Good morning, Mr. Chairman, and members of the committee.
I am Jason Feyko, the senior manager of Soldier On, a program of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear today to speak with you about Soldier On and how it can support ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans.
My role is to lead and manage Soldier On and staff in order to deliver the best program possible to support ill and injured members through sport and physical recreation. Also, as a veteran member who was severely wounded while serving in Afghanistan, I can attest to the power that sport and physical activity can play in an individual's recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration.
Soldier On became a program in the Canadian Armed Forces in 2007 and is responsible for providing support and services to military personnel, either serving or retired, who sustained a physical and/or mental health illness or injury while serving, whether attributable to service or not.
The program is a highly visible and integral component of the commitment and priority of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces towards providing a comprehensive approach to the care of ill and injured members.
The objectives of the program include to facilitate, support, and integrate resources and opportunities for ill and injured members to fully and actively participate in physical, recreational, or sporting activities; to create awareness of Soldier On among ill and injured military personnel, other Canadian Armed Forces personnel, the general public, and corporations; and to investigate, foster, and enhance partnerships with Canadian organizations and allied nations offering relevant programs and services.
The Soldier On program has four key lines of operations to meet these objectives.
First, communications, outreach, and awareness are very important aspects of Soldier On. It is about raising awareness of available support under Soldier On through various means such as websites, articles, presentations, and social media. This awareness extends not only to the ill and injured community that is eligible for support, but also to Canadians who support Soldier On through sponsorship, fundraising, and donations.
Second, Soldier On conducts over 40 local, regional, national, and international camps annually that focus on sport and physical recreation activities. These range from fly-fishing to hockey, hiking, alpine skiing, and yoga. These camps serve as an introduction or a reintroduction to sports and opportunities, an important stepping stone for many ill and injured members. Not only do they provide a platform to learn new skills in a sport, but they also connect with ill and injured members in a safe and supportive environment. From our experience, this peer support not only endorses inspiration and motivation, but it also reinforces to ill and injured members that they are not alone in their recovery and that there are generous and dedicated Canadians who stand by them. They are not alone, as there are individuals across the country and across the world with similar situations, challenges, and circumstances.
Third, the most important focus area for Soldier On is “active for life”. This is centred on promoting a lifetime commitment to a healthy and active lifestyle. Once the member is inspired or motivated to use sport and physical recreation in his or her recovery, Soldier On has an equipment grant program to which individuals can apply for funds to offset the price of equipment and training to support that active lifestyle.
The last focus area is less populated. However, Soldier On supports those individuals who demonstrate the desire and the potential to compete at the high-performance level. This support is accomplished by working with respective national sports governing bodies to provide time and resources to optimize fitness preparation, sport-specific skill development, and performance. Typically these members transition to receive support from the national sport agencies and the teams they represent. To date Soldier On has supported a half-dozen individuals who competed at the national and international competitive levels.
Soldier On is funded through a combination of government-allocated public funding and the Soldier On fund, an official financial support program of the Canadian Armed Forces benefiting members, veterans, and their families under the support our troops program and the Canadian Forces morale and welfare services.
The Soldier On fund is the most direct way for Canadians to contribute to supporting the recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration of ill and injured members. The fund has disbursed more than $4 million for the purchase of sporting and recreation equipment, in addition to training and travel expenses for its members to participate in those local, regional, national, and international events.
Since its inception, Soldier On has assisted over 2,200 ill and injured members to overcome adversity, build confidence, and be motivated by participating in sport and other physically challenging activities. Soldier On is delivered in synchronization with, and is complementary to, other programs of the joint personnel support unit, the organization responsible for providing support and services, and delivering programs to ill and injured military personnel and their families, as well as supporting the families of deceased military personnel.
In accordance with their records, as of fiscal year 2015-16, 62% of Soldier On participants have been serving members. However, there's a noticeable shift with more and more veterans accessing the program. This is due to an increase in outreach and awareness, participants acting as ambassadors, and increasing Veterans Affairs integration through a partnership agreement signed in December 2015 between Veterans Affair Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces. This agreement formalizes and provides governance, guiding principles, and mutually agreed-upon specifications that define and assist the interdepartmental relationship regarding Soldier On.
Soldier On is more than just sport. The sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen who have participated in Soldier On activities come from different walks of life and experiences. They all have one common bond—their lives have changed. The esprit de corps is evident during the activities, around the hallways, the common areas, the bus rides, and the informal chats as they share their stories amongst one another, some visibly injured, others silently suffering. They come from Newfoundland, British Columbia, Canada's north, and everywhere in between. It doesn't take long to realize that they have another common thread: a shared perseverance to go on, to honour sacrifice, and to “soldier on”.
As I conclude my opening remarks, I offer a few testimonials from past Soldier On participants.
It is a wonderful experience just being out on the water, challenging myself with new skills, just being with veterans who understand mental health injuries and illnesses.
After the event I now realize how important the camp was to me. The mental and physical pains I have were pushed aside with all the sports. I didn't want to slow down; it was tiring, but it put me in a happy place.
Reconnecting with peers has been the best therapy I could have.
Thank you again for the opportunity to appear, Mr. Chair. I would be pleased to respond to the committee's questions in time.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee.
My name is Laurie Ogilvie, and I'm the director of family services with the Canadian Forces morale and welfare services.
I would like to thank you for this opportunity to talk to you about what we do to support the Canadian Armed Forces members, veterans, and their families.
The Canadian Armed Forces maintains a strong support network for our military families. Today I would like to talk to you about one of those, the military family services program. In my role, I oversee the program. It was formally established 25 years ago. It exists to support families in mitigating the challenges associated with service life, such as geographical relocation, operational deployments, and the inherent risk of military operations.
The program is anchored in a model that promotes coordinated services for health and well-being of military families in their community. The military family services program is accessed through three key points: military family resource centres, the family information line, and CAFconnection.ca.
The family information line is a national 1-800 service for all military families, offering bilingual information, referral, and crisis support, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Counsellors provide immediate support during a crisis and help connect families with appropriate national and local resources.
CAFconnection.ca is a national information portal that provides information and resources for military members, veterans, and their families.
Lastly, the military family recourse centres are family-governed, provincially incorporated, not-for-profit organizations that are allocated funds through the Canadian Armed Forces for the delivery of the military family services program. The philosophical framework of the military family services program is “by families for families”, and by nature of their construct, the military family resource centres are best positioned to deliver programs and services to Canadian Armed Forces personnel; their parents, spouses, children, and relatives; families of the fallen; and medically releasing members and their families.
There are 32 military family resource centres in Canada, with additional service points in Europe and the U.S. These centres are in place to help families manage the uniqueness of the Canadian military life through various programs and services, in the areas of children and youth development and parenting support; personal development; community integration; prevention, support, and intervention; and family separation and reunion.
Military family resource centres are also local community ambassadors or navigators for military families. Their governance construct and mandate provide the operational flexibility to meet the unique needs of the Canadian Armed Forces' community, and adjust quickly as demographic and operational landscapes change. Though they may have many services in common, no two resource centres are exactly alike.
To establish some consistency for military families, military family services develops and oversees the policies and services of the military family services program, provides technical advice and guidance on service delivery, and monitors and evaluates the success of the program in meeting the unique needs of military families.
It is important to note that my organization, which is military family services, does not maintain a direct management authority for the military family resource centres. Rather, we're the stewards of the military family services program, and allocate $27 million annually to the military family resource centres for their provision of, either directly or through a community partnership, services that support military family needs in the areas of child care, mental health, education, employment, special needs, health care, second language training, deployment support, personal development, and community integration.
We also work very closely with Canadian Armed Forces' partners to address the emerging needs of families. In 2011, we partnered with the director of casualty support management to formalize supports for families following the illness, injury, or death of a serving member.
Military family services funded each military family resource centre to embed a family liaison officer within the local integrated personnel support centre. The family liaison officer provides a suite of services, including counselling, respite care, caregiving support, and community integration.
Also in 2011, military family services partnered with CFMAP for the expansion of long-term bereavement counselling for loved ones of fallen Canadian Forces personnel.
In 2015, to better support medically released Canadian Armed Forces members and their families, Veterans Affairs Canada invested $10 million in a four-year pilot program. The pilot program, entitled the veteran family program, connects medically released veterans and their families to the military family services program for two years from the date of release. It's available at seven military family resource centres for the medically released veterans and their families, and at all military family resource centres for families of still-serving members preparing for medical release.
Family awareness and accessibility of available services has always been a priority at military family services. The modern military family does not access services in person as much as it did when the program was established 25 years ago, and for that reason we have evolved in our approach.
We have expanded our online reach through programs such as My Voice, which is a secure facebook page for families to ask questions, express concerns, or connect with us. You're Not Alone is a collection of resources highlighting available mental health services and programs. The Mind's the Matter is an interactive online psycho-education program for children and caregivers of those with an operational stress injury. The operational stress injury resource for caregivers is an online self-directed resource designed for caregivers of families of Canadian Armed Forces members or veterans living with an operational stress injury. It is an expansive social media campaign.
While I've just provided a very quick overview of the military family services program, it does not begin to paint the full picture. Each family member who uses a program will have a different experience and will share different impressions of the usefulness, or not, of their interaction. This is exactly why we continually evolve and adjust based on the needs and requirements of military families and communities.
Our mandate of “by families for families” remains at the forefront of everything we do and why we do it. We continue to engage with families, listen to them, and provide them with the means to have a voice so that individual experiences can truly shape the program, which is meant to support their unique requirements.
As the chief of the defence staff noted, we know from personal experience as Canadian Armed Forces members how crucial it is to have the support of our families. Just as our families look after us, we need to take care of them.
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, thank you again for this opportunity and I'm happy to take any questions.
We tried building a sense of community after my husband's release and so we started attending a church. I fell and got a concussion at Christmas in 2015. Then a few months later our son got injured. And Marc took our oldest to church and told the minister that our son got injured, and somebody in the congregation overheard this. But then Marc left the service in the middle, crying, because it was Easter, which is a big trigger for Marc. It was one of the worst times for him in Afghanistan. So he left crying and this person took this as a sense of guilt for his hurting our son and made a call to social services to report abuse, even though there wasn't any.
In this public forum, I'm going to share with you what I feel safe about in this situation, because there are stories that I can only share with my military family, which would get it. But the thing is that when you are released from the military, that family is gone. So you have to find your own family once again.
I'm thankful for the few people I have in my life with whom I can share these stories; and there are other families who have their struggles with PTSD.
Marc's release and care within the military left the impression that he was just another number. And sadly, this has just continued now that he is a veteran.
In 2011, when Marc asked to be posted to a joint personnel unit in New Brunswick because of his OSI, his commanding officer asked, “What's an OSI?”
A group of colleagues were talking negatively about Marc, which was only shut down by a fellow 2 RCR soldier posted to Saint-Jean at the time, who said they didn't know what Marc was like before and that he had actually won “soldier of the year”.
When I expressed my concern about my husband's mental health to his mental health team at the Saint-Jean garrison, he was so heavily medicated he would just sleep all day, shuffle to the bathroom, back to bed, to the table, and back to bed. And when I expressed my concern, I was told, “Well, he's not hurting anyone.”
Our sons would say, “Mommy, how come our daddy doesn't do anything with us? How come other daddies do things with them? Why doesn't our daddy?” That's how it was impacting our family.
Now when we hear about a suicide or another death, because a lot of deaths have happened since people have returned, after that sense of loss comes the horrible thought that, well, the government's happy because they don't have to pay anybody any money anymore.
So clearly what we're doing right now isn't working.
I want to thank you so much for allowing me the time to speak to you. If I didn't have the prior knowledge and experience of working with at-risk youth, I'm not sure that I would have had the same level of understanding and compassion for my husband. There have been many times I've had to leave for my safety and the safety of our children. I was able to see Marc's behaviour as stress behaviour. I knew it wasn't intentional, but I also had to ensure that everybody was safe.
It's really hard to watch the person you love slip away, as Marc would have never treated anybody the way he did after he was diagnosed.
The first year went fairly well. We were posted to Saint-Jean, Quebec, and then things fell apart. We lost our routine, our main support system, and what we had felt comfortable with. He already had a diagnosis that he was medicated for and was on the wait-list in New Brunswick for surgery to repair a broken ankle. We moved, and the file about his ankle went missing, and there was no psychological follow-up to his condition. He didn't get help from the mental health team until I went looking for help at the local MFRC, military family resource centre, and then they got involved. Marc finally got help from the base.
I have stopped my husband from killing himself multiple times. He may be back on Canadian soil, but the war came home with him, and it has wreaked havoc on our family. I've needed extended trauma therapy, not just from hearing his stories but also from living with someone battling this injury. And that's what it is in OSI, an injury, and it needs to be treated like it. Just prescribing medication, whichever method you choose, is not going to get anyone any better. Trauma has to be processed in order to move on. We need to remember that parts of our brain shut down in moments of stress, and our fight, flight, or freeze primal functioning takes over. Short-term memory is suppressed.
Our family has not experienced the level and frequency of violent episodes since Marc got off the heavy psychiatric drugs. He had so many negative side effects that he was prescribed more medication to try to combat those side affects. I just don't understand why it's so common to prescribe medication with side affects of rage, violent episodes, and suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Marc has not tried to kill himself once since he has been off of these drugs.
The whole family is impacted by this trauma. We looked for help when our children were younger, and we were told that they were too young. This should never be told to anyone because there's research showing that trauma impacts even an unborn baby.
What I really want to take this time to do is speak about the hope that is out there. There are three programs that helped bring it back into our lives. The first I will speak about is Can Praxis. I found this out from the social worker I was doing my weekly trauma therapy with at the OSI clinic in Fredericton. We contacted Steve Critchley, one of the co-founders, and got on the program. It was such an easy process and it felt amazing. We didn't have to jump through hoops to get on to this program. It was eye-opening, which is kind of funny because I was blindfolded for the exercise that brought the most clarity.
I could do exercises with a stranger that I had just met that weekend, but when it came to doing the exact same exercise with my husband, the horse wouldn't move because 90% of communication is non-verbal, and that horse sensed the tension between us, and it wouldn't move. That was very eye-opening. We had been in couples therapy since 2009 and we took Can Praxis phase one in 2015, and we finally had something we needed to work on.
The second program that came into our lives was in the winter of 2016 was the veterans transition program. The VTP changed our lives for the better. It was 100 hours of therapy over 10 days, and this was the first time Marc got to work on his trauma within a therapeutic circle of all men—and to think he was almost talked out of going by his case manager because of the cost involved. The money for the VTP is a lot less than some of the other programs that aren't as effective.
Out of the VTP came COPE, Couples Overcoming PTSD Everyday. The same psychologist working on the VTP also led the COPE program that we were on. It was so much therapy within just a few months of each other, and COPE has a similar model to the VTP where you sit in therapeutic circles, this time as couples, all with the diagnosis of PTSD.
COPE saw the need for continued intervention past the five-day course, and that's why there are six months of life coaching that follows for their phase two. Wounded Warriors Canada pays for these programs. The level of connectedness, understanding, and compassion from other couples has helped build lifelong friends and bring back that sense of community that gets shattered when you're released from the military.
This is why I say there needs to be a plan. All of these programs have structure and a well-thought-out, designed plan. Every specialist appointment is expensive. Without a plan, where are they going? What are they accomplishing? We need to be working as teams to better service our veterans and their families. We need more programs like Can Praxis, VTP, and COPE, and we need them to continue until the processes taught become habits and a regular part of everyday life. Therapy needs to continue until the trauma has been processed. For any intervention to be successful, there needs to be a plan. It needs to be case managed, evaluated, and adjusted.
If it were not for Can Praxis, the veterans transition program, and COPE, Marc and I wouldn't be together, and if we weren't together, he wouldn't be alive.
I'm going to conclude with a few bullets. I'm going to ask you to remember what the “s” stands for in PTSD. People are already living with an excess of stress. What can we do to relieve or reduce some of the stress?
Also, please consider the financial struggles that add more stress. Families have to become caregivers. I have six years of post-secondary education and I was not able to work. When considering the earning loss, it's not only the veteran's income that is impacted. The spouse sometimes has to give up their career to become a full-time caregiver, which only adds to the financial hardships.
If I hadn't taken a job in December, I wouldn't be able to speak in front of you today because we couldn't have afforded up-front costs to get me here.
This is the same for many who take part in these charity-paid-for programs. Veterans shouldn't have to pass up an opportunity to get better because they financially can't afford it. It rings especially deep and gets me a little bit angry when I think that they're being run by Veterans Affairs certified providers, and Veterans Affairs will not pay for travel.
New veterans have different needs, and mental health injuries need to be taken just as seriously as a physical ones because both are debilitating. The shame of being diagnosed and released before your contract is up, think about what that does to a person.
We need to work on finding veterans' strengths because they are already aware of what they can't do.
Another consideration needs to be the wording when formulating letters to veterans. A letter from VAC can trigger more trauma for families. Marc was injured in a LAV in Afghanistan on patrol. We have a letter from VAC that says that, while they recognize he sustained injuries on tour, it's not related to regular service duty. I don't understand how these sentences can be formed.
Veterans should never have to be told they need to be stabilized before treatment can start. We need to be helping people in their moments of crisis, when they need us most. Why wait for someone to get better before we'll help them? VAC only looks at where you are when the assessment takes place. There are lots of ups and downs that come with mental health diagnoses, and all of the struggles that have brought someone to today need to be taken into account. Listen to families and spouses more. A more accurate picture will be provided than when only relying on time spent in offices with professionals.
I want to say thank you once again, and I urge you to take 10 minutes of your time to watch psychologist Hector Garcia's TED talk, “We train soldiers for war. Let's train them to come home, too”. Think about all the time, money, effort, and resources that Canada has put into our serving Canadian Forces members. What have we done for them since they've been home?