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The Canadian military is expelling wounded members at an ever higher rate despite concerns from veterans' advocates that the dismissals are posing a risk to soldiers' mental health.
Slightly more than 1,900 members were removed from the military because of medical reasons in the 2014 fiscal year –– a 52-per-cent increase from the year before, according to figures provided by the Canadian Forces. Meanwhile, a nine-member military working group, created more than a year ago in response to concerns, continues to study possible changes to the universality-of-service rule, which allows the Forces to discharge members if they are deemed unfit to deploy.
Calls to soften the medical-release policy stretch far back, to a military board of inquiry that examined the treatment of soldiers who became ill after serving in war-torn Croatia in the 1990s. Although the chief of defence staff at the time promised to improve the situation, declaring the rule "too inflexible," the policy has remained largely unchanged.
The stringent release policy has frustrated wounded military members who still want to serve and left many feeling lost and betrayed. A Globe and Mail investigation found that for one soldier who served in the military for nearly two decades and deployed to Afghanistan, his looming medical discharge from the army may have been a factor in his suicide.
Sergeant Paul Martin "was not emotionally ready to leave the CF," states a military board of inquiry report obtained by The Globe. He was "not ready for release."
Sgt. Martin, who had post-traumatic stress disorder, was one of at least 59 soldiers and veterans who killed themselves after serving in the Afghanistan mission.
Cody Kuluski, 33, is struggling to build a new life after being medically released from the military earlier this year. He was diagnosed with PTSD after returning from Afghanistan in 2008.
He grew up in Thunder Bay and signed up for the military because he wanted to serve in the war. Five days before he was scheduled to return to Canada in September, 2008, three young soldiers from his battalion were killed in a Taliban attack on their armoured vehicle.
As the insurgents kept firing, the young private rushed to his injured comrades, treating them and moving them out of danger. The three fatally wounded soldiers were Mr. Kuluski's friends. He said they died in his arms.
Mr. Kuluski's bravery was recognized in a 2010 dispatch from Governor-General David Johnston. But five years later, as he had been making plans to train for another army role, the infantry soldier was dismissed from the Forces for medical reasons. He was discharged before reaching the 10-year eligibility mark for a pension.
"Pretty much when I came back [from Afghanistan], they said if you need help, ask for help, and I did. And they've been pushing me out the door ever since," Mr. Kuluski contended. "If it wasn't for this universality of service, I would have retired in the military. I was going to be a lifer, but they didn't let me do it."
The Canadian Forces' universality-of-service principal has derailed many military careers. Nearly 15,000 military members have been dismissed for medical reasons since 2001, when the 9/11 attacks triggered the Afghanistan war.
Forces' spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said more members were discharged in the past fiscal year "due to the processing of a backlog of medical-release files."
"A more efficient process has resulted in an increase in … members transitioning beyond the uniform due to medical releases," she noted. She added that the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces are providing members with support, education and training to help make their transition to civilian life easier.
The military doesn't know how many of the medically released members served in Afghanistan, because this aspect is not tracked.
The Globe's investigation found that fear of being expelled from the army weighed on the minds of two mentally wounded soldiers, who, like Sgt. Martin, served in Afghanistan and were based in Gagetown near Fredericton.
Corporal Jamie McMullin took his life in June of 2011, on the same day he was given a medical designation that limited what he could do in the army. His father said his son worried this move would ultimately lead to his dismissal. Corporal Scott Smith didn't seek treatment for his mental scars because he feared doing so would scuttle his career, his family said. Cpl. Smith died by suicide this past December.
Former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran believes the universality-of-service rule needs to be drastically changed. He noted that in the civilian world, there is a duty to accommodate injured workers. Military members deserve the same treatment, he said.
Winnipeg lawyer Corey Shefman, who is representing a disabled veteran suing the government over her dismissal from the military in 2009, said he has received calls from soldiers and vets across the country who are suffering from the impact of the medical-release rule.
"These are people who have dedicated their lives and their careers to the Forces, who are perfectly capable of doing other work in the Forces, and are being told that the Forces aren't interested in that," Mr. Shefman said.
He and his client, Louise Groulx, will be watching the new government closely to see whether it finally overhauls the universality-of-service principal and allows more wounded members to serve. The government has not yet filed a statement of defence in response to the lawsuit filed last year. Several other universality-of-service lawsuits have been settled out of court.
"Louise is committed to seeing change to this policy," Mr. Shefman said. "She has made it clear to me if push comes to shove, she's taking this all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary."
Are you a military family with a similar story? E-mail reporter Renata D'Aliesio at RDaliesio@globeandmail.com as she continues to bring attention to this important issue.