Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Colonel should reload -- with facts

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When Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran took to the stage this week with bitter complaints about shabby treatment for injured Canadian soldiers, I assumed it was a story that would carry on for a few days, at least.

It turned out to be a one-day flash-in-the pan because the story immediately morphed into a condemnation of the Harper government and the way it muzzles civil servants and gets rid of those it doesn't like.

As far as I could tell, no one was examining Stogran's allegations. Was he a loose cannon, or a hero? The answer really depends on the facts. Part of the problem, as I discovered after a few days of trying to get a response from Veterans Affairs, is that the issues are complicated and about as interesting as an actuarial table.

It didn't help that Stogran, a former lieutenant colonel who served in Afghanistan, did not do a very good job of making his case. He also weakened it when he said Remembrance Day was just a smokescreen for Ottawa's neglect, a bizarre comment that suggests his judgment has been clouded by his passion for the soldiers he no longer commands.

The government, also, wasn't interested in the details, preferring to accuse Stogran of sour grapes because his appointment was not being renewed. Harper told a press conference his government didn't believe in life-long appointments, but he had nothing to say about the ombudsman's allegations. True or false? He didn't seem to know or care.

And frankly, that seems to be the attitude of most Canadians. Beyond a handful of online comments and letters to the editor, the question of whether injured Canadian soldiers are being treated justly was forgotten as quickly as it was raised.

Stogran raised a smorgasbord of complaints, some of which are before the courts, but the leading irritant for ex-soldiers today is the compensation provisions of the Veterans Charter, which became law four years ago.

The new charter switched the emphasis from long-term disability pensions, that enabled veterans to do nothing, to a program similar to workers compensation, where rehabilitation and a return to the workforce are the guiding principles.

Prior to 2006, a soldier who lost a leg would receive a permanent pension of $1,678 a month and be sent on his or her way. Today, the same soldier would receive a lump sum of $193,000, which is less than the old monthly pension over a long period of time. More severe injuries are entitled to a larger payment, up to a maximum of $276,000, indexed annually.

The difference, however, is that the injured soldier would be entitled to a suite of medical, rehabilitation and vocational services that were not previously available. He or she would also receive 75 per cent of their military income during this period of recovery and adjustment. There are also programs for family members which also were not previously available. Soldiers who are permanently disabled are entitled to additional benefits. The list of compensation benefits is quite extensive, depending on the level of need, but veterans are right when they say it might add up to less hard cash than they used to receive.

In designing the specific programs, Veterans Affairs considered the approaches in other countries and by workers compensation boards, as well as how the courts deal with compensation, the department said in a written statement.

"More fundamentally, the department was guided by modern principles of disability management that focus on such concepts as early intervention, wellness, return to work where that is possible, and longer term supports where it is not."

The lump sum, the department said, "is more than is typical with workers compensation programs, and reasonably comparable to court awards."

If true, it means that injured Canadian soldiers probably don't have too much to complain about, unless you believe they are entitled to remarkable considerations because their injuries were sustained in the course of selfless and heroic sacrifice on behalf of Canadians.

Some people might see it that way, but they would be at least partially incorrect. Since the new charter was invoked, Veterans Affairs has taken on 23,364 new cases of soldiers who suffered some kind of injury. Obviously, many of these would be ordinary workplace accidents or cases of workplace stress unrelated to combat.

But maybe there should be two standards of compensation, one for combat and one for everything else? It's a questionable principle that would be a sharp deviation from past practice. Veterans of the Second World War, for example, were compensated equally, regardless if they were injured in battle or not, or even if they remained in Canada during the war.

Stogran said he intends to spend his last three months as ombudsman carrying the flag for veterans, but hopefully he will load his magazine with real arguments and not emotional appeals.

His initial volley suggests he never really retired his uniform.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2010 A18

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