Skip to main content

It should be the easiest exercise imaginable for a government that likes to march to a martial drumbeat: Treat the country's armed forces well when they're recruited, when they're serving and, especially, when they return home. They are a Conservative Party's natural constituency.

Praise them on the way out and give them the help they need on their return, and reap the ensuing goodwill from a grateful country. It's as close to a win-win situation as you get with war. I'm not entirely sure why the federal government keeps falling at this hurdle. (Although, to be fair, it's hardly alone: Many governments around the world have treated their returning soldiers abysmally.)

It's ironic that the men and women who survive actual combat must return home to suffer the death of a thousand paper cuts, or slow strangulation by red tape, if you prefer. The latest indignity was revealed last week in a report by the Auditor-General that found the government has been failing veterans who need mental-health treatment.

"Veterans Affairs Canada needs to do more to overcome the barriers that slow veterans' access to services and benefits," Auditor-General Michael Ferguson said. His report is instructive reading for anyone who's tried to cut through a thicket of bureaucracy, never mind who's done it while struggling with post-tramautic stress disorder or some other mental-health burden. In essence, Veterans Affairs thinks it's doing a fine job of assessing claimants for long-term care within four months – but Mr. Ferguson found that it takes many veterans eight months or longer before they're even approved for care. Sometimes, it can take years.

The application is "complex and time consuming," the report found. A veteran must be assessed by a health-care professional before applying, but those consultations can take months to arrange. There are delays getting the requisite military and medical records from the Department of National Defence. For thousands of servicemen and women, it's an unconscionable delay. As the report notes, the number of veterans needing support will only increase "as those with service in Afghanistan return to civilian life."

Let's not forget that the Prime Minister welcomed back the last of those returning veterans in March with the words, "the people of Afghanistan are better off today because of Canada's investments. These are your accomplishments, your glory and, sadly, also your sacrifice." As General Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff, said at the time: "Many men and women in uniform were also injured, both mentally and physically, as a result of their work in Afghanistan. And we will pledge to continue taking good care of them."

If they can wait long enough, that is. The government just announced an extra $200-million in funding for mental-health support, which conveniently landed just before the Auditor-General's report did. The problem, The Globe's Gloria Galloway reported, is that most of that money isn't going to be injected into the system now, but parcelled out in dribs and drabs over the "lifetime" of those needing it. We're not talking tomorrow, but up to 50 years from now. That, in technical terms, is what you call throwing an anchor to a drowning man. Or you could call it a bitterly cynical political exercise.

Canada's not alone in treating its veterans poorly. In Britain, a parliamentary report last month found that there were "shocking" delays in service people getting compensation for certain injuries, and that untreated mental health issues and alcohol abuse were rampant. David Finkel's magnificent book Thank You For Your Service chronicles the struggles U.S. veterans face returning to life after combat. "Every war has its after-war," Mr. Finkel says, "and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans." There are fewer of those wounded here, but that doesn't make their problems less pressing.

In a few years, we'll be celebrating the country's 150th birthday, and I have no doubt that Canada's military past, its sacrifices at Vimy Ridge and Dieppe, will play a major part in the spectacle. The Never Forgotten National Memorial, that hulking, government-favoured monument to the fallen, may even be built in Cape Breton National Park. It's easier to valorize the silent dead than the inconvenient living, who came back to fight a war of a different kind.