A decade after government officials passed around his confidential medical files in what appeared to be an effort to discredit him, veterans' advocate Sean Bruyea has successfully defended a master's thesis calling upon Ottawa to do more to assist retiring soldiers as they transition to civilian life.
It has been a long road for Mr. Bruyea, a former Air Force intelligence officer who returned from the Gulf War with post-traumatic stress disorder so severe that he had lost his ability to read a page of text. His nearly 200-page thesis received top marks last Thursday from his professors at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.
His drive to obtain respect and fair compensation for those who have served their country has never wavered, even as he fended off what he describes as attempts on the part of government to use his psychiatric record to portray his advocacy as the manifestation of an unstable mind.
After the privacy breach was exposed, the government paid him a settlement out of court and issued a formal apology. But the episode left its scars.
"For them to personally attack me really speaks to the most base and vindictive motives on the part of government," Mr. Bruyea said. "That took huge tolls on me. It took huge tolls on my family life. And I need to understand that I was separate from them. I wasn't their vindictiveness, I wasn't their revenge, I was something more than that. And I continue to want to be more than that."
Mr. Bruyea's public ethics thesis, which he hopes will be published as a book, looks at the conditioning required of soldiers, sailors and air force men and women to make them part of the cohesive and unquestioning collective that is the Canadian military – and the jarring loss they experience when they leave it.
"Every Canadian that joins the military undergoes an incredible transformation process where there is a fundamental change to who they are, and to their identity, to become military. And yet, they receive absolutely no assistance whatsoever to get out of the military," he said after being congratulated for his work by the professors who evaluated it.
"My thesis," he said, "proposes that we have an obligation to each and every military member to help them shrug off those military influences that may not be helpful in civilian life."
He pulls no punches in the document. "Why are CF [Canadian Forces] members required to adhere so stringently, with life threatening implications, to principles of consistency and reciprocity with 'Canadian society' when Canadian society has absolutely no requirement whatsoever to reciprocate with CF members on any level?" he asks in the final chapter.
He says it is wrong that the amount of compensation provided to veterans has become tied to the ups and downs of the economy and the size of the government purse. Veterans, he said, are owed for their service, regardless of governments' fiscal priorities.
"Canada needs to reflect and reciprocate the same sacrifice that every military member gives in uniform," Mr. Bruyea said. "They need to reciprocate that sacrifice and assist everyone to transition out of the military, with more than just job-seeking assistance, but in every manner possible – in their psychological, social, emotional, spiritual well-being – to become part of the very society for which they were willing to sacrifice themselves."
In 2005, Mr. Bruyea was the first Canadian to point out the flaws in the New Veterans Charter, which was drafted by a former Liberal government and enacted by the Conservatives in 2006. It replaced a lifetime pension for disabled soldiers with a system based largely on lump-sum payments. He said it left current disabled veterans with much less than their predecessors got.
By 2010, the outcry from Mr. Bruyea and those who joined his campaign for a better deal, or who started their own, was creating headaches for the Conservative government, which prided itself on being a defender of the military and its members. As the violations of Mr. Bruyea's privacy were coming to light, veterans were protesting in the streets and in the news media.
A veterans affairs minister was fired, and the Conservative government began enhancing benefits used to compensate former members of the military for the illnesses and disabilities they incurred as a result of their service. The most recent Liberal budget continued that, although many veterans say there is still a long way to go.
Louise Richard, a retired navy lieutenant who was among the earliest veterans to start demanding a better deal, credits Mr. Bruyea with forcing the government to look at veterans' compensation.
"There's just no words to express the valuable work that Sean has done through the years for, mainly, the modern-day veterans," said Ms. Richard, who has worked with Mr. Bruyea and attended his thesis defence. "Just to be witness to [the] journey he has had and the difficulties he has overcome, he is a true Canadian hero."
Today, Mr. Bruyea is enjoying life as a father to his four-year-old son, Wilfred, and husband to his wife, Carolina, who has been with him though all his travails. And he plans to expand his advocacy with his new academic credentials.
One of his fights will be for a workable transition process to civilian life for those who are still in the Forces.
"Veterans deserve more than rhetoric and lip service and words like 'sacred trust' and 'moral obligation,'" he said. "We need to define what that means. Veterans need something tangible to help them to become civilians again."