By Rene Bruemmer — Originally appeared in Montreal Gazette; Postmedia News March 2, 2012 3:09 AM
Jayson Nickol loved his life in the military until a Taliban bullet shattered his right leg.
It wasn’t the injury that soured the relationship – he knew the risks when he volunteered to go to Afghanistan. It was the 2-1/2-year battle with Veterans Affairs Canada over disability pay.
“I almost got more stressed over that than when I got shot,” Nickol, 27, said from his home in Winnipeg.
Nickol was on a reconnaissance mission with his platoon in June 2008 when they were ambushed.
The bullet split Nickol’s thigh bone in half and shredded all the muscle in his upper leg. So much adrenalin was coursing through him he didn’t know what happened until he saw his leg bent unnaturally behind him “and then I knew something was really wrong.”
Nickol was airlifted to the Kandahar Air Field hospital, then to Germany and finally home. He thought he would heal in a couple weeks and go back on tour.
In reality, it would take nearly three years of surgeries, bone grafts, rods in his legs and physiotherapy before he could walk properly. He can no longer play hockey or run. At 23, his dream of a life in the military, of trying out for special forces after his tour, is gone.
In terms of his physical needs, Nickol said the military provided excellent service, with supportive staff and dedicated care. Psychological counselling and financial aid were another matter.
The waiting list for an interview with a counsellor was two months “unless you told them you were going to kill someone.”
When Nickol told his counsellor he was having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) issues and he couldn’t sleep, he was offered pills.
He was already taking a lot of medication for his leg. “I didn’t want to be a 25-year-old guy popping as many pills as an 80-year-old with a heart problem,” he said. After he refused to take the pills, “there was no more counselling.”
He and his wife chose to get help from the Deer Lodge Operational Stress Institute in Winnipeg, run by Veterans Affairs. “It was lots better there – they actually sat down with you and listened.
“Is it (the insomnia) getting better? Not really, but I try to pretend.”
Nickol had to wait a year to apply for disability pay. His application was denied three times, the first time because he didn’t fill out the paperwork correctly. “How does the system work so that a soldier cannot get paid because he didn’t understand the paperwork? That’s absolutely ridiculous.”
The second time he was offered a $6,000 lump-sum payment. He appealed the decision. Then he was offered $27,000. He appealed that, too. Each time it would take four to six months to reach a decision. He likened his interactions to dealing with a skinflint insurance company. “If you don’t fight it, they won’t give it to you.”
After 2-1/2 years, he won the right to a $65,000 lump-sum payment. But his sense of victory was dampened when he learned a veteran friend with a similar injury, sustained while falling off a ladder during a training exercise, is receiving $1,200 month until age 65.
The compensation came under the monthly disability pension program that was in effect until the federal government implemented the New Veterans Charter in 2006.
Had Nickol qualified under that system, he could have received $576,000.
The Canadian military can be a great opportunity for an unskilled high school graduate to make $50,000 annually, Nickol said.
But if you get injured, “you’re getting shafted big-time. The old pension made much more sense – if you had to leave the army, you’re still technically getting paid because you sacrificed while you were in the army. You’re not getting penalized because you got injured in the army.
“It’s pretty bogus when the government does that to soldiers just so it can save money. That’s basically what it ended up coming down to.”
The whole reason the government changed the system, in Nickol’s opinion, was “so they could save millions of dollars. There’s no doubt about it.”
Saying it had to modernize to reflect the new, unwrinkled face of the Canadian veteran, the federal government revamped legislation governing benefits for retiring and disabled soldiers in 2006. The New Veterans Charter, introduced by the Liberals under Paul Martin, backed by all parties and passed by the newly elected Harper Conservatives, was designed to meet the complex needs of veterans from the war in Afghanistan.
Young soldiers didn’t want to sit at home, waiting for a cheque in the mail, reasoned the government. They wanted work in civilian society and to live fulfilled lives. The Veterans Charter would provide that by offering improved counselling, vocational training and one-on-one case management.
Veterans at the time warned that the new charter also drastically cut disability payments at a time when thousands were coming home wounded from Afghanistan. The changes, critics said, were all about saving the government millions at the expense of soldiers permanently disabled in the line of duty.
In today’s Edmonton Journal are the personal stories of two young veterans who were injured while serving their country and their thoughts about how Veterans Affairs Canada has served them.