Veterans deserve a voice

As Canadians struggle today to reconcile our love of peace with the necessity of war, our government seems intent on minimizing both the sacrifice made on our behalf and the ongoing need for a Canadian military.

As Canadians struggle today to reconcile our love of peace with the necessity of war, our government seems intent on minimizing both the sacrifice made on our behalf and the ongoing need for a Canadian military.

A rational nation cannot enter into deadly struggle without misgivings. Certainly we will not all agree on how much of our national resources should be devoted to employing, equipping and deploying our military. Nor will we agree on how many lives we can sacrifice without pause or retreat.

In all, we have about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan at any one time. Since our forces arrived there in February 2002, 152 Canadian soldiers have been killed and more than 1,100 have been injured. Countless others suffer from psychological problems as a result of their service in Afghanistan. (As well, four Canadian civilians — a journalist, a diplomat and two aid workers — have been killed.)

The sacrifice these Canadians have made over the last eight years is immense. The scars are deep and lasting — and so too should our gratitude be.

Yet our nation cannot seem to honour these and other veterans with grace and generosity.

No Canadian should quibble about how much we will spend to care for veterans after their service, and to care for the families of veterans who died in the service of this nation at any time over the last century.

Nor should any Canadians — most fundamentally the federal Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper — ever belittle the contributions of military men and women by being seen to mute the voices that speak on behalf of veterans.

Pat Stogran, who will today be replaced by Harper’s government as the national veterans ombudsman, commanded Canada’s first battle group in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2002. The retired colonel has questioned our role in Afghanistan, just as he has advocated staunchly for veterans.

His outspoken three-year term as Canada’s first veterans ombudsman comes to an end today, when he is replaced by Guy Parent, a former chief warrant officer.

The government inexplicably maintains the power to hire and fire ombudsmen whose role it is to represent veterans in their disputes with that same government.

Stogran has pointedly criticized the federal government for its failure to fulfil its promises to veterans, for reducing support to wounded veterans and for withholding vital documentation. Personal files of aggrieved veterans have been callously passed through bureaucrats’ and politicians’ hands. So little respect seems to remain in the halls of power for these brave men and women.

Veterans of all ages protested for better compensation — and more respect — on the weekend, appealing to MPs across the country.

“It’s just like Veterans Affairs Canada just doesn’t give a damn,” Gary Stewart, a retired veteran of 34 years, told an Advocate reporter outside Red Deer MP Earl Dreeshen’s office on Saturday. His claim for a post-traumatic stress disorder disability pension has been denied.

It is a dangerous thing for a government still entrenched in a war in Afghanistan to treat its veterans — and, ultimately, its current soldiers — with disrespect.

Disrespect will inevitably lead to declining recruitment numbers, and down the slippery slope the Canadian Forces will go.

Today we mourn the loss of 42,789 Canadians in the Second World War (another 97,988 were wounded and countless others were or still are haunted by the memories).

Today we pay silent tribute to the 64,944 Canadians who died in battle in the First World War and the 150,000 who were injured.

Today we salute the 516 Canadians killed in the Korean War and the 1,042 who were wounded.

Today we grieve the 152 killed in Afghanistan — and counting — and we reach out to the thousands of veterans who will not easily escape the current war’s awful legacy.

Today we recall the peacekeepers, at home and abroad, who have put themselves in harm’s way to protect our way of life.

It is the least we can do for the brave soldiers who have battled on our behalf. We can only hope our government will soon be able to match our respect for those remarkable men and women.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.