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Ottawa failing its troops, watchdog warns

Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on Aug. 17, 2010.


Retired colonel Pat Stogran launched an emotional appeal to all Canadians Tuesday, asking them to do whatever they can to pressure Ottawa to a better job of taking care of its military and RCMP veterans.

Seething with anger, soldiers who are struggling with various ailments - some life threatening - joined Canada's outgoing veterans ombudsman as he laid out the frustrations he's encountered during his two-and-a-half years in the position.

He and other Canadian Forces veterans told stories of epic and frustrating battles with the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy in an attempt to receive compensation for a wide-range of diseases, including ALS from experimental drugs and the ill-effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

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"What has become profoundly obvious to me as the veterans ombudsman is the only commitment that's changed is the commitment of our government to look after our veterans," Col. Stogran said in reference to a new veterans charter.

Col. Stogran said the root of the problem is that Veterans Affairs bureaucrats are keeping political ministers in the dark about the scope of the problems facing returning soldiers and are refusing to push for more money from powerful central departments like Treasury Board and the Privy Council Office.

"We have young people serving in Afghanistan today. It's rumoured that we might be coming out in 2011. They're going to be there until 2011 and I would sooner have them know that they're country is behind them and that we're building their morale," he said.

"I was told by a senior Treasury Board analyst, who shall remain nameless, that it is in the government's best interest to have soldiers killed overseas rather than wounded because the liability is shorter term."

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn was shocked by the comment. "Could you imagine that we would want to have one of our soldiers killed?" Mr. Blackburn told The Globe and Mail after Col. Stogran's news conference. "This is unimaginable. This is unbelievable. These are not our values."

The retired colonel played a leadership role for Canada in Serbia during the 1990s and led the first Canadian battalion to land in Afghanistan in 2002, scoping out what he called the dirty and cold terrain around Kandahar.

Col. Stogran suggested that his vocal advocacy on behalf of struggling veterans is the reason why the Conservative government has decided not to renew his term.

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He noted the problems he is raising are long-standing and cover both Liberal and Tory administrations. However, he focused most of his criticism on the most recent government policy shift, called the Veterans Charter.

Adopted in 2005 by the Liberal-led minority Parliament under Paul Martin, it was officially launched the following year by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as part of a package for veterans that included the new ombudsman position and a new Veterans Bill of Rights.

Speaking at a transit announcement in the Toronto area, Mr. Harper briefly touched on the issue in response to a reporter's question. "If the ombudsman has concerns, has suggestions, the government is open always to incorporate these suggestions in our future programs and I encourage him to work with us," he said in French.

With a report from John Ibbitson

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Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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