To make up the gap left by bureaucratic ditherings, caring veterans and advocates are forming charitable foundations to appeal to the public for direct help. Perhaps the fastest growing organization is V.E.T.S. — Veterans Emergency Transition Services — established in 2011.
V.E.T.S. is a volunteer-led apolitical nonprofit organization providing aid and comfort to Canadian veterans at risk.
The movement has chapters established in all the Maritime provinces with new locations starting in Ottawa, Calgary and B.C. and was founded by Jim Lowther (on the right), a veteran of two tours to Bosnia and part of the first wave of Canadian troops to enter Afghanistan after 9-11. Jim’s partner, Roland Lawless (on the left), a veteran who served in Bosnia, had a 20-year military career before he was released for medical reasons. He was sinking into hopelessness when his doctor gave him Jim’s phone number. The hand Jim extended to him gave Roland a reason to live. Both men suffer from PTSD, so the hands-on help they offer the military’s lost souls stems from understanding and empathy.
With a boots-on-the-ground approach, V.E.T.S. searches for veterans among the homeless. As Jim explains, “We are ground support for Veterans, meaning we go looking for homeless Vets, and when we find them, we help get them housing and point them in the direction to help themselves. We follow them until they are back on their feet.”
Helping homeless vets means that V.E.T.S. teams spend day and night looking for homeless vets adrift on city streets. Sometimes they bring those they find into their own homes until the immediate necessities of life, such as food, shelter and clothing, can be arranged. After these homeless vets are stabilized, V.E.T.S. connects them with programs and transition services available through Veterans Affairs Canada that fit their specific needs.
The eventual goal of V.E.T.S. is to set up transitional housing to help homeless veterans get off the street, find work, and adjust to normal life.
The objectives of V.E.T.S. official rescue mission state:
a. to identify Canadian veterans who are in difficult circumstances while awaiting support from Veterans Affairs Canada;
b. to assemble a complete list of all government agencies and non-profit resources that could provide assistance to veterans related to their housing, health and legal needs;
c. to pursue the development of appropriate shelter for homeless veterans;
d. to act as a referral service or bridge, assisting veterans to access appropriate supports and services; and
e. to monitor the legislative changes relevant to the situation of these veterans in order to provide them the most up-to-date information.
With Jim and the backing of CanadianVeterans Advocacy, a number of volunteers are spearheading their “Pennies for Veterans” campaign.
Formerly homeless himself, one vet has built himself a small stand, which on sunny days he takes to various big-box malls such as Wal-Mart and promotes V.E.T.S. and their need to collect pennies. “The humour in that,” he writes, “is that the whole time I was homeless, I never begged for change.”
This admission zeroes in on the plight of homeless vets that few Canadians understand or recognize. Soldiers are proud; soldiers do not goldbrick; soldiers do not beg. But along with that ingrained belief system is the breakdown of their survival instincts. They are truly adrift on city streets across Canada until V.E.T.S. teams find them.
How do they find them? In the brotherhood and sisterhood of the armed forces, veterans recognize each other.
With the increase of media interviews, the need across the country is building national attention. Some citizens like Joan Justus Leppik are organizing fundraiser socials to increase awareness of PTSD and support for the V.E.T.S. mission. Much of the Pennies for Veterans Campaign, in which banks across the country collect donations and deposit them into a special account established by the Canadian Veterans Advocacy, goes to direct payment to support V.E.T.S. programs.
As great as these increasing activities are, the growth of homeless vets across Canada is expected to rise with the return of Afghanistan vets according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Western Ontario. This study confirms V.E.T.S. position: many vets feel abandoned by their government and don’t know where to turn for help. Often their slide into homelessness takes years, so the study recommends that emergency transitional programs need to be developed as long-term and enduring services. They are not temporary band aids to fix the broken souls and bodies of our wounded warriors.
Perhaps the most publicized attention brought to a homeless vet last year was centered on Fabien Melanson, who went on a 11-day hunger strike in front of Veterans Affairs Canada’s headquarters in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
Briefly, like Jim Lowther, Fabien served in Bosnia and witnessed terrible attrocities, as did many Canadian peacekeepers on that mission. Again, like Rwanda, Kosovo, Cambodia, Haiti — to name a few of the UN missions our Canadian peacekeepers have served on, these two men were prevented from intervening and forced to watch as helpless witnesses of inhuman horrors.
In 1993, Cpl. Fabien Melanson helped rescue an abandoned hospital in Bosnia. The condition of the patients when the peacekeepers finally reached them, especially disabled and mentally handicapped children, was unimaginable. This experience haunted Fabien. Eventually, his resulting PTSD handicapped him too.
What desperation drove him to go on a hunger strike in 2011? A bureaucratic error. VAC’s error took five months to fix. In the meantime, Fabien received no pension. Broke, he lost his house, which he had been renovating. In 2012, his house remains in disrepair.
What did his hunger strike achieve? An apology from VAC. Says Jeff-Rose Martland, who has been faithfully following Fabien’s story, “VAC doesn’t ‘have a mechanism’ for compensating Fabien for the impact of their error and the time it took to fix. Fabien is still homeless, with a mortgage on a house he can’t live in.”
It’s time Canadians stopped for a moment and stepped into the shoes of our service people. Imagine yourself raised with charitable morals forced to do nothing while human beings are mutilated and treated like garbage directly in front of you. The impact of these experiences on troops raised with the same morals as you has been devastating to them. Yet, our government has acted brain-dead in recognizing the tremendous need and responsibility we have to provide treatment and programs for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of serving on these missions.
Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and the Department of National Defence (DND) have failed to plan for the human cost in the missions our governments have assigned to our military. Instead, they have used them like pins on a map — inanimate expendible markers — in their strategic games.
We, the people of Canada, are the benefactors of the sacrifies our servicepeople have made on our behalf. Now they need us to step up to the plate to defend and ensure they receive the best care and attention possible. YOU can start with helping V.E.T.S. rescue homeless vets and Jeff find assistance to rebuild Fabien’s house.
In the U.S., both stories would qualify for two episodes in “extreme makeover.” Lets see our Canadian spirit rise to these cries for help.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
1.) Jeff-Rose Martland, president of Our Duty Inc., who advocates on behalf of veterans, tells Fabien’s story andh ow you can contribute on his website: OUR DUTY
2.) You can visit V.E.T.S. and make donations directly to its official website: http://www.vetscanada.org/ or watch this video about homeless vets. To donate your pennies, just follow the directions: Pennies for Canadian VetsPosted by Bonnie Toews, February 16, 2012 3:09 p.m.