In 2006, Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war. It was the height of the conflict, and for coalition forces, things were not going particularly well. In the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban's weapons of choice, improvised explosive devices, were causing widespread casualties.
Canada's contingent in Afghanistan was among the hardest hit. In 2006, out of a Canadian force of 2,500 troops, 36 died and 264 were injured. It was an exceptionally high casualty rate, testifying to the intensity of the fight that our soldiers had been sent into. Over the next three years, the number of Canadian wounded climbed, and the dead never numbered less than 30 per year. In 2007, Canadian soldiers were dying at twice the rate of their American and British counterparts.
While Canadian troops fought the Taliban on a daily basis in Kandahar, back in Ottawa politicians voted unanimously for a New Veterans Charter. It was the biggest overhaul of veterans programs and services since the Second World War. At the time, Liberal veterans affairs minister Albina Guarnieri promised the bill would mean "cash, care and careers," for new veterans. In Canada, the public's enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan was buckling, but support for Canada's soldiers never flagged. Ms. Guarnieri touted the new charter as "the signature of a grateful nation."
Today, we know that nothing could be further from the truth. A recent spate of soldier suicides has highlighted in the most tragic terms how Canada is failing its injured veterans. The New Veterans Charter is central to this debate. Under the old rules, a veteran found to be fully or partially disabled was entitled to financial support for life. Under the new charter, lifetime support payments were replaced with a single lump-sum amount, to a maximum of $250,000.
It's a paltry sum for any disabled vet, but particularly so for younger ones who, having just returned from combat, are faced with overwhelming uncertainty, few job prospects and a lifetime of family responsibilities. Soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder also say that, for many, it even deters them from seeking help they need to treat mental illness. And that could prove fatal.
One soldier, Wayne Johnston, a 41-year military veteran who has PTSD and has twice made plans to take his own life, told The Globe that soldiers often feel cornered into a terrible calculation: If they seek help for PTSD, they risk medical discharge and losing their pension. That leads some to conclude they are worth more to their families dead than alive, he says.
Many of the soldiers returning from Afghanistan bear painful scars, both physical and mental. By the time Canada ended its military combat mission in Afghanistan, a total of 30,000 Canadian Forces personnel had passed through the country. One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers and four civilians died. Officially, nearly 2,000 were counted as wounded between 2002 and 2010.
But some injuries are more apparent than others: A study by military staff released in July found that 14 per cent of Canadian Forces members who served in Afghanistan were diagnosed with a mental health disorder linked directly to their tour – and more than half of those troops were suffering from PTSD. That's thousands of soldiers. And the highest proportion – 42.5 per cent – of those who suffer from PTSD are veterans who began receiving services from Veterans Affairs Canada after the new charter was enacted.
Guy Parent, the veterans ombudsman, has now concluded the New Veterans Charter was a mistake. It places too heavy a burden on injured veterans, leading many to worry about their family's financial stability at a time when they should be focused on their health. Instead of handing injured veterans a lifeline, the government is writing them a one-time cheque that does not go far enough. "It is simply not acceptable to let veterans who have sacrificed the most for their country…live their lives with unmet financial needs," the ombudsman's report says.
He predicts that under the New Charter, Canada's most severely injured veterans will slip into poverty. The report also highlights that most – 53 per cent – of veterans categorized as "totally and permanently incapacitated" are not receiving all of their entitled benefits and allowances. It's a bleak picture for any injured veteran. And for those soldiers who return from war suffering from psychological wounds, it can be enough to dissuade them from admitting they are injured.
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino recently announced the government will review the New Veterans Charter to assess if it is working in the best interest of Canadian troops. There is already overwhelming evidence that it is not. Boosting financial support for injured vets would be a relatively modest proposal; it would likely cost no more than tens of millions of dollars. In the grand scheme of things, it's not a lot.
Reacting to the string of soldier suicides earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper encouraged soldiers to "seek out the help they need." In a video message to troops, Tom Lawson, the Chief of the Defence Staff, echoed him, assuring that Canadian soldiers that "your brothers and sisters in arms are with you in the fight against mental illness." But the Canadian government needs to be there as well. That's why the New Veterans Charter needs an immediate reboot.
If Ottawa really wants to recognize the enormous sacrifices made by Canadian soldiers, here's a bit of advice: Stop short-changing them.