Retired Major Mark Campbell pounds his finger into a wooden table. A curled Canadian flag stands behind his right shoulder. Over his left, images of the Afghanistan war flash across a white screen inside a Toronto Legion hall.
Mr. Campbell is angry. There’s no mistaking it. It’s in his stern voice, on his tense bespectacled face, in the way he hammers his right index finger. One of six veterans suing the federal government over compensation for wounded ex-soldiers, the double amputee tells the town-hall meeting that a recent parliamentary review of vets benefits is “a whitewash.”
“The government of Canada changed the rules, reduced disability compensation ... in the middle of the war and didn’t bother to tell those of us who were busy fighting the war,” the former military leader who served in Cyprus, Bosnia and Afghanistan tells the small audience. “We must change the legislation.”
Mr. Campbell isn’t alone in his anger. The protracted frustration felt by many injured vets and their families shows no signs of abating – accentuated recently by the televised cries of a military wife calling after Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino after a committee meeting. (She wanted to talk to him about the struggles she and others face in caring for spouses with post-traumatic stress disorder.)
Days later, dozens of veterans and their supporters took to Parliament Hill to press the government for better care and financial compensation. The protest group hopes future rallies and town-hall meetings draw larger crowds. They want to build the kind of groundswell of support that propelled the battle for vets benefits after the First World War.
They also want the government to overhaul the New Veterans Charter, which, in 2006, dramatically altered compensation for soldiers wounded during military service. Instead of receiving financial support for life, vets qualify for a lump-sum amount, to a maximum of about $300,000 for losing one’s lower limbs.
Critics of the charter argue it robs vets and their families of compensation and financial security. It could cause some ex-soldiers to slip into poverty, Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent has warned.
The Conservative government counters that it is looking after wounded soldiers and has strengthened treatment for mental health illnesses and other injuries. Last year, Mr. Fantino requested the Commons veterans affairs committee to conduct a review of the New Veterans Charter. The results of that review were released this month. Mr. Fantino is expected to respond to the review in the fall.
This year marked the end of Canada’s 12-year mission in Afghanistan. During the deployment, 158 soldiers and four civilians died and more than 2,000 were injured. In all, about 30,000 served in Afghanistan. A day-long commemoration of their service and sacrifices was held last month.
“The names of your loved ones are engraved on all our hearts,” Primer Minister Stephen Harper said in Ottawa on the National Day of Honour.
At the Legion hall in east Toronto, Mr. Campbell recounts his battle scars on a recent evening. A veteran of the Korean War has come to hear his story. So has a vet of the Afghanistan mission, an ex-reservist, a psychologist who works with wounded soldiers in St. Catharines, Ont., and a handful of others.
Mr. Campbell was in Afghanistan, mentoring the Afghan National Army, when a roadside bomb detonated beneath him in June, 2008. Engulfed in thick black smoke, he yelled for help. Fellow soldiers strapped two tourniquets to each leg to stop the bleeding.
He spent five days in an induced coma and later underwent more than a dozen surgeries. Married and a father of two, he tried to learn to walk on prosthetic legs, but couldn’t.
Mr. Campbell says the reality of the government’s New Veterans Charter set in while he was in the hospital. If he’d lost his legs during his first Afghanistan tour in 2002, he would have received lifetime monthly payments under the old compensation system. Under the charter, he was offered a lump-sum award of $250,000. He estimates the difference between the two programs has cost his family about $30,000 a year.
A spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Minister noted seriously injured vets are eligible for monthly payments for lost earnings and also receive reimbursement for medical, rehabilitation and retraining expenses.
Vancouver lawyer Don Sorochan, part of a group of lawyers at Miller Thomson working on the vets lawsuit pro bono, had hoped the all-party review of the charter would lead to dramatic change. Perhaps even make a class-action suit unnecessary.
Instead, the recently released review calls for more study on some issues, such as reservists and lump-sum payments, and includes recommendations that could leave severely disabled vets earning less money than under the current scheme.
The vets lawsuit is expected to return to court for a hearing in December. Ottawa is appealing a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that dismissed the government’s motion to strike down the legal action. An application to certify the class-action suit must still be considered by the court.
Equitas Society, formed in 2011, is raising money to help the ex-soldiers cover legal disbursement costs. The suit argues that the New Veterans Charter contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The legal action could take years to conclude.
“The fact of it is this is going to set the blueprint for the way future members of the military will be treated,” Mr. Sorochan says.
The federal government has outlined some of its legal arguments. The government contends that it has no extraordinary obligation to its ex-soldiers, that it has no social contract with its vets. This contention has irked many.
“There is a social responsibility of any government in this country to all of us who served. It doesn’t matter what conflict you were in,” says Kevin McLean, a deputy district commander for The Royal Canadian Legion in Toronto.
Ex-soldier Lakhan Mohan, who served 22 years in the military, has experience with both compensation systems. He receives monthly payments for injured knees under the old benefits program, while his post-traumatic stress disorder triggered a lump sum because the illness was diagnosed after 2006.
“The old system is better,” Mr. Mohan, 49, contends after the meeting. “When a person gets a lump sum, especially if they’re young, they may spend it right away and not look towards the future. ... There is better security with long-term [payments].”