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Lieutenant-General Charles Lamarre, the commander of the Military Personnel Command, the Canadian Forces, shown in this 2011 file photo, said much has changed over the past year in terms of easing the transition from the military to civilian life.Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press

The number of veterans facing financial hardship while waiting for their pensions has decreased dramatically over the past year as the public service depleted a massive backlog of unprocessed claims.

At the same time, says Lieutenant-General Charles Lamarre, the commander of the Military Personnel Command, the Canadian Forces recently instituted a new policy that says no member will be discharged until all of the administrative work for pensions and benefits has been completed.

For years, soldiers, sailors and aviators have complained that their departure from the military has been abrupt and that too many loose ends are left dangling, including the processing of their postretirement income. This week, former lieutenant Doug Jost proposed a class-action suit against the government after his first pension cheque was delayed for more than six months, leaving him in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy.

Read more: Veteran sues Ottawa over pension-payment delays

But much has changed over the past year in terms of easing the transition from the military to civilian life, Lt.-Gen Lamarre said, including the speed with which pensions are processed.

"We have a moral obligation to do this properly," he said on Wednesday in a telephone interview. "Once folks have decided to come and serve and work with you for a significant portion of their lives, their exit from the military should be made simple and it should be straight forward and it should be well co-ordinated. And we're realizing that we have to pick it up in that respect."

Gary Walbourne, the Defence Ombudsman, said in April of last year that his office was receiving, on average, two new complaints each day about pensions.

"Few retiring soldiers, sailors and aviators have savings set aside to handle months of delays before they receive any retirement income," Mr. Walbourne said. "In extreme cases, retiring members have been left unable to pay their mortgages or rent while awaiting their pensions."

Mr. Jost retired on July 1, 2015, and did not get any money from his military retirement plan until January, 2016, a problem the Defence department attributed to its outdated processes and computers. In July, 2016, a backlog of 13,549 military pension request files was waiting to be processed.

"We were well behind at that point," Lt.-Gen. Lamarre said.

But the job of processing the pensions was turned over to Public Service Procurement Canada (PSPC) that month. By May, 2017, the backlog had been reduced to fewer than 3,000 cases, most of them related to reservists, whose attendance sheets and service records were not always well maintained. "We do think the PSPC has proven to be extremely good at this, and kudos to them," Lt.-Gen. Lamarre said. "And the teams that are working through the backlog are confident that we are going to achieve that by the end of December of this year."

Meanwhile, he said, a new service standard is in place that means military personnel who complete the required forms within a specified time will get their first pension cheque within 30 days of leaving the service.

And the new defence policy calls for the creation of a Canadian Armed Forces transition group that will provide support to retiring soldiers, who will spend their last month in uniform preparing for their post-military lives. The defence policy also calls for expanding the regular and reserve forces by 5,000 members. It is Lt.-Gen. Lamarre's job to make the military an enticing place to build a career, and fixing problems with pensions is part of that.

"If things are going well, if folks are well administered, if they work in an environment that's free of harassment or inappropriate behaviour, if they work in a place where they know the chain of command is going to be looking after their well-being and the well-being of their families," he said, "then all of that becomes part of one of those organizations you want to work for."

The Canadian Armed Forces will get 5,000 new troops and an extra $13.9-billion in annual funding within 10 years under a federal plan released Wednesday. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the plan sets a “new course” for the military.

The Canadian Press