Roméo Dallaire is a former senator and retired lieutenant-general in the Canadian Armed Forces.
This Remembrance Day, in addition to reflecting on the sacrifices of those who lost their lives in war, we also need to turn our thoughts to those who succumb to mental injury incurred through active military service. After a decade of controversy and relative neglect, now is the time to recognize that they, too, are paying the ultimate price in the service of our country.
Thanks to The Globe and Mail's recent reporting, we now know that at least 59 Canadian soldiers took their lives following active service in Afghanistan. This should serve as a serious reminder of the overwhelming challenge awaiting our new federal government.
Last May, near the end of the previous Parliament, MPs unanimously adopted a motion recognizing the "social covenant" between Canada and those who serve with its military. Now, a new government has the chance to apply the social covenant principles and to at last match veterans' heroic service in the field with meaningful support on the home front.
The social covenant calls on the government to ensure 1) that members of the Canadian Armed Forces members and their families receive adequate health care, including the appropriate level of support to mitigate the consequences of both mental and physical injuries incurred during their service; 2) that a reasonable compensation program be put in place to allow military families to experience an acceptable standard of living as well as the ability to plan for a secure and stable financial future; 3) that CAF members have opportunities to reach their fullest potential in career achievements both within and outside military service; and 4) that they receive proper recognition by a grateful country for their service and sacrifice.
To achieve these goals, both our political and professional leadership must appreciate their urgency and centrality to the ultimate mission of the Armed Forces. The covenant is crucial to the capability and readiness of our troops. Our new uniformed leadership must regain their role in direct responsibility in tackling the challenge ahead.
The political leadership in the 42nd Parliament must provide the chain of command with the resources to accomplish this vital mission. The valuable, and necessary, investments we make in our equipment should be matched by our commitment to the one truly irreplaceable resource – our people.
The starting point of this mission should be to provide strategic direction for policy-makers throughout the system, to provide integrated services to veterans and their families as we look to improve the quality of their care.
Next, the gap must be closed between services provided by the Department of National Defence and access to programs and entitlements run by Veterans Affairs Canada. And finally, all of our fallen must be honoured, including those who succumb to operational stress injuries.
For so many veterans and their families, the point at which the fighting stops is not the end of their struggle. Modern technology has expanded the sphere of war's psychological and emotional impact. Whenever soldiers are deployed, their family members carry a tremendous emotional burden, as they consistently watch, in real time, the events and risks faced by their loved ones.
Once soldiers come home, families struggle to cope with their loved ones' mental injuries. They attempt to navigate our current system of care, but that system is inadequate and, all too often, leaves them alone in supporting wounded warriors.
By applying the principles of the social covenant, we will be better able to assist veterans and their families in overcoming not only the physical but also the psychological injuries incurred in conflict. Losing a veteran to suicide is not only tragic, but also robs us of our heroes, when they are very much within our reach.
Now is the time for Canada to restore faith and trust with our veterans and to build programs that meet their real needs, and those of their families. We owe them this, and nothing less.
Roméo Dallaire was once chairman of the Senate subcommittee on veterans affairs.