Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you to all committee members for inviting us to offer evidence to this important study.
Again, my name is Jeanette McLeod. For the past 16 years, I have been the spouse of the man beside me, veteran John Kelley McLeod.
When we met, Kelley had already been released from the military service. My first impression of him was that of honesty and integrity, but I also recognized he lacked direction. Losing his military career had a heavy impact on his sense of self. He felt abandoned by the military. He couldn't figure out how to fit into civilian life and he repeatedly expressed regret in his inability to continue his military career.
Pain was both physical and mental, including the consistent feeling that something was wrong, but difficult to understand. Alcohol use became plentiful, to stimulate some feelings and mask others. As the drinking increased, so did the depressive thoughts. Soon I found myself married to a man whose actions displayed an unwillingness to live.
I lived through my husband's numerous attempts to end his life, which were always followed by apologies and empty promises. This time in our lives was devastating, difficult, and enlightening. It showed me not only how fragile my husband could be, but also that I held an inner strength I had never known existed. No one should ever have to discover their power in this manner.
After repeated attempts to get help for his mental injury and addiction, Veterans Affairs Canada refused to help my husband, as they identified his numerous unsuccessful attempts at treatment as non-compliance. Essentially, he had been assessed as unworthy of their continued effort.
When I would ask for opinions to increase his potential for a healthy future, I was told that VAC had offered everything in their tool box and there was simply nothing left to offer. I could not accept that there was nothing available. He is sitting here beside me today, alive. He is alive because we didn't give up. He didn't give up and I didn't give up.
Rock bottom was a scary place to be. I saw him there and refused to let him remain in the hole. After making a public request on a national scale, we finally managed to get the attention of those who had the power to offer my husband the help he needed. He was admitted to Ste. Anne's, in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, for a period of time and was offered some incredible skills and tools to help him.
It was the right place for him to be at that time, but unfortunately, my anger level had no relief, as I was not offered tools for when he was released and sent home. I struggled with helping him to retain any level of healthy progress because I wasn't advised on how to best help him continue his recovery. They offered him continued treatment through a day program once he returned home, but the distance from our home to the hospital didn't allow us this option. Once again, we were on our own.
Denial of any service entirely is detrimental to our veterans. During the period of hardship that we experienced, denial of services played a strong role. If services were available immediately upon a public outcry for help, my husband would never have been denied this opportunity in the first place.
We often hear the term “veteran-centric” being used in recognizing that each veteran has different needs. If the Department of Veterans Affairs Canada understands and acknowledges that each individual differs, then there should never be a limit on the service opportunities available to them.
I love that my husband is able to sit here beside me today. Many spouses and family members of those lost are not able to have the same opportunity. I recognized my husband's efforts and knew that my own effort was essential in his continued progress. I began researching ways to help him and reached out for support wherever possible.
Improvements to the services began a few years ago. I am thankful for the additional programs, such as mental support to spouses in our situation. It is greatly appreciated that the Canadian government and Veterans Affairs now recognize the value of caregivers. As we are offered more tools to help our spouses, the strain, anxiety, and difficulties will decrease for each family.
Again, Mr. Chair and committee members, both Kelley and I are extremely thankful for the opportunity to speak with you today. We strongly believe that improvements can be made to guide families toward healthy futures.
We'll be happy to answer any questions you might have about our situation and we welcome your comments.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and committee members, for the opportunity to speak today. I'll do my best to get through this. I've been up for almost 24 hours. I haven't slept in years.
To understand veterans, you first have to understand the soldier. There's no greater honour than to serve one's country. Every generation has its wars. Technology changes and conflicts change, but the names never do. The same families are there time and again. I had five uncles at the D-Day invasion. We were in Korea, Somalia, and Rwanda, and I'm sure that somewhere out there is a McLeod who served in Afghanistan.
With a background like that, when you have a problem you wonder, “Why me? Why not them? I'm going to disgrace my family.” The truth is that we've had three generations of dysfunctional families, but we didn't know what it was back then. You got drunk, you beat the kids, and you carried on.
The military family is not unlike any family. It has all the same dynamics. It is a bond that no civilian can understand. We are made to endure the worst humanity can offer, and through that we find the best in each other, and the worst. When every decision you make daily will determine if someone you love will live or die, it's a heavy burden to carry, but it is also what makes us a family, bonded for life.
Why do we go into conflicts around the world? It doesn't matter. What matters is the person on the right and the person on the left, and that's basically the only reason we go. Our government has asked us to go. The people want us to go. We go, but we're there for each other, and that's the only thing that matters when we go.
There's one crucial difference between these two families, however. If I'm ill, my family will rally around me, whereas the military family will dispose of me. If you take a man's career and family, and add a mental illness, suicide seems quite reasonable. Add to that the VAC process, and it becomes quite likely.
Coming forward in the military with a problem means, as the very least, that you've committed career suicide. If you do so, then you'll be bullied, ostracized, and accused of all manner of stupid things in an effort to get rid of you.
Being shot at in Somalia is something you expect. You're scared, but you do your job and you try not to get anyone killed. Living among the dead, day after day, month after month in Rwanda is something we're not designed for. We cannot change it. We cannot stop it. We can only witness it. No soldier is designed for inaction.
With regard to the new Veterans Charter versus the old Pension Act, the new charter allows the military to dispose of us much more effectively because there's no financial commitment to the soldier. The Pension Act took away the financial burden, allowing us that peace of mind.
Every soldier is going to do their absolute best to hide any form of mental illness, but eventually we will fail. It is not a question of whether you have a meltdown; it's a question of when and how bad it will be. When it happens, it usually results in a criminal record, a loss of career, and the end of a marriage, as was the case for me.
Now I have no meaningful employment options, and if not for my pension I would have been a suicide statistic years ago. It can't be a surprise to anyone that if you take everything away from someone, suicide is the end result. There is no argument. Dead soldiers are certainly cheaper for the government. What is an acceptable price for soldiers to pay?
A minister of Parliament serves for six years and gets a pension for life. That tells every soldier that their service to our nation is not as valuable as an MP's, even though our service comes at a much greater cost. Veterans are our best source of recruitment. I tell young people that the military is the greatest experience of your life as long as you stay healthy. If you become injured or ill, or are deemed unfit, the rest of your life is screwed.
The military has no concept of managing individuals. They will deploy the same people over and over again until those people can't continue anymore and are released, while there are able-bodied people throughout the military who never deploy. I have two friends who have deployed numerous times over the years. For one it was nine times, and for the other, 10 times. You can't miss them. They're the ones carrying their medals around in wheelbarrows. Both had to take a release to make it stop. What a wealth of experience was lost there. They each have a wealth of knowledge to pass on in a training capacity, but they were denied this opportunity. It seems to me that more lives would be saved by keeping our experienced members to train the next generation of soldiers rather than throwing them away.
Unfortunately, every soldier is a razor, only used as long as it's sharp and then thrown out. It would be better to go back to the old pension system. Take away that financial burden from the veteran. Put us to work; use us. If you tell a veteran, “You can't be in the military; you can't work in the government sector”, what private organization is going to want us? Add that we're mentally ill and nobody is going to want us. If you won't accept us, my God, there are jobs all over bases, all over Canada, all over federal buildings, we can mop your floors, we can drive your vehicles. There are things we can do to still be productive. You're already paying us, so use us.
One other thing, there are three videos I would like you all to watch. They're all on YouTube. One is called “The Sound of Silence”. The name of the band is Disturbed and it's a Canadian military tribute. It was done by the Conservative government, so take that for what you may, but it was well done and I think it's one of the greatest tributes to our soldiers ever done. The other one is “We Are Canadian Soldiers”. Again, it's another music video. The third one is Mark Tapsell's “When the War Comes Home”. It's a small documentary that was done on me, and it explains my story a lot better than I can do here today.
I ask you to watch those three videos and ask yourselves if this current situation we have today is what you really want for your veterans.
Thank you, Chair, committee members. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today. I welcome any comments or questions you might have.
When most people speak, they say thanks at the beginning as a salutation or a greeting. Mine's a little different. I say thanks because this is an opportunity for us to skip the middleman between the government officials and those of us receiving it at the bottom end, an opportunity to actually tell you how your department's working. Sometimes it's working, and sometimes it isn't. With that, thanks for having me here today.
I'm retired warrant officer Brian McKenna from Delta, B.C. I was recently released from the Canadian Forces last year by way of a 3b, which is a medical release. While serving in the Canadian Forces, I was diagnosed with severe irritable bowel syndrome and intestinal bleeding from an illness I caught in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan; I also had PTSD from my service overseas.
I'll speak to you today about the process of getting out while having a number of ailments.
First of all, while gender integration is policy in the Canadian Forces, it is still a male-dominated society, so I'll start with the first thing that caused me the most grief as a man, and what I think we should do about it. Many men share this concern that have been in my shoes. We are what we do as men. Put two men who don't know each other in a situation where they need to talk, and within 20 seconds they'll be asking each other what they do. That's how we get to know each other. This committee needs to understand that point. A release from the Canadian Forces is not the end of a job; it's an identity crisis. What am I now? Even our family members introduce us to other people as soldiers. They'll say their brother's in the army, or their sister's in the navy. They'll say their dad was air force—not “was in”; they'll say “was”. It's a thing you actually are. It's a culture. A 25-year-old Canadian Afghan vet will have more in common with a Vietnam vet from North Carolina than he will with his next door neighbour, same age, same gender. It's a culture.
I use the case of Canadian indigenous peoples as an example of the pain caused when we as a society try to take away their culture and identity. We've seen what happened to them, so stop doing it to us. Stop telling yourself that every single person in the Canadian Forces who can't get on a plane tomorrow must leave the identity they define themselves with today. There are release cases of necessity, for sure, but they should be extremely rare. There should not be hundreds or thousands a year whom we have no place for.
Second, what do we do about the ones we have to release? A lot of the identity of service personnel is bound up in their love of doing their job for their country, their Canada. There are many ways to continue that. The civil servant jobs of this nation should be immediately open, after a release has been decided—not executed, but decided—for that injured service person before they leave the forces, and then immediately after release for those who aren't injured.
If someone in the Department of Fisheries can no longer serve, they get offered jobs in Immigration or Canadian Heritage before they're released from the civil service. Why not for our vets? There are some programs and policies related to priority hiring that are helping vets now, but you have to release completely to start.
If the military has decided it has broken you and you have to go, it would be a good idea if they could scour the civil service jobs before they release you. The government shouldn't look at these people as a resource to pull from in the future, but rather, people they shouldn't have let go in the first place, even if there's no role for them still in the military.
Third, finding doctors and caregivers is a transition piece that's very important. When you serve, the military handles your health care. You're theirs. When you release, the only part of handling your care is to give you a three-month prescription ahead of time, once only, so that you will have 90 days' worth of those pills in your pocket.
In many provinces, the waiting list to find a family doctor is many more than three months, and the doctors see us coming. They know about VAC processes. They know that VAC adjudicators who are not doctors routinely overturn doctors' findings, and that they will have to fill out the new form, again and again, or that they will have to submit more painfully obvious statements to the VRAB after denial. Without medical training, those people on the VRAB will overturn those doctors' statements.
My experience with medical practitioners was that they are actually okay with the military. The military refers a patient, and the military generally responds to the advice from that person. They hate VAC. When you take steps that make a doctor's life harder, you take steps that make a veteran's health care less secure.
I'll use one example of how that's going to come to bite us really soon. The idea that vets who have a medical prescription for cannabis are going to somehow get in front of a specialist between now and May is a dream. These guys aren't even going to get to a family doctor by that time, and I anticipate that you all know that. No specialist worth their salt is going to rubber-stamp them when they walk in. They're going to have to build a history with these people, study them, watch their progress. You will have a tonne of veterans by May who haven't been able to achieve that appointment. That's what happens when you rush through a policy in six months to save money, and that is frustrating my community like you wouldn't believe.
We've been arguing with the government for 11 years on how to fix the charter. No progress. But you start shedding a couple of dollars on the cannabis policy and you rush something through in six months, and that thing you guys just rushed through suggests I can find a pain specialist in Vancouver by May. You all know better than that.
Fourth, this will be the last point, which will be quite short, before I move on to suicide.
VAC needs to prefund care the same way CPP and EI are funded. In the current system, expenditures on vets' benefits come out of the departmental budget. Therefore, there's constant and extreme pressure on the department to keep costs down. Case managers can feel like budgetary gatekeepers rather than the health care enablers they're intended to be.
It's not a surprise that a Veterans Affairs application for benefits is multiple pages, whereas an EI form has five questions on it. When benefits come out of a prefunded pot or a funded liability, the civil service opens the purse strings a lot more easily. When every cent affects the bottom line of a departmental budget, the pencils get sharper and the denials pile up.
This all leads me to talking about suicide. I cannot give you scientific evidence, but I have lost friends and fellow soldiers to this. Most of us have, and these losses aren't average Canadians, so claiming that they match national levels, as the department has done in the past, isn't good enough. These are people mentally and physically screened to be able to do the job. They are then mentally and physically screened even harder to be able to do the deployment. If they can't hack it, they are pulled off work-up training.
So why then do we have so much loss? To me, it's the pile-on effect. It may not be the tour, but the divorce after the tour. It may be the sexual dysfunction that comes from the anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pills we are forced to consume. It may not be the deployment to Iraq, but the posting to Shilo just after the tour, or a veteran's denial or two. It may be the realization that it's hard to search for jobs or better one's own education during rocket attacks in Kandahar.
I think we are looking in the wrong spot when we search for the big one, the root cause, the smoking gun that led to suicide. I think you need to have emergency funds available and instantly pay people's pension cheques if they get messed up, so that doesn't become the pile-on effect. Stop the checklist form of releasing members and plan a real exit strategy as opposed to ticking off the form to confirm they've had all the briefings. Release way fewer members in the first place.
Suicide is a tragedy. I don't believe we'll ever bring it to zero. I do think we can mitigate the loss by protecting vets from the pile-on effect of multiple problems crashing in, the death by a thousand cuts. If we make sure they have all their ducks in a row with all their administration sorted out and stop having VAC adjudication err on the side of no, we can work to lessen the number of suicides without a new policy or without a new initiative.
Thank you, all.
Committee members, I put the uniform on when I was 13 as an air cadet. The truth is, my family was a military family and by the time I was 12 I knew all the drills anyway so that's where I was headed. I took it off when I was 54. That's 41 years in uniform. I've had eight deployments representing my country.
According to Veterans Affairs I'm now officially 136% broken; government math. I spent 15 years fighting with my PTSD before I wrote off my car and went into treatment. It's a tough thing to look at the back end of another vehicle and not realize how the hell you got there. But I'm more than just a soldier. I ended my career as the managing editor of the Canadian Army Journal. I have written, published, and edited more than 11 books and 30 peer-reviewed articles. Since my release I've been to at least half a dozen of the major Soldier On type events across this country. I'm familiar with most of the players in the game and have had long discussions about how to prevent suicide and what the effects of PTSD are.
I'm not going to stand up here and talk to you about all of the issues that are around PTSD, and how to treat it and whatnot. That's between the doctor and the patient. You guys know all that stuff anyway. The question is, and further to your point, how do you find purpose when you have something that is not just a job but a profession taken away from you? In my case I'm a writer. My latest book is called “Shiny Side Up on the Road to Recovery”, and it chronicles my journey through the medical system. It also chronicles my journey across Canada on a motorcycle, which is the first thing I did when I got out of the military.
I'm also responsible for two fishing events that take people who have PTSD, be they first responders or military personnel, and teach them to fish and get them into an environment where it's safe to talk about their issues. You're going to hear, or have heard, in various meetings, all the stories: “I didn't want to talk about it”; “It was a tough thing”. Our first speaker today went on at length about that type of thing. The stigma surrounding PTSD is huge. As much as we want to deny it and as much as we want to sit back and say, guess what, we're going to fix this, it's not going to happen. A cultural change has to take place.
The question on the table here is how to prevent suicide. The answer is, you cannot. By way of example I would say look to the guy next to you. How well do you know that individual? Are you prepared to say that he's suicidal or he's not? How is his life at home? Does he have erectile dysfunction? You don't know that anymore than I do. As a soldier we put those things in the background and we accomplish the mission. That's our job. It's what we do. We don't talk about our feelings.
Most of the suicides that occur are stress-related, which then brings up the question, how do we mitigate the amount of stress that goes on? There are two components to that. The first is needless stress within the military. First and foremost, you're dealing with a military that was invented in the 1700s. You're also dealing with a National Defence Act that was written in the 1800s, yet you're asking us to employ it in the 21st century. There's a bit of an issue here.
The government, by virtue of its nature, and its unwillingness to actually make any concrete changes, is trying to use a Chevette to do a truck's job.
In short, the military is designed for one thing and one thing only, and that is to close with and destroy the enemy. Why are half the leadership involved in project management on projects for which they have no concept of what the hell they're doing? They get thrown into a job because they're no longer useful within the battalion, and now they have a steep learning curve. It's misuse of proper leaders.
That brings us to the question, do you want to take on the “plugging the holes in a sinking boat” approach that has been going on for the past 50 to 60 years? In that case, I would suggest you look to Veterans Affairs Canada, in particular, and turn it into a real working service organization. Bring individuals in, sit them down, fill out the forms for them, help them through the process, make them understand, and then you will have a much higher success rate when the forms go in. As Brian pointed out, err on the side of yes instead of no, and you'll have greater success.
The IPSCs are important organizations, particularly OSISS, because OSISS is, “I know a guy who knows a guy”, and that's how we pull the guys out of the woods. If you continue to constantly nitpick and pull funds out of these organizations, then you're going to lose more and more troops.
The question I posed earlier was, how many bullets does it take to train a troopie? Nobody knows, so you cannot sit down and count bullets and give them three or four bullets to pass their exam. That is exactly what's going on right now, because they don't have enough money to give them a case of ammunition, so that they can get good at what they're doing.
Finally, you're not tracking suicides. You have no idea how many suicides there are. The military doesn't track it. The hardest thing, or one of the things, you need to realize is that there are two organizations you need to follow. It's not just the regular force, but also the reserves, because what happens is that when the deployment is over, the reserves go home, and nobody follows them.
You asked, how do we prevent suicides? Try tracking some of these guys and find out what's going on. One of the organizations that I belong to is the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. I'm a special consultant with them on peer review. They've instituted a three-phase study. The question I have to you is, why is it that a civilian organization has to incorporate a study of suicide within the military, when the military is not doing it itself? I don't get that.
If you're going to take an approach of systemic change, then we need to look at a couple of things. First and foremost, the deployments that we're involved in, that we've all gone through time and time again, are broken into three phases. There's the pre-deployment, the deployment, and the post-deployment. These all make sense.
The problem is, they're run on a six-month routine, which was driven down to us from the United Nations, because that's how long a deployment was supposed to take place. I think that nine months to a year is far more effective.
I propose, and have proposed, that the post-deployment phase be broken into several portions. One portion is for classes that educate the individuals on post-traumatic stress disorder. I want to back up a bit here. In the late 1990s, there was a mutiny that took place in the Canadian Armed Forces. As a direct result of that mutiny, three things came out of it. The first thing was better communications between the reserves and the regular forces. The second thing was that the entire training system was overhauled. The third thing was that SHARP training was instituted, and that's the sexual harassment component.
Why is that important? It is because it shows that you can physically pick the military up and say, “That's not how we do things anymore, this is how it's done”.
Post-deployment, this is important. We need to institute a concept of education that has been neglected up to this point. You can't drive it from the top; you have to drive it up from the bottom. That means group, that means PT, rest and recovery, and it needs doctors who are available to help people through their issues.
Brian made one extremely good point. He made several, actually, but he made one really good point. You can't depend on civilian statistics to measure what we're going through. The simple fact is that we screen and screen our guys before we send them over, and we still have problems in the end.
The biggest issue that we face is this concept of moral obligation. Why is it that we, as veterans, feel that we are constantly fighting against you guys?
As for medical marijuana, what the hell is the doing trying to tell us how much marijuana I can use? That's between me and my doctor. If you want to fix it, fix the system. Don't fix the individual.
Start looking to put more veterans into Veterans Affairs, so that the department understands. There are lots of reasons we can talk about, but at the end of the day, this us versus them, us versus you, has to stop.
Mr. Chair and members of the committee, thank you very much for having me here today.
I sent you my bio earlier. I did 32-plus years in the Canadian Armed Forces. I retired because of the way they were treating ill and injured people in the transition program.
I have a prepared statement, and then a PowerPoint if we have time. With that, I'll get to it.
The seam of injured military transition remains open, because three successive chiefs of the defence staff have kept it open like an ugly wound on the good reputation of the Canadian Armed Forces. It's a wound that has swallowed many a good, injured soldier, sailor, airman and airwoman, veteran and military family, be it a spouse, a child, a parent, extended family, or friends. It is a wound that has been allowed to fester for close to a decade, while the senior officers of the Canadian Armed Forces put a higher emphasis on more important, to them, priorities, such as redesigning their military dress uniforms.
In doing so, senior officers of the Canadian Forces and the office of the chief of the defence staff have fostered the environment for suicide to which many Canadian Forces members have succumbed. It is not the soldier's fault, nor is it the fault of the family of the fallen soldier. The blame lies squarely at the feet of the senior military commanders, and more specifically, the office of the chief of the defence staff, which has put such a low priority on injured soldier transition, now as in the past. To say they have done otherwise, as the current CDS has stated recently, can only be the result of three actions.
First, the office of the CDS has been ordered not to act on the injured soldier transition issue by the Minister of National Defence and is purposely misinforming the public.
Second, the office of the chief of the defence staff is defying ministerial direction on injured soldier transition, ordering subordinate staff to delay the action, and is purposely misinforming the government and the public.
Third, the office of the chief of the defence staff is incompetent and cannot fulfill the direction of the , and it is purposely misleading the government and the public.
There are no other possibilities, only these three. There are no other reasons available. One needs to look no further than the length of time the office of the chief of the defence staff has taken in not addressing the injured soldier transition issue. With the ongoing CF review now in place, it will be nine years before the JPSU situation is addressed, if it is ever addressed at all.
Our armed forces can complete an impressive number of achievements in that span of time. For example, the combined span of two world wars is 10 years. However, during almost the same time frame, the Canadian Forces brass has fumbled, bungled, and delayed its injured soldier transition program, a program that hasn't even reached the starting line yet. It's not that the Canadian Forces are unmotivated or incapable in this current day and age. The CF has established, from the ground up, the complete infrastructure—hangars, machinery, personnel, and procurement—training, and completed operational readiness verification for an entire heavy-lift helicopter squadron, 450 Squadron in Petawawa. This is a very impressive accomplishment, indicative of a motivated CAF led by an equally motivated chief of the defence staff.
It's just that the CAF is unmotivated or incapable in the area of injured soldier transition. The most tragic indicators of this are the rash of suicides associated with the joint personnel support unit and the Canadian Forces' continued lack of interest in a workable injured soldier transition plan. The cost of this lack of interest has been exceedingly high.
For example, the Canadian Forces couldn't manage to get a JPSU staff member to meet an injured soldier, Corporal Collins, who had summoned up the courage to finally seek assistance from the JPSU. I quote from an article, and I'll supply this later to you.
On Cpl. Collins’s first day in the JPSU, the platoon warrant officer and service co-ordinator were not there to meet with him. He left the support unit frustrated and went drinking at a bar on base for junior-rank soldiers. A bartender tried to stop him from driving off in his SUV, but the corporal didn’t listen. As he drove away, the bartender called military police.
Not long after this took place, Corporal Collins took his life in an MP jail cell, which, it would seem, was poorly equipped to have a person like him in there. This incident happened during a time when the shortcomings of the JPSU had been strongly and clearly articulated to senior commanders, including the office of the joint personnel support unit commanding officer and the director of casualty support management, as detailed in my email from February 2011. This is before Corporal Collins's suicide, and I quote:
Consequences of In-Action. At this juncture, the consequences of in-action will be felt, or in some cases are being felt, primarily at the IPSC level. For example, if expansion is not factored in it will effect:
(1) Ability to effectively carry out our mission [to support injured personnel] - If our focus shifts from personnel support, to staffing for positions/infrastructure, our ability to carry out our mission will suffer;
(2) Staff Burn Out - If the ratio of staff to supported personnel [that's our ill and injured] become unsupportable, the IPSC staff themselves will eventually become prime candidates for the JPSU;
This actually did take place when our staff burned out to the point they became members of the JPSU.
(3) Supported Personnel - If our staff is stretched too thin, this will be felt at the supported persons level through reduction of support services/leadership to mbrs posted to the JPSU;
An example is what happened to Corporal Collins, and we know the result of that.
Rather than address the forecasted issues with rational, tangible, and effective responses, the JPSU brass put out what could be described as an FOB document, the suicide mitigation strategy, which has been handed out to you kind folks. The JPSU suicide mitigation strategy was a particularly cruel document as the JPSU staff had absolutely no means of carrying out this important and potentially life-saving strategy because of their undermanned and overtasked situation.
However, the issuance of this strategy to these people made the responsibility of employing it and the responsibility of its failure theirs and theirs alone. By 2013, the situation that Corporal Collins faced in 2011 was now the norm. The senior officers and staff would still not address a now critical and well-known situation in the joint personnel support unit, and their front-line staff had to employ a logistical triage to deal with the transitioning injured personnel. In an excerpt from the JPSU platoon commander's email, it states:
Due to the current manning levels of the [JPSU] Support Platoon (Sp Pl) Staff we have had to take a different approach when it comes to dealing with our posted in ill and injured soldiers as well as some of the routine administration. ...solders posted to the [JPSU] Sp Pl will not necessarily be assigned to a specific Section or Section Commander.
The document goes on to explain the situation that faced these people in 2013.
This email was issued after yet another JPSU member suicide, Master Corporal Matiru, a Canadian Forces Base Kingston IPSC, a grossly overwhelmed JPSU detachment. I'll supply the numbers for that.
The well-known shortcomings in the joint personnel support unit did not only impact living military members and families, families of those recently released to the JPSU, like that of Corporal Brumsey, and I'll give you the reference. The situation came to light in 2015, and I quote:
A retired member of the Canadian military with a mental illness lay dead in his home for up to four months before he was discovered, says his sister.
Lisa Brumsey blames National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada for not doing more to help her brother, but officials with both departments said there's only so much they can do.
“I want them to put something in place so this never happens,” she said.
“I don't want any other family to go through this or any other soldier or anybody in the military. It's [so] traumatic.”
I'll repeat the words from Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canadian Forces, “There's only so much that they can do.” This is a truism. I agree with that. There's only so much one can do, but this statement doesn't apply when they are knowingly not doing enough. That was the case for Corporal Brumsey as indicated from the email from the chief of defence staff, a reference which I'm including in this package, which says that we have to do more for post-release.
The JPSU's mandate includes post-release follow-up where ill or injured persons, more specifically those more complex, are contacted after release to see how they're doing. Being so understaffed, JPSU cannot even accomplish that.
The situation of military family transition has been an unresolved issue since 2008, when the joint personnel support unit was first on the drawing board, and much attention has been drawn to the shortcomings of that unit since then, including the Canadian Armed Forces Ombudsman's recommendation, comments from the Veterans Affairs Ombudsman, the Hitachi report, General Anderson's report, many media reports, and internal media communications.
To close the seam, which you want for transitional support, the Government of Canada must send a strong message to the chief of defence staff that any further delay of addressing the injured military transition support system will no longer be tolerated.
Here are some actions that could be included. There should be further recruiting or transitioning in by the Canadian Armed Forces. There should be no further OUTCAN missions or missions out of Canada by the Canadian Armed Forces or deployments of Canadian Armed Forces personnel. The Canadian Armed Forces must offer an extension to those military families currently in the transition-out stream of the Canadian Armed Forces. Staff in Veterans Affairs front-line offices must be staffed appropriately with full-time positions, not part-time.
A Veterans Affairs Canada review of recently released military families must be conducted to ascertain their health. A contingency fund is needed for Veterans Affairs Canada staff to assist needy military families, to be used at their discretion at the time of need. The VAC critical injury benefit should be issued as compensation to all military families medically transitioned out of the Canadian Forces since the stand-up of the JPSU in 2009 and up to the date that it's fixed and operating respectfully.
It is totally irresponsible for the Canadian Armed Forces to continue recruiting and deploying our Canadian Armed Forces personnel when, if anyone were to be injured, the system needed to support them does not exist. The documents I've tabled today and passed to you earlier on indicate a means to resolve that situation.
I look forward to any questions you may have, and thank you for allowing me this opportunity.
There certainly is such a sense.
First of all, just on normal releases from the Canadian Forces, if a person is releasing in their late twenties or thirties, I can almost guarantee you that the jobs they're going to are the RCMP, the fisheries officers, CBSA. That's just the natural way it goes. They want to keep wearing the maple leaf; they just might be finished doing it while wearing CADPAT at the same time. Wounded guys see it the same way. That's one thing I really think needs to be exploited here.
Now, I'll warn you, the civil service union will be resistant to that. Just to put on the table who the actual dragon is that needs to be slain to make this happen, it's not always a government problem. It's a “government of the whole of Canada” problem. This is something we need to work on as advocates. Often when we have a problem we bring it to government, to you.
Really, sometimes it's that a key ADM in the department needs to be fired to solve the problem, not necessarily that there be a change of government. Since we only have access to the government, however, you guys wind up being the brunt of absorption of what we have to offer.
That's what really needs to happen to start solving those problems. You guys need to get into that department. Don't just talk to the guys at the top. You need to brush them aside and go a couple of layers down and get in there. That's where you'll solve this.
But the simple answer is yes, I know tonnes of people would love to keep serving the country, but they don't get that crack; they don't get a shot.
I want to thank all of you, as my colleagues have, for your service, particularly you, Jeannette, for being there for your husband as much as you have. I'm sure there are countless stories like yours that exist among the military wives. Being an emergency service worker, I know just how much of a role our spouses play in our careers over the years, of the support that they give us, so I want to thank you for that as well.
You'll all be glad to know that one of the consistent themes we've been hearing is the loss of identity when you leave the military. The other thing we've talked about quite a bit with some of the witnesses is the issue of employment opportunities, or lack thereof.
Brian, you spoke about how one trains when you're in a military combat situation. One of the things that we've also heard about is not just the lack of retraining, but also the fact that there's a large percentage of military members who don't leave the military with a high school degree. How do we deal with that?
On the issue of education, qualification, and employment, the other thing that we've heard as well is that in Veterans Affairs there has been an increase in the level of degrees, the education requirement to work there. I'm a big believer in peer support. I'm a big believer that those who have experienced being in the military and transitioning should be able to help those who do so in the future.
Here's my question, and I'll start with you, Brian. How do we resolve this issue of re-integrating people into the workforce, whether it's through VAC or whether it's through the civil service, as you spoke about? What's the most optimal way to do that?
I don't mean that to knock post-secondary education. I've done post-secondary and I know its value. However, what do we have to teach you to make you understand how to deal with these people? There's no program out there for it. In fact, the reason we're all speaking today is that you're trying to pull that information out of us; you're trying to understand that.
Barry doesn't have to learn that. He should be your case manager, your next hire, right down there. No questions asked, that's the guy, and better than me because he has done some of these things. The government should be tripping over itself to hire Barry Westholm. Instead they'd rather hire someone with a sociology degree who's going to come in and then get burnt out because they don't know how to talk to 25 vets. Come on, the answer is so painfully clear that Veterans Affairs needs to have a hiring quota of veterans.
The federal civil service has no problem saying it needs to have this many indigenous employees and this many females. By far, that department should have a minimum number of veterans in it.
The next thing to go along with that is that you need to steal good ideas and the military has a very good idea about quality control. It's a game of telephone. The commander comes to visit the troops and it is to shake hands, but it's also to see how things are actually going and if the message he entered at the top is the one coming out at the bottom. That needs to happen in the department, particularly on the employment file. What is really happening right now, sir, on the employment file is that we're punting to civilian organizations. True Patriot Love is great, but it should not be a federal government policy to refer you to True Patriot Love for retraining. That should be a complement, an add-on to the programming that's already there.
Those would be the two things I would look at right away.
When I was diagnosed with PTSD, I was a master warrant officer in charge of a maintenance company that supported a service battalion. When the doctor told me, I thought, “Oh, shit. Okay, I have PTSD.” The first thing I asked him was, “Am I fit to serve in the position I have?” It had a lot of responsibility, and he said yes.
Then, because I was a master warrant officer in charge of these troops, there was a secondary responsibility I had, at least I felt I had, and that was to let the people I worked with know I had PTSD. It's a leadership issue, as well. When you're in a position like that—and it's sergeant and up—you have to remember that there are people counting on you, and you have to come forward and let them know that you have PTSD, you're not fit to hold this position anymore, and get help. You can't hold it in.
For me, I had introduced myself to my command team partners. At the right time, after they got to know me a bit, I said, “By the way, I have PTSD.” A couple of things happened with that. In one case, the guy wouldn't talk to me again. The relationship was over. He was a major. I was an MWO. He was just thrown right off by the fact that his sergeant major had PTSD, and he couldn't really accept that. The relationship really was junked.
The other guy asked a lot of questions about what happened, how it was going, what I was doing. It became more of an education, and that's the perfect way it should work.
Nobody wants it—got it—but everybody can share the experience, especially if you're at the top, or near the top. Let the guys know that it's not a career ender. But you have to let people know, because you're in the military in charge of weapons and, really, it's for the mechanical health of the battalion that you're okay and you can still function.
Sure. One of the things that you might not know with that is that there is legislation out there to protect jobs while people deploy. That can be a double-edged sword. When you look down in the States, employers know to look for that, and now on a lot of employment applications in the States it says, “Are you a member of the Guard? Are you a member of the Reserves?” That can be a double-edged sword, but I tell you—this is another interesting thing—the vast majority of people in the reserves are class A, so what you would think of as a reservist, on weekends, one evening a month in the summer, that kind of thing. Then you have class B, which is where they get pulled in to fill a full-time spot and put on a full-time contract.
You may not know that those jobs are not protected while they deploy. If you think about the irony of that, the government and the military asks the civilian sector to protect the jobs of their reservists while they deploy, but the reservist who put in full-time jobs back here in Canada, they do not protect them while they deploy. Most people will have to give their job up to go, and the answer you always get is, “Oh, it's a professional term of service; it's not a job that you were in.” Just be aware that those in the Canadian Forces are one of the biggest culprits of unemploying reservists when they come back from their tours.
What do we do about it?
Right now, we're in this situation where generally the battalion you used to be in phoned you after a couple of months, and that's a good thing. Your home unit will do as much as they can, which is also a good thing and shouldn't end. I look to what my friend on the left, Kurt, here said, and he said it in stages, and the order of what he said is important, so focus on this part, if any. You come home and you need the break, because someone briefs you on the plane coming home or the day after. We could make a laundry list of things you're thinking about then, but it isn't this. You need the time to get back, repair the body, repair the mind, get into a physical routine, and let the kids get used to you. Then we take you into the education piece of how to be healthy and how to assess your own health.
You're not going to be in that frame of mind on day one, and you're also not going to be in a position to be looking for a job in the last month of being on tour. One of the biggest things that kills you on tour is thinking about things other than your tour. We cannot have reservists thinking, a week before they come home, “Oh my God, I'm on this patrol but I'm really thinking, am I let go from my job?” That's where we need to go. That's what I think.