Our veterans deserve better

When you think of a severely disabled veteran, Maj. Mark Campbell would like you to picture him.

When you think of a severely disabled veteran, Maj. Mark Campbell would like you to picture him.

The Edmonton-based soldier’s quality of life has been about as bad as it can be since he detonated a roadside bomb in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province in June 2008.

Shrapnel blew off both his legs above the knee, shredded a testicle, scarred what remained of his genitals, and ruptured his right eardrum.

Campbell’s horrific injuries effectively ended his military career, radically altered his relationship with his wife and children, and punched a sizeable hole in his financial security.

Campbell still serves in the Canadian Forces in a limited capacity, although he says he dies a little bit inside each time he dons the uniform.

Once a proud defender of this nation and a provider for his family, Campbell has been reduced to the role of a “third child” who can’t change a light bulb, much less participate in military exercises or command troops.

How much compensation should our most severely disabled soldiers receive for sacrificing one leg for their country? For two? How about a testicle, an eardrum or the myriad of other mental and physical challenges that face soldiers and their families after they return home from the front?

Under the New Veteran’s Charter, the answer is the same regardless of how many limbs are left on the battlefield: a one-time lump sum payment of up to $276,000, and monthly payments equal to 75 per cent of the soldier’s wage, based on the salary and rank at the time of release, only until he or she returns to the civilian workforce.

For a severely disabled veteran such as Campbell, $276,000 barely covers a wheelchair accessible minivan and moving to a barrier-free home.

The situation is even more dire for the lowest ranking soldiers. A private who is unable to make the transition to a civilian job faces the prospect of supporting a family on as little as $24,000.

In short, veterans and their families are saddled with the costs of a severe disability, and they’re expected to take a 25 per cent pay cut to boot. Families no longer receive a spousal allowance, children allowances, attendant’s allowance or an Exceptional Incapacity Allowance, either.

Talk about adding insult to injury.

Campbell makes no effort to contain his disgust for the system. The charter is “crap,” “a grotesque travesty,” an “abject betrayal” by the government of Canada to a generation of veterans.

He believes returning to an injury-based compensation system, coupled with a lump-sum payment and a monthly series of allowances, would provide soldiers and their families with a reasonable standard of living and long-term financial security.

That Campbell would speak out against the charter at all is a testament to the man’s courage, considering how the Conservative government has gone to war against its critics in the past.

Pat Stogran, Canada’s first-ever veterans ombudsman, spent three years fighting for the services and benefits Canada was obligated to provide veterans. When he exposed how badly they and their spouses were being treated by Veterans Affairs, the Conservative government declined to appoint him to a second term, all but silencing him.

The Conservative also took aim at Capt. Sean Bruyea for his vocal criticism of the charter. Bruyea, who retired due to the medical consequences of his deployment to Qatar during the Gulf War, was shocked to learn more than 50 bureaucrats with Veterans Affairs had raided his medical and psychiatric reports. Some material ended up in briefing notes, and it was used to launch a smear campaign against him.

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn promised to discipline the bureaucrats responsible. Rather than fire them, however, he issued written reprimands and three-day suspensions because there was no evidence officials “intended to harm” Bruyea. Besides, a lot of time has elapsed since the breaches, Blackburn concluded. Bruyea still can’t believe it.

Our veterans deserve better.

They deserve a Veterans Affairs minister who respects them, defends their interests, and punishes those who do not. Blackburn has failed on all counts.

They deserve bureaucrats who are capable of drafting compensation packages and programs that reflect the gravity of their sacrifice and accept constructive criticism without resorting to petty vindictiveness when they fall short. Veterans Affair’s bureaucrats and the New Veteran’s Charter have failed to do that.

And they deserve Canadians who are so outraged when they hear how badly the government has treated veterans, some of whom now wonder whether they would have been better off coming home in a body bag, that they demand change. We have failed to do that.

Campbell’s request is simple: provide all wounded and disabled veterans with the financial security and quality of life they deserve.

Canadians respect their veterans too much to shirk that obligation.

Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.