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Politics Discharge rule for disabled soldiers must stay in place, general says

General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, says all soldiers must meet the universality of service rule, which stipulates they must be mentally and physically capable of deploying on short notice to any location.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The head of the Canadian Forces says he understands it is "gut-wrenching" for some disabled soldiers to be discharged as a result of their injuries, but the military will maintain its rule that all members must be physically and mentally able to deploy anywhere, at any time.

Many military men and women who served in Afghanistan have been forced to return to civilian life because their wounds left them unable to meet a number of fundamental military tasks or to deploy on short notice to any geographical location. It is known as the universality of service rule, and some former soldiers say it caused them more anguish than their actual injuries, and some with mental problems say they suffered in silence out of fear they would be discharged if they came forward.

But General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said there are many reasons why the standard cannot be dropped, even for those who were permanently injured in the line of duty yet are capable of performing a job in Canada.

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"We are a small armed forces; everybody's got to be able to pitch in all the way," Gen. Vance said in a telephone interview on Tuesday with The Globe and Mail.

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr held a two-day meeting with representatives of veterans associations in Ottawa this week that included a question-and-answer session that was open to the public.

Brian McKenna, a former warrant officer from New Westminster, B.C., asked if there was any way that the universality of service rule could be changed to accommodate people like him who did not want their military careers to end.

"As someone who has been removed from the military – against my own will, essentially – that was actually the hardest day of my career," said Mr. McKenna, a veteran of multiple deployments who was discharged as a result of a long-standing neck injury, posttraumatic stress disorder and a gastrointestinal issue he picked up in Afghanistan.

"Is there any way that we can review the strictness of the rule of universality of service?" he asked. "Is there not a way we can be retaining more of these people in the Forces, in either civilian jobs that are within [the Defence Department] or in some other way that we get to serve Canada?"

Mr. Hehr did not answer the question directly. When it was posed to him again later during a news conference, he said he is working with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to ensure that disabled soldiers get the help they need to stay in the military and, when that is not possible, to make an easier transition to civilian life.

Gen. Vance agreed that the process of humanely discharging disabled soldiers needs improvement. The military, he said, is working diligently with Veterans Affairs Canada on "this whole issue of closing the gaps and seams as one transitions from healthy activity service to transition out to retirement. I think we could do a better job at that."

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But "it's unlikely that we'll change the universality of service policy," Gen. Vance said. "It is gut-wrenching for them to have to leave. But one of the reasons they joined as a soldier in the first place is because they were joining a high-performance organization that gets things done for the country."

Even in domestic deployments, it would be impractical to go through the ranks to figure out which members of the military were capable of actively taking part, the general explained.

And if the Canadian Forces allowed its disabled members to stay on in a less strenuous capacity, people who want to join the military but are incapable of meeting the universality of service standards would argue that they should not be prevented from enlisting. "What would happen," Gen. Vance asked, "if we were now required to accept people in as brand-new recruits who were also incapable of doing a full range of military tasks?"

In addition, he said, a career in the Canadian Forces would not be satisfying for someone who is constrained by their disability. "You are going to be limited," he said. "And that's not fair to them and to those who are relying on them to do the job."

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