Canadian troops have served with distinction in Afghanistan and other hot spots, and more than 2,000 have come home wounded in the past decade. Many were too badly injured to pick up their lives again. When they hit retirement age they shouldn't have to worry about putting bread on the table.
Yet for all its celebration of the military, and promises to give veterans "the very best treatment," Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government is coming up chronically short in honouring its obligations to the women and men we put in harm's way.
As the Star's Bruce Campion-Smith reports, Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent has just served grim notice in a new report that more than 400 of Canada's younger and "totally and permanently incapacitated" veterans who haven't served long enough to have military pensions will suffer a dramatic drop in income when they hit 65 and their benefits run out, and some face the very real risk of being plunged into outright poverty. Another 800 totally disabled vets face an "unclear" financial prospect at best on retirement. That shouldn't be. In addition, the compensation Ottawa pays for military pain and suffering falls short of what courts have handed out in civilian personal injury cases, the report finds.
Gary Walbourne, Parent's deputy, says the public would be "taken aback" to know how veterans are being shortchanged. That's probably an understatement. Many would be angry.
While Ottawa has been gradually improving compensation and benefits for veterans in the much-criticized New Veterans Charter that Harper launched in 2006, Parent concludes that it still has gaps that one could drive a Leopard tank through. After an analysis of the Byzantine rules that only an actuary could love, he reckons Ottawa is shortchanging veterans to the tune of $100 million over the years. Given Canada's $18-billion defence budget, veterans' needs ought to be met.
Parent makes a compelling case for improving Ottawa's payouts so that veterans continue to get the equivalent of 70 per cent of their military salary after age 65, saying it is a "well-recognized benchmark." He urges Ottawa to reconsider the stunningly obtuse rules that leave 53 per cent of permanently incapacitated vets who can't find work without the very allowance that is meant to help them. He urges the current maximum disability award be nudged up to $350,000 from just under $300,000 to better reflect awards to civilian workers who are hurt on the job. He wants transitional benefits increased to 90 per cent of a soldier's salary from 75 per cent, for those who are shifting from a military to a civilian career, including the reservists who made up such a large part of the Afghan deployment.
These are changes for which the Royal Canadian Legion has been lobbying for years. Defence Minister Julian Fantino has announced an extensive review of the veterans charter this fall, and calls the Parent report an "important starting point." But Ottawa has studied this issue to death. It's time to bite the bullet, and do right by those who have given so much.