vets.

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"He has certainly voiced with clarity what the issues are," Gen. Natynczyk said on Friday. "The issues are absolutely correct issues."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the growing concern over veterans' services Friday, promising the government will review and adjust its policies.

Veterans are increasingly going public with their stories of getting the runaround from federal bureaucrats as they seek compensation or support for their injuries and health problems incurred while serving with the Canadian Forces.

Stories emerged this week of former soldiers battling Lou Gehrig's disease and mental stress, saying they've been forced to take Ottawa to court because Veterans Affairs refuses to accept that their illnesses are work-related.

Particular criticism has focused on a "disability award" brought in four years ago. As part of a new Veterans Charter, disabled vets now receive a one-time, lump-sum payment of up to $276,079.70, instead of the previous system of monthly payments for life.

"The new charter sometimes has some issues. The lump sum doesn't work for everybody," Gen. Natynczyk said. "I know Veterans Affairs has done their survey. Sixty-nine per cent have some satisfaction. We've got to worry about that 31 per cent. We've got to make sure that they get the support they need because their circumstances may be different."

The Chief of Defence Staff said he is "always pleased" when soldiers talk publicly about their experiences and what they need, whether it be in the media or before parliamentary committees.

The results of the Veterans Affairs survey released in June are contested because the question asked veterans whether they would prefer a lump sum or the same amount spread out over time. It did not ask whether they would prefer the previous system, which many believe was more generous.

Mr. Stogran is now using his government website and social media to urge even more veterans to come forward as part of a plan to be extremely vocal during his final three months as Canada's first veterans ombudsman.

He said hundreds of Canadians - including veterans and federal public servants - are approaching his office through various means to tell their stories and express their support.

"Our Facebook's going crazy," he said Friday. "The treatment of our veterans, if anybody did a study, is scandalous. It's nothing short of a scandal."

Mr. Stogran added that he found it curious that veterans organizations like the Royal Canadian Legion have been "absolutely silent" on the subject.

Reached by phone, Legion spokesman Bob Butt said his organization "appreciates" and "thanks" the ombudsman for his efforts. However, when asked whether the Legion has heard similar complaints and frustrations, Mr. Butt said no.

"We haven't heard much at all," he said, in reference to provincial Legion affiliates. "I would imagine that they might have heard from a couple of veterans, but there's been no groundswell of any comment or anger."

Speaking in Prince Edward Island, which is home to Veterans Affairs, the Prime Minister said the policy review will not affect the department's location.

"Serving our veterans is one of the highest priorities we have as a government," he told reporters at an event in North Cape. "The people who serve Canada in uniform, men and women who serve in uniform are our best and bravest citizens, and, particularly, when they get injured, we have an eternal debt to them and so we work with the ombudsman and others through Veterans Affairs, based here in Prince Edward Island, to do whatever we can to respond to concerns."

Opposition MPs are planning to recall the Veterans Affairs committee as soon as possible to hold hearings on Mr. Stogran's concerns.

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