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A safety net for Canada's soldiers

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The last of the nearly 40,000 Canadian troops who served in Afghanistan since 2001 will soon be home, but the cost of that long war lingers on. Four Afghan veterans have apparently killed themselves within a few days of each other. The spate of suicides has shocked the nation and prompted some tough questions about whether we are failing our hurt soldiers.

The most recent, Master Cpl. Sylvain Lelievre, from Quebec's famed Royal 22nd Regiment, the Van Doos, served in Bosnia and Afghanistan in a career that spanned decades. Friends say he was an "outstanding soldier," quick with a smile, generous to a fault. Some couldn't believe he had run out of hope.

In Parliament last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged the "very difficult, stressful situations" our military has had to endure, leaving many struggling to cope. And Gen. Tom Lawson, the chief of defence staff, has publicly urged troubled troops to "reach out" for help to family, friends and physicians.

Fine sentiments. But soldiers need to know there's something solid to grasp. That's not always the case.

Certainly, there's a lot of reaching out to do. The Canadian Forces report 238 troops have committed suicide since 1995, averaging 10 a year until 2007 and 17 annually since then. The military has also been criticized for under-reporting suicides. We need more credible, transparent accounting. At the same time, fully one Afghan veteran in seven who served from 2001 to 2008 -- that's thousands of troops -- were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression linked to their tour.

That's a world of psychological pain, and the military needs a better battle plan to cope with it.

For a start, Canada should spend more on our soldiers' mental well-being. Of the $20-billion defence budget, just $50 million is earmarked for mental health. While that has grown 20 per cent in recent years and now compares with American spending on a per-capita basis, it's a minute fraction of the military outlay. Ottawa can do better.

Pierre Daigle, the Canadian Forces ombudsman, says the health service is "seriously overburdened." He's frustrated plans to hire 76 more mental-health experts have been stalled by hiring caps. Daigle is pushing, rightly, for more resources to provide timely help for those at risk. And he has called for a national database to track operational stress injuries and treatment.

There's a need, too, for a cultural shift. While the military has improved support programs, some who suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts fear they will throw away their careers if they admit it. Asking for help shouldn't be perceived as stigmatizing... Guy Parent, the veterans ombudsman, has drawn attention to the financial uncertainty that haunts some. He warns Canada's most seriously injured veterans face poverty unless Ottawa steps up its financial support. More than 400 younger, totally incapacitated veterans who don't qualify for pensions will suffer a sharp income drop at age 65, he warns, and some could be plunged into poverty. Another 800 face an "unclear" financial future.

Parent estimates Ottawa is shortchanging veterans by $100 million over the years. He makes a compelling case for improving pension benefits after 65, for increasing allowances for permanently incapacitated vets who can't find work, for increasing the maximum disability award and for hiking benefits for those who are shifting from a military to a civilian career.

Suicide is a complex issue, more closely linked to individual mental health than to tours of duty. Even so, too many soldiers feel too much financial pressure.

Better, more compassionate military mental-health care can help. So can better job prospects for injured soldiers and better benefits for veterans. In sum, a better safety net for people who have risked everything for this country. It's not too much to ask.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2013 ??65528

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