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Ex-soldier will tackle Canadian veterans' complaints

A seasoned soldier was appointed yesterday as Canada's first ombudsman to oversee the litany of complaints and concerns of veterans both past and present.

Colonel Pat Stogran served as commander of the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Afghanistan in 2002.

He will be retiring from the military, where he is currently in charge of science and technology research and will officially take up his new post, which he described as a labour of love, on Remembrance Day.

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Col. Stogran will have his work cut out for him dealing with elderly veterans as they fight for benefits and with young, freshly discharged soldiers who face the possibility of being unemployed and without medical benefits for months because of a gap in the bureaucracy between the army and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The ceremony announcing his appointment was barely over before grey-haired veterans were shaking his hand and buttonholing him about their concerns.

"There are sorts of needs that have to addressed," said Col. Stogran, who started his military career as a rifle platoon commander.

"It's going to be a huge challenge. If there are systemic problems -- whether they are real or perceived in the minds of the veterans -- then it behooves us to take them on as a grateful country. If anything, I'm going to be somebody whom they can talk to."

Col. Stogran wouldn't comment on specific issues.

The Conservatives promised to create the position to address a chorus of complaints over the years from soldiers' groups and individuals who often perceive the Department of Veterans Affairs as indifferent and overly bureaucratic.

Col. Stogran said the system of complaints will be confidential, but also signalled that he doesn't intend to shy away from battles even if they are politically unpopular.

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"I'm not going to hesitate to call a spade a shovel, if you will," he said.

That was exactly what veterans, some of whom have been battling the system for decades, wanted to hear.

The federal budget set out $20-million annually to create the ombudsman's office and address concerns raised by former soldiers.

Last spring, the Conservatives said the new office's first major task would be helping soldiers who leave the military after their mission in Afghanistan.

The government has faced an enormous amount of pressure to live up to a promise Prime Minister Stephen Harper made, while in opposition, to the elderly widow of a Second World War veteran, involving the Veterans Independence Program.

In 2005, Mr. Harper told Joyce Carter of Cape Breton that a Conservative government would "immediately" expand the program, which provides housekeeping, home maintenance and home-care services to eligible veterans, and their spouses and widows.

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Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson said yesterday that the government is still working on fulfilling the promise and hinted that changes might come in the next federal budget.

The office, created in consultation with veterans groups, will operate at arm's length from the government and report annually to the minister of veterans affairs and to Parliament.

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