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Soldiers afraid of being discharged are hiding mental health issues, ombudsman says

Pierre Daigle, ombudsman for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces, has received numerous complaints about severance and pegs the waiting time between nine and 17 months.

Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Younger soldiers, sailors and air force personnel are holding off seeking help for mental health problems for fear they'll be deemed unfit for service and lose the right to a pension and other benefits, the Canadian Forces ombudsman says.

Pierre Daigle told a Senate committee Wednesday that because Forces members do not earn a pension until they have served 10 years, this encourages some to wait until they've reached that milestone before asking the military for mental health counselling and other aid.

He says the military should amend its fitness-of-service rules so that serving members don't have to keep their need for help secret.

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Mr. Daigle said he's raised the matter with the Forces and has been told that the military is not willing to make adjustments to what's called its "universality of service" rule. It says members must be fully capable of serving anywhere the Forces need to deploy them.

Alain Gauthier, director general of operations with the ombudsman's office, told the Senate committee on veterans' affairs that soldiers pay a big price if they leave the military before they reach a decade of service.

"The 10-year threshold is a significant issue," he told senators. When it comes to Forces members who may be just years away from this milestone, "we're seeing they're hesitant to come forward," Mr. Gauthier said.

A spokeswoman for Defence Minister Rob Nicholson's office said the Forces prefers to keep members if it can.

"The military's number one priority for ill and injured members is to have them return to work. Every possible accommodation is made to ensure that these soldiers are kept in the forces and provided with the best possible support before being considered for release," Johanna Quinney, press secretary for Mr. Nicholson, said.

The  Department of National Defence and the Canadian military have been trying to encourage Forces members to come forward and ask for help.  Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, tweeted a few days ago about his personal experience. "Mental health challenges are real. Don't be afraid to reach out for help. I did and my career and relationships flourished," Vice-Adm. Norman said.

The ombudsman's office, however, says there are lots of things at stake for Forces members with less than 10 years service if treatment doesn't restore them to what the Forces deems to be full fitness.

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Mr. Gauthier says people who leave before their first decade not only lose the pension – although contributions are returned to them – but they also lose the ability to apply for membership in a public service health care plan and a dental service plan. "These are significant money-wise and it creates a barrier," he said.

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