Repeated from the Toronto Star, August 18, 2010, by Allan Woods and Christopher Pike
OTTAWA – Col. Pat Stogran, a retired infantry officer, has spent the last three years advocating better treatment for Canada’s wounded veterans. But the federal ombudsman only realized the enormity of the battle he was fighting after a recent conversation with a civil servant who watches over the government’s purse. “I was told … that it is in the government’s best interests to have soldiers killed overseas rather than wounded because the liability is shorter term,” Stogran said.
For the former Canadian commander in Afghanistan, it was a revealing answer to a stunning problem. The government’s treatment of soldiers and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers who have sacrificed their limbs, mental health and lives for the country was a question of dollars and cents.
In some cases, said veterans who joined Stogran at a news conference Tuesday, Ottawa is even using tax dollars to avoid paying compensation to veterans. The fight against Kenneth Young, who said he was exposed to the deadly chemical known as Agent Orange at CFB Gagetown in the 1970s, has cost some $8 million, the former army soldier said. At least $1 million has been spent fighting a class action suit brought by 6,500 veterans to stop the government from cutting their long-term disability insurance benefits by the amount of their monthly disability pension from Veterans Affairs Canada, said Dennis Manuge, who left the military for medical reasons in 2003 and is leading the lawsuit.
The years of struggle against bureaucrats at Veteran’s Affairs Canada has shaken these once proud soldiers’ faith in their governments and in their countries. Manuge, who fought back tears, his hands trembling, said his frustration has him on the verge of “ultra radicalism” when he should be preparing for the birth of his first child in December. Even Stogran, who fondly recalled his “gun-slinging” year in Bosnia and felt commanding troops in Kandahar was the peak of his 30-year career, has his doubts. “After two and a half years in this job it would be tough for me to say to a young person, ‘You know what? You want to join the Canadian Forces.’”
While the treatment of Canada’s wounded should be improving with the climbing casualties from the decade-long deployment to Afghanistan, it has actually gotten worse in some respects.
Paul Franklin, who lost both legs in a January 2006 suicide bombing, was actually one of the lucky ones. Back in Canada, he was offered a choice between the outgoing system for disability payments – $4,000 a month for the remainder of his life – or compensation under the new system, a $250,000 lump sum payment. “I did the math real quick and $4,000 a month works out to $2 million if I live 40 more years,” he said. “It was a no-brainer.”
Michael Barnewell, 29, injured just 10 months later, never had Franklin’s easy choice. “With a lump sum payment, the problem is that it’s not enough. You either try to use it now and then it’s gone so you don’t have it for the future, or you try to invest it for the future and what do you do now?” he said. “Under that old system, when you get those payments, you’re just taken care of. It’s just such security. It’s always there. It just comes.’’
But that security has been eroded by tight-fisted officials and a Conservative government that promised to honour the country’s soldiers and veterans but has left them feeling abandoned, Stogran said. Stogran chose against an outright attack on his elected political masters, but did circulate a 2002 Canadian Alliance political pamphlet in which then-leader Stephen Harper promises to defend Canadian soldiers the way that they have defended the country.
Speaking in Mississauga, the prime minister sidestepped the strident criticism from Storgan in recent days and said the government is open to suggestions that could improve future programs. But like other federal watchdogs who have either been fired or undermined by the government, the Tories may just bide their time until Stogran’s term expires in November and his pulpit evaporates.
Until then, the ombudsman has made it clear he intends to make life difficult for the government by exposing what he calls the shameless treatment of Canada’s veterans and urging Canadians to advocate for change. “These are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters. The time is now to do something about it. Make sure this government understands that this must stop.”