Good afternoon, everyone.
I just want to thank all of you in attendance for inviting me here to share my story as well as some of my insights on the matters at hand with all of you. My name is Sergeant Bjarne Nielsen. I'm 34 years old. I've been in the military for just over 17 years now, as of this next February 9th.
As I've mentioned, I'm a sergeant. I've had a very blessed career within the armed forces. I started right out of high school just trying to get my last four credits by taking a cooperative education program not knowing that it would change and pave a whole new course for my life. I'm very proud of my successes within the military, even considering recent events. It fed my insatiable appetite for challenge and productivity. The military gave me a whole new perspective on life, not just through the technical skills that I achieved but by opening my eyes to a lot of good that comes from it as well.
Now, I don't want to bore you too much with my old history as far as my career goes, but I want to share my perspective as to how I got to become the Bjarne that I am today.
The best part of my career with the military was when I was posted in Meaford. What a great experience that was, just as parenting is. I had a great time honing my speaking skills and teaching the various complexities of the military structure, mentoring and inspiring the next generation of soldiers so that they, too, can one day become leaders.
It was a great time in my life because I felt like I was contributing, flourishing in my own career but actually contributing time that seemed to be worth it. I saw some troubled and not-so-troubled kids morph and turn into fine gentlemen or women. I saw them find courage and bravery under the harshest of conditions. I saw how they could be aggressive when required, yet find the ability to remain delicate when caring for a child during a gunfight, for example, or to know when it was time to fight and when it was time to offer that helping hand, be it to a friend or stranger. It is the esprit de corps that binds us and the Canadian values.
When I rebadged from a Patricia and became a member of the Royal Canadian Regiment, it was amazing to see them all again when I moved from Edmonton and Meaford and then up to Petawawa. I trained with a majority of the young men and women I'd put through their paces when they were just starting out, and the returns on that were to come back more than I had ever dreamed.
Our workup training began in 2009. We deployed from Petawawa on May 13, 2010, my daughter's birthday. The thousands of men and women of Task Force 1-10 were mostly made up of our infantry, the engineers, some techies, artillery, and air force, but most importantly, our combat medics. Between flights and transfers, we spent two days travelling, mostly because of that volcano over Iceland that had erupted. It caused a lot of delays and diverted our flight path some.
We were held up in Spain for a few hours and them moved on to Camp Mirage in Dubai. There we geared up and prepared to take our last flight into Afghanistan, to Kandahar, actually. We had two days to acclimatize before we started heading out to our various FOBs, forward operating bases. The platoon I was with was call sign “23”. My designation was “Bravo”.
On July 1, 2010, at approximately 0630, 23 Bravo departed Combat Outpost Ballpein for a routine Friday morning patrol. The 45-degree heat no longer phased us by this point. It would soon reach 55 degrees.
At approximately 0800, after conducting a long halt with my patrol, we stopped to scan the area before I had my navigators resume take point. Everyone had finished their individual fives and twenties, which are five-metre and twenty-metre radial searches of where you're standing. You're looking for telltale signs of activity: disturbed earth, markers, observers, and stuff of that nature.
When I began to make my walk towards my navigators, that's when the IED detonated just behind me, to my left. In mid-stride I was launched nearly 17 metres up into the air, up and over a mud wall and into a farmer's field adjacent to the route of our patrol. When I landed, I shook my head and collected myself and briefly—and I do mean briefly—looked down at my left side. I looked at the sky and called out, “Oh, man”. I said to myself, “Stay calm, B. If you get scared and excited you'll bleed out faster and you surely will die.”
I took a breath, then a second, and then I called out for my guys. My first aid stuff was on my left leg and had obviously been blown away as a result of the blast. My guys and gals were there in minutes. They saved me.
I suffered what one would call a catastrophic injury, a sure need for amputation eight inches from my left hip. My left side was completely torn open, so badly that, as I recovered, I used to have cables, not sutures, that held the side of my body closed all the way up to my armpit. My left shoulder was separated. I fractured my humerus and completely blew out my elbow. I suffered extensive nerve damage as well. I severed both my ulnar and my radial nerves and had a barely functional median nerve. Let me tell you, it was the most challenging part of my life at the time, just survival.
I went through countless surgeries and learned a lot of patience, let me tell you. I spent five and a half months lying in a bed on my back. I couldn't roll onto my left side or my right either because of the PICC lines for all the antibiotics and the vacuum that was draining fluid from my limb every 15 minutes.
These weren't the best times for me. I lost a lot of perspective on what or who I was. For the first time in my life, I felt like giving up. I mean, with my family history, I was supposed to live a life until at least 90, but where would a one-armed and one-legged man make it? How was I still going to be able to make my mark?
During that time of doubt, I had a lot of great visitors. Everyone would offer their encouragement and would say how happy they were to be able to see me. Even my guys during their leave, their HLTA, would come back from overseas to visit me in the hospital. It brought my spirits up, but after a while, the bitterness came, and I was tired of seeing the green relish uniform. This wasn't because I resented it, but because it was the same thing every time they came to visit: “Sorry, man. How are you feeling? We're here for you.” All that stuff.
Something happened though, something that I couldn't have thought of or predicted would happen. I had two visitors, strangers to me at the time, at two separate times: Master Corporal Mike Trauner and Corporal Andrew Knisley. Andrew Knisley, a few years younger than me, had the exact same injury, just mirrored, to what I had. He had gotten through it, since his injury occurred in January of 2008. His philosophy was—and army guys realize—that shit happens. We laughed about it, and it felt really good to laugh.
Everyone has their epiphany. Mike Trauner comes in. He comes walking into my hospital room with this other guy who I knew from serving in battalion. I had no idea about Mike at the time or who he was. He was just another master corporal to me at the time, dressing himself in relish and coming to give his regards, I thought. He asked if I wanted to do anything, and I replied that I would love to go out for a smoke, which was probably a terrible thing to do while you're in the middle of recovering, but I needed to get out.
At the time, I was still bleeding just transferring from my bed to my wheelchair, but it did me some good to get outside, as I said. The warm breeze, the fresh air, and the sun shining were almost too much, though. Not long after, I had him wheel me back inside, and again, he helped me to transfer back into my bed. He then asked me if he could sit down. I was wondering what was up, but I said sure, thinking “I'm the injured guy here. What's the matter with you?” He said that his legs bothered him sometimes. Then he proceeded to raise up his combat pants and expose the fact that he had lost both his legs, amputated, one above and the other below the knee. I had no idea. I think at the time he must have seen the shock and the awe come out on my face, and after some chatting and sharing his story with me, he and my friend Davidson left, and that's when I had my epiphany.
I had wasted a lot of time thinking about the fact that I wasn't going to be able to amount to anything, when really it was possible. My thoughts were that I needed to be inspired, but then I took it a bit further, deep in one of my thoughts while I lay there. Why couldn't I, myself, be the example that I needed to follow? Why can't I too be the inspiration for others like I had just experienced? I then knew I was myself again and that the repercussions of my actions would reap rewards far more than just me and my personal gain, if I got up, and I had to get up.
Eventually I did. I started with barely wiggling my thumb, and now today I can do 20 push-ups and 5 pull-ups, depending on how many chocolate-covered almonds I eat, of course, but still without an elbow. I've been doing squats off the side of my bed and hopping flights of stairs all on my one leg. It takes will to do something, but it also takes courage and support to do something you're scared to do.
My first time participating at the annual Soldier On army run was just a mere three months after my first day of walking, June 17, 2011. I participated in the event again last year and most likely will for the rest of my days, I'm sure. In my sights are, who knows, a mini-triathlon. To get back to running, I have no idea why, because I hated running while I was in the military, but now I want to do it. It's that insatiable appetite. I wanted to live my life, not just survive. So persevering through adversity had to be a mindset, a sentiment that can be shared no matter what path any one of us wants.
My family has been so supportive throughout my military career. Even when I knew that going to Afghanistan was going to make a huge impact on all our lives, they still supported me. After I had my incident, as hard as the times were, they were there. Maxine and I were worried about how Heather would handle this catastrophic injury that I had brought on my family. But me smiling, seeing Heather again, to see her smile too...because, even though dad got hurt, I was home. I had to put myself in my daughter's shoes and imagine the example that she was witnessing. At the tender age of six at the time, she needed a good role model. Although daddy came back hurt, again I could still be her dad.
The first time she saw me, the first thing she said was, “wiggle your stump”. It brought a little bit of lightness to the mood. The second thing she said though came from her anger, “I told you so.” Some stuff you just don't forget. When I left on that May 13, 2010, it was her sixth birthday. She said that I would get hurt and made me promise to come home. You can't break promises.
What a great feeling though to know that my appearance didn't matter. The emotional content remained the same. For her benefit, Heather needed that example so that when she's much older and maybe has children of her own, she'll possess those same strengths and great skills not to give up when life gets difficult and to be a positive role model regardless.
We all know there is already too much sadness going on in the world, so when life gives you lemons, they say, you make lemonade. I may not have the same physical ability to perform like the soldier I once was, but I can use this muscle up here that truly matters to continue to do something that's truly worth doing.
So it was all these things, Mike Trauner, Andrew Knisley, the impressions I can make on Heather by piggybacking her, hopping on one leg. To my guys, the ones I had trained, the very same who were responsible for saving my life, it would be one hell of a thing to waste, just to survive. So I decided to live it.
I share this—and this kind of ties into everything that we're going to be discussing later—if rehab or recovery was to be put into a number or percentage, 49% comes from all the resources that surround us. That's you, the government, our friends, our family, the cleaners, the doctors, the nurses. I have to bring that 51%. I have to bring that little bit more to make all those resources worthwhile.
It's not easy, but anything that's truly worth doing shouldn't be. Relationships or working our way up the corporate ladder, or winning the cup for the Super Bowl or even parenting, all these things would be great reasons to strive for something better. It shouldn't take getting one's leg blown off to realize it, but sometimes we don't learn lessons until after the hardships have happened.
I've had a very blessed life. I've survived a lot of dangers throughout, and I've been very fortunate in many ways because of the others who have helped me. In this time that I'm fortunate to continue to live I hope to make a difference in just a few people's lives, to inspire them as others have done for me.
All my hard work and exercise to improve my own ability paid off, and continues to still. If I didn't get out of that bed that one day to start pulling out those ninja skills and start hopping flights of stairs, for example, I wouldn't have been able to do those five kilometre walks, nor go trekking across Canada a couple of years ago with my daughter. Man, to be able to climb those mountains, to swim in hot springs or the wave pool at the West Edmonton Mall, to see all the sights that make up this truly gorgeous country of ours, and then to share them all the way to Dawson City, Yukon, with my daughter, it's priceless.
As I mentioned, this month on April 16 I'm trekking to the North Pole, just one more of my achievements because I had the people to support me. Last summer I learned to water-ski down in Colorado. While I was working with Soldier On, I ran the aquatics camp here out of Ottawa.
Water skiing, wakeboarding, rowing, and sailing are all good stuff, but the best part was being a peer, one amongst many who are or were feeling the same way I was at one time, and sharing that “soldier on” motto. Despite adversity, we can prevail. You don't have to be alone when you're going through those struggles. Events such as those that Soldier On puts on build confidence, but it's not everything.
I just returned from backpacking in Europe and revisiting the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. That's where I was first treated immediately after I was blown up in Afghanistan. What a sentimental treat that was, let me tell you. I was also one of the five that went to Germany for CISM, the military sports event in Warendorf. All these things were accomplished because of friends and family, the ones who supported me along the way, those encouraging words constantly reminding me, “There's no such thing as can't, my friend, only unable to do it this time”.
These opportunities can shadow my fears, and those of others like me, only for so long. Opportunities go...to water-ski, ski down a mountain, or travel around the world. Those insecurities that we face along with our new physical and mental challenges are quite daunting. With great effort and focus these fears can be alleviated.
Thank you all for listening.
Enjoy the rest of the week. Soldier on.
Sergeant Nielsen, your going into a program to help educate your brothers and sisters on fiscal literacy is, I think, a wonderful thing to do. As you may know, one of our colleagues, , who is from Edmonton and who was the chair of the finance committee for many years, moved a motion in the House that was universally adopted by all of us on the aspect of teaching all Canadians, including your daughter, right from the get-go about fiscal literacy.
The other day I had the opportunity to be with the chartered professional accountants, the CPAs. They have brochures on the subject of fiscal literacy. I'd like to get your address later so that I can mail one to you. Someone like would be a good person to link with in the future, because he's very knowledgeable about that issue and about how to get the message out. I think it would be a great career to help people—and you're right—by teaching them how to handle their money.
The other thing I would suggest to you, sir, and I suggest this to all exiting military personnel, is that when you get your medical file, don't just receive it and then exit; make sure you review it beforehand, in case something may be missing, a document or something. In the future—maybe not now, but down the road—you may need those documents, if you need to make a claim with DVA.
I just have this to say, because in two or two and a half years you'll be leaving, what would be helpful...?
The new Veterans Charter, which we're reviewing right now, is a living document. This means that even when we complete this study, the review of the charter does not end. There are always ways, regardless of what the government is in the future, to improve upon it, to ensure that the heroes of our country and their families are well looked after. As we heard the other day—I thought this was a great line—there is no expiration date on gratitude. When Mr. Cundell said that, I thought it was a great line. It's something I'll keep with me for a while.
What would be very helpful, sir, when you go, is that, with any things that you see, any suggestions you have, any comments you have now and in the future, you contact not just your local MP but also this committee with suggestions. Not only would this help us to evolve even more modern aspects of what should or shouldn't be in the charter, but also, coming from someone who is living the transition on a regular basis, it would assist us in assisting the government of the day to ensure that programs such as those you may require in the future and those things that are unforeseen right now aren't delayed into a long, as my colleague Mr. Hawn says, nine-month delay. These things should be able to assist you and your family on a very quick basis.
So that would help all of us in the future.
Again I want to thank you personally for being here.
Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting the Canadian Veterans Advocacy to testify before parliamentary committee today. We are grateful.
My name is Michael Blais. I am the president and founder of the Canadian Veterans Advocacy. Accompanying me today are Director Sylvain Chartrand and Director Jerry Kovacs. During the question and answer period, Director Chartrand will respond to queries in reference to the statistical analysis on the new Veterans Charter and the Pension Act, and the plight of Canada's wounded reservists. Director Kovacs will respond to the issues identified through the ongoing consultation that we have presented as solutions through our harmonization proposals.
We have provided written documentation that clearly defines the CVA's harmonization proposals. I would note that the CVA principles are defined through extensive consultation within Canada's veteran and military communities. The message that I bring to you today represents the voices of thousands of veterans who have served in all areas; their families; Canada's Memorial Cross mothers, fathers, and widows; and far too many serving members who, in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan or service in former Yugoslavia, Haiti, and Africa, will soon become Veterans Affairs' responsibility.
There are several issues worthy of discussion; many are complex. I would reaffirm the CVA support in principle for Ombudsman Parent's report. We are very concerned about the state of poverty many disabled veterans will confront after age 65 and the lack of recognition and comprehensive support for veterans suffering from environmental contaminations such as Agent Orange, depleted uranium, or the profoundly disturbing consequences of emerging mental wounds.
I will conform to the committee's mandate, however, and focus on three issues of concern.
Reservists.... I am pleased to note that this is one issue where consensus has been reached within the veterans community. To that end, I will request that you fulfill your obligation to the thousands of reservists who have been summoned and who have offered great sacrifice on behalf of this nation, not only in Afghanistan but in many areas of the globe wherein the threat of both physical and mental violence was, and perhaps is, a clear and present danger. Why is the leg of a reservist worth less than the leg of a regular force member, when both were catastrophically injured in the same incident? Or two legs? Or two legs and an arm?
I would speak to Corporal William Kerr, whom I have assisted as an advocate. Tracy Kerr and her family are now responsible for ensuring Canada's only surviving triple amputee's quality of life is assured. They too have been called upon to offer great sacrifice. Mrs. Kerr needs your help. There must be equality, recognition of sacrifice, understanding, and compassion dictated by need. Need, not budgetary restraint....
I am obliged to speak to the adverse issues our war widows and mothers and fathers of men and women, unmarried, who have offered the ultimate sacrifice to this nation.... I am profoundly saddened to note that there are Memorial Cross widows, such as Mrs. Joan Larocque, who have been excluded and consigned to an existence far below the $40,000 poverty threshold that this government deems necessary to provide the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing. All Memorial Cross widows, regardless of the time when their loved ones passed, must be accorded the new Veterans Charter earnings loss benefit, particularly those who are living beneath the poverty threshold. We must also include the VIP services for them. The two-year restrictive window on vocational training must be waived, and the opportunities for vocational assistance extended indefinitely.
I'd also speak to the plight of parents of unmarried fatalities, and suggest, with all due respect, that their profound sacrifice to Canada be formally acknowledged through the provision of VAC pain and suffering awards in addition to the Memorial Cross.
Why are they excluded when they were identified as the primary next of kin? Should they not be treated with the same level of respect as any other primary dependant, the widows and the children?
Finally, I would address the most contentious issue, the pain and suffering quotient of the new Veterans Charter. This issue, without question, defines the sacred obligation. It is the very essence of the sacred obligation—a contract, a social contract, with Canada's sons and daughters sent into harm's way. The award is unique, separate from income replacement programs such as SISIP and ELB, or the many service-related provisions provided, depending on the veteran's needs.
We have commissioned an unbiased, strictly statistical analysis of the Pension Act and NVC, and have submitted our conclusions to the committee. Unequivocally, the pension plan provided better compensation and more services to disabled veterans than does the new Veterans Charter.
That being said, we have a sacred obligation to those who we as an advocacy would serve. Our duty is clear, and we must respond with all due diligence. We must accept the fact that the concept of the lump sum award is appealing to veterans approaching the twilight of their years, or younger veterans who have dreams and require the funds to build the foundation of a new life beyond transition, beyond military service. We must also be cognizant of the wounded in Afghanistan, supported through the Equitas Society's quest for equality, and the court-inspired questions particularly in reference to the sacred obligation, the social contract that has been raised.
How do we as a nation reconcile the divergences between generational desires? How do we as a nation create mechanisms that will satisfy the needs of veterans of all generations without weighing one generation's needs over another's?
Today the Canadian Veterans Advocacy will provide you with a solution to this complicated dilemma, a solution that will respect the most sacred obligation Canada bears for all generations of veterans. We propose harmonization and the option of choice, choice between a respect-driven lump sum award and the Pension Act.
With regard to the lump sum award, Canadian Veterans Advocacy acknowledges the voices of those who would prefer a lump sum award. What we do not acknowledge or support is the current level of financial compensation, or the new Veterans Charter's practice of excluding spouse and children. Nor do we agree with or support the Royal Canadian Legion or the many prominent veteran organizations they have united under the banner of the consultation group on this issue. They would propose solutions that compare the sacrifice of Major Mark Campbell—whose legs were explosively amputated, who suffered serious internal injuries, including the loss of a testicle, who has a brain stem injury and complex PTSD—with the plight of a civilian awarded legal damages due to negligence at the workplace in Ontario.
This is unconscionable. There is no comparison. The sacred obligation is not accorded to a litigant in a lawsuit. The sacred obligation is reserved for Canadians who have sworn allegiance to this great nation, who have borne arms in our name and bled in battle, who have suffered in peace with unwavering loyalty and offered great sacrifice while treading in harm's way in Canada's name.
Clearly the compensation quotient of the lump sum award must reflect and respect the sacrifice borne. Surely we are obligated not only to the wounded but also, as provided in the Pension Act, yet denied in the NVC, to the spouses and the children who were here today, those whose lives have been catastrophically affected by their father's or mother's service-related physical and mental disability.
CVA proposes, for those who wish to choose the option of the lump sum award, that a 100% disabled veteran be awarded a tax-free lump sum of $1.5 million; that there be a supplementary lump sum award for a wife in recognition of her sacrifice, of $250,000; and that there be a supplementary pension award for the children in recognition of their sacrifice, of $50,000 per child. Conversely, those who would prefer to embrace the Pension Act provisions would be free to do so for a modernized program that would harmonize the Pension Act provisions with the new Veterans Charter opportunities.
Thank you for inviting the Canadian Veterans Advocacy to speak to these issues. We pray that our words have inspired the spirit of our nation within you, and that you will indeed craft legislation that is comprehensive and that will restore, not ignore, that will embrace, not replace, the sacred obligation that we—you, I, and all Canadians—bear for those who stand on guard for thee with true patriot love.