Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, thank you for giving me the opportunity to address the committee and to address an issue that hopefully you may have no experience with and that I, sadly, have decades of dealing with.
I'm going to discuss a form of trauma that is devastating in its impact on veterans: institutional betrayal and the way the new Veterans Charter and VRAB are leading to a situation in which suicide has a 45% greater prevalence in the veterans community than it has in the general population. That number comes from a document that you have in the Library of Parliament.
I am Captain (Retired) Medric Cousineau, and I wear Canada's second highest award for bravery, the Star of Courage, which is awarded for an act of conspicuous courage in circumstances of great peril. It is what ended my military career and led me to being here today.
Let me put this into context for you.
I joined the military in 1979 and by 1983 had graduated from the Royal Military College of Canada. I went on to receive my air navigator's wings and joined HS 443 Squadron. In October of 1986, while a member of HMCS Nipigon's HELAIRDET, I was involved in a dramatic air-sea rescue that resulted in my being awarded the Star of Courage.
Sadly, those events changed my life forever. Within weeks the words post-traumatic neurosis and ultimately post-traumatic stress disorder would appear in my medical documents.
What I want to talk about is the institutional betrayal. The single largest wound that I received happened as a result of the actions of a department of the government of a country that I would clearly and demonstrably have died for. Institutional betrayal can be defined as the wrongdoings perpetuated by an institution upon individuals dependent upon that institution, including failure to prevent or to respond supportively to instances such as traumatic exposures committed within the context of the institution. Please keep this in mind as my story unfolds.
In 1991 I left the forces on a voluntary release, struggling with issues and addictions, knowing I had problems but unaware of what they were. In 1996 I found myself in the emergency assessment unit of the Nova Scotia psychiatric hospital. Clearly, you do not wind up there because you're having banner mental health days.
Subsequent to my release, I was taken by an old salt to visit the Department of Veterans Affairs. Subsequently I applied for and received my medical documents. Perhaps the single most devastating day was to read that my diagnosis from the Nova Scotia psychiatric hospital had been in my out-routine medical documents and had never been actioned or disclosed to me. The institutional betrayal shattered me. I would have died for Canada and I had been betrayed. The “we will take care of you” ethos that we in the military believed in was clearly not there.
But I wish it had ended there. Sadly, it gets worse, much worse.
Eventually VAC ruled that I was pensionable at a five-fifths entitlement, since my injuries were clearly connected to my rescue. But the issue of assessment is a whole different story. The VAC doctors assessed me at 70%, and I was awarded 30%. I appealed and went through another entire poke-and-prod process. This process alone is nothing but an exacerbation of the trauma. This set of doctors stated a minimum of 50%, the board noted the 70%, and I was awarded 40%.
How does this happen? The numbers and the facts do not lie. I was nothing more than a file, and every award of less than my entitlement and assessment was just a cost-saving measure.
In 1999 I applied to the military and had my release item reviewed. It was determined that I should have been a 3(b) medical release. When I applied to VAC to have my benefits reinstated to my release date, I was told, basically, “Too bad, so sad, you never contacted us until 1996.” But had my release been handled properly, I would have been treated in 1991 and would have seen VAC. I was damaged by the errors of others.
It was not until 2006, after I had a full psychotic break, that my assessment was finally moved to 70%, after 10 years of fights, denials, appeals, and abuse by a system put in place by a government department of a country I would have died for.
By then, my doctors had pegged me at 90% to 100% disabled and were documenting major depressive disorders. I was done, shattered, ruined, and I no longer trusted anyone or anything. Why would I? I was withdrawn and I lived in isolation from my family, because the anger management problems were so severe that I was afraid I was going to hurt them in a fit of rage. I battled depression, anxiety, panic, suicidal ideation, addiction, and suffered from dissociative episodes, cut off from family, friends, and society.
In 2007, while heavily medicated, I had a visit from somebody from VAC. I don't remember what happened or even who I met with, and it was my last contact with the department until September of 2012. By then a friend had made me aware that there were things called case managers and benefits and programs that I should have been entitled to and involved with. By late October of 2012, I finally had a case manager who, I must state, is the best thing to happen in my recovery as far as my dealings with VAC go.
I went from some time in 2007 until I contacted the department five years later with no follow-up and no help. I was not entered into the rehab program at that time, but it took my case manager very little time to enrol me in the program. It was very clear where I should have been. The five-year hiatus with no contact is documented in my case file and was discussed with me by my case manager.
But even this would not have happened without my service dog, who then helped train me with my PTSD and improve my social functioning. Sadly, my service dog is yet one more example of the institutional betrayal that permeates my case file. If I was blind and Thai was a guide dog, I would receive an allowance for her care and upkeep. Even though she was acquired with resources outside of VAC, she is to assist me in my daily living, and my medical care team is thrilled with the impact she has had on my life. So I applied for that same care and upkeep allowance since she is for my pensioned condition. It was denied with a statement that there was no evidence supporting her efficacy in rehabilitation outcomes. I was going to appeal, so I requested a definition of rehabilitation outcomes. I was subsequently told there is no definition and that rehab program outcomes are handled on a case-by-case basis.
So I was denied a benefit for standards she supposedly cannot meet for something that VAC cannot define for me. I truly think that the department was going to say no just one more time.
I will carry the scars of what happened that night in the middle of the north Atlantic to my grave. There are things you do not unsee, unsmell, unhear, and untaste. There are things that can be so deeply imprinted on your psyche that no amount of treatment will ever completely deal with them. However, I have several specialists who have noted two very important points.
One, my long-term recovery was put in jeopardy by lack of early intervention and adequate treatment. The period of abandonment from 1991 to 1996 is evidence of this.
Two, the injuries that resulted from my institutional betrayal are going to be a huge if not insurmountable obstacle in my long-term recovery. VRAB—political appointees making decisions based on legal, medical, and military service who clearly do not have the adequate qualifications to deal fairly with veterans who appear before them—has ensured that I will never ever trust the government of a country that I would have died for. Look at the woeful record, which the OVO points out, at Federal Court after appeals have been exhausted at VRAB.
My wife is very quick to point out that had I not been pensionable under the Pension Act, my family would have been destroyed. The lump sum award under the new Veterans Charter would have been gone in the war I fought battling addictions as I tried to deal with the much damaged reality that I perceive.
So, ladies and gentlemen, if I were going to change just three things, what would they be?
One, the lump sum award would be abolished and replaced with a lifetime income that the ill and injured could not outlive. Their injuries last their lifetime as a result of their service to their country. So too should the government's obligation to care for them.
Two, VRAB in its current form would be dismantled and would be replaced with a system that is geared to dealing with section 39 of the act, which says that, barring evidence to the contrary, the board is to rule in favour of the veterans. Clearly, given the number of appeals, this is not happening.
Three, in the war on PTSD, suicide and homelessness are two outcomes that, along with destroyed families, impact on society financially, and most importantly, morally. We cannot let this happen. These need to be dealt with immediately.
Given what has happened to me personally, I would say that it's not out of the question to ask for a full ministerial inquiry into my file at VAC. There are so many issues that, sadly, have impacted not just me. My wife and children have borne the brunt of that institutional betrayal. If it is not owed to me, then it certainly is to them, for they never signed up, and they deserve better from this country.
Sadly, I am one of many heroes and veterans who have been institutionally betrayed by the departments of the government for which veterans would have died. These wrongs must be righted. For if they're not, we will not know peace, and if they cannot find peace, many may make terminally irreversible decisions.
The institutional betrayal is a national disgrace.