Good day, everyone. First, I would like to thank you all for allowing me to attend this. It's very humbling.
As you said, my name is Matt Harris. I'm an administrator for the 31 CBG Veteran Well-Being Network.
I want to be clear on something. Our group receives no money from any government agency or department, nor do we want any. We're all volunteers. It's a social networking group that began by serving soldiers looking for other soldiers who may have fallen through the cracks. We limited ourselves to veterans who were located in the 31 Brigade area, stretching from Sarnia and Windsor through London to Hamilton and the Niagara region in Ontario.
It was a way for us to look after each other. We thought at first it would be 80 people or so. So far, it's expanded to over 1,200. We were the first to try this model using Facebook. Now it has expanded to all the other brigades as well, as we're witnessing.
A colonel and lieutenant colonel, our leaders, essentially started this. Then they added some sergeants, and away it went. I can only guess that they started it because they would ask, “How is so and so doing? He/she just came back from Afghanistan a few months ago”, and the answers were far too often, “I don't know”, “I don't know where they are”, and “We don't know what they're doing.”
With suicides in the news daily, we wanted to look after ourselves, look after our battle buddies, as we felt that no one else was at the time.
I have no doubt that there were people who did care and who wanted to help, but the feeling was there nonetheless.
Our sole goal is to help out veterans, whether to help someone move, comfort them, guide them to services such as the Royal Canadian Legion or health professionals, or set up an account, for instance. We can guide them to all these various places and help them with paperwork for Veterans Affairs.
Many believe that only soldiers can understand other soldiers. Soldiers can't be weak in front of civilians, as we are taught to be strong in front of them, to protect them, and to face their dangers for them.
“Leave no one behind” quickly became our motto.
I'm not here to complain. I'm just here to pass on some concerns and issues that some of our members have had or are currently experiencing. These are issues that we see on our Facebook page or that are being messaged to us privately.
I'm not a super-educated guy. We don't have malice towards any organization that wants to help us. I just want to give you, in layman's terms, some idea of what the real or perceived issues are.
An example I'll share happened only a few months ago, in February. I think we can all agree that a judge is an educated person with quite a bit of life experience. When a judge speaks, people listen. Now, this judge, while sentencing an ex-soldier who had survived an IED explosion in Afghanistan and ended up being dismissed from the military, told him to “suck it up”.
Yes, the soldier had problems and did something stupid, and he is paying for what he did, but the point here is what the judge said. He spoke to him about the Greatest Generation, a term used to describe, in part, those who fought in the Second World War. He went on to say that many of these veterans came home likely suffering from PTSD-like symptoms, but that they sucked it up as they returned to work, got married, had families, and lived productive lives.
Well, let's look at some of these numbers. Out of a population of 11 million Canadians, 1.6 million went on to serve during World War II.
Out of a population of about 36 million people today, only about 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan. Many of those went on multiple tours, unlike in World War II, when they went and stayed until the war was over.
As you can see, the brotherhood was much larger at the time those guys came home. They were able to find a job—there were a lot of jobs out there—support a family, and most importantly, work with fellow vets and help each other out with any issues they had. They understood each other.
When soldiers get out now, they try to get a job in places all over the country run by people they don't understand and who fail to understand them.
The organizations may have a “support the troops” sticker on their windows, but they certainly don't want one moving in next door or representing their organization, because they believe soldiers have problems and issues. Just ask that judge.
We believe that all soldiers have sucked it up in some very intense situations, situations I'm sure that judge has never encountered. Maybe it's time for others to suck it up and help these veterans.
The government, via VAC, has said that they want to set the standard and hire veterans. I haven't seen any numbers regarding this. Is it successful? Is it working? Are veterans actually being hired throughout the federal public service? From what I've been seeing, the answer is, unfortunately, no.
Some soldiers want to continue to serve, both with the Primary Reserve as well as through a federal government job, believing they can do both. There is a military paid leave in the system, so they can still go and train and not lose a lot of money, but that is not always the case. Even our own government departments that support the troops are refusing to provide military leave with pay. Once again, this shows the soldier that his support is now dwindling. Soldiers are feeling pushed aside, and they believe they must suck it up. Sucking it up means to shut up and bury your emotions deep inside, and that in turn appears as an explosion of uncontrolled vented emotion, because they get a little frustrated.
For veterans who have released from the military, as well as those with a medical release, who would like to go into the federal public service, we are seeing their pensions stopped because they are in the federal public service. It seems that their pensions stop because they go into the federal public service. I'm not sure if that's accurate, and I'm not sure how it all works, but it's something that we're coming across quite often. It doesn't seem fair.
Also, there is a strong need to speak to other vets and not get some impersonal letter from VAC denying their claim, as they feel that someone is calling them a liar and that their honour is being questioned by a civilian, or so it seems to them. Reality doesn't matter if perception is so strong that it becomes your reality.
This all comes together for the service delivery. A decision needs to come quickly with regard to benefits, without a doubt, but it needs to be more personal, with a phone call at the very least. Speaking with other veterans and having a good transition with the help of other veterans will help keep the issues smaller so they don't turn into an explosion of vented emotion. They deal with every issue, navigating the paperwork and helping at every stage, as it is the duty of the soldiers to help other soldiers and to leave no one behind. That's the service. I think a lot more veterans could get good jobs at VAC.
Something else that comes up is the perceived difference with regard to reservists getting help. I have class A reservists. They're part time, and as for the support and transition they require, I'm not aware of any class A reservists in a JPSU. Essentially, when the time comes, they're gone. If they were class B or class C, they get pushed to class A, and then there's no support for them. It should be one standard and one veteran, but they are quickly put on category and then released.
My last point is one that came up just recently. It's that the children of soldiers who were KIA in Afghanistan apparently don't get free post-secondary education. This has come as a surprise to many who believe that if a soldier is killed, his or her kids are provided with an education and taken care of.
We have one right now, a kid whose father, my friend, died in Afghanistan. He's struggling financially through university and is being told that he's not covered at all. As a matter of fact, the claim this university had was that they supported veterans' kids through some kind of donations. I think it was called “Project Hero”. They reneged on that.
Veterans Affairs Canada did give him some money, through quite a lot of jumping through some hoops—or, rather, it paid for his education; they didn't give him a cheque. It wasn't enough, but even that money is causing issues now. He got a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency saying that it was income and he has to pay back $1,400. There's something wrong here. He did call the Canada Revenue Agency and they told him to call back. He's a 19-year-old kid. He's the oldest of his two brothers. His brother is going to go through this very soon.
His mother can't talk for him anymore because he's an adult, and he's obviously frustrated with paying back over a thousand dollars to the CRA when he was told by VAC at the time of his father's death that his schooling would be taken care. He does not have a case manager. He should. He doesn't understand the system. To top it off, he has joined the military. He's a class A reservist like his father. He's a smart and kind young man who now finds himself unable to pay for university. His brother and stepsister will undoubtably go through this mess as well.
Adding to this disappointment, he and his brothers don't have any medical coverage. I don't know why that is.
I certainly hope that this statement is surprising to you. Was it because his father was a reservist, or class C? Was it because paperwork was missing? Was it because a mistake was made by VAC? I hope so.
Their father was killed by an IED. Their father was brave, dedicated, and honourable. He was my friend.
I know that like myself, he would be shocked to find out what is happening to his kids. If it is true that kids don’t get medical and dental coverage if we are killed overseas, then we need to know that before we go over so that we can properly plan for things like that. I certainly hope that this is not the case and that this will be fixed. If there is one thing that I would like to see change immediately, it is for the kids of the fallen to be looked after.
To the Canadian people, he was a hero. To most, he is a picture, a name on the wall. He was more than that to his kids. He was a hero to them since they were born. He was their father, who loved them very much, and now he is gone forever.
In conclusion, I will say this.
Soldiers have the ability to step off on that patrol or go on that mission knowing the dangers that lie ahead. They do it knowing—or rather, believing—that if anything happens to them, they and their families will be taken care of. If that belief isn’t there, then soldiers may be more reluctant to go, not because they are afraid—they are afraid regardless—but because they need to protect their families.
VAC is supposed to be the saviour of soldiers, not an endless quagmire of paperwork and seemingly impersonal personnel, which is likely due to being overworked. It is like the other members here.... Everybody we have talked to has been nice, but this is just difficult. When soldiers and ex-soldiers need help, like all humans, they need other like-minded humans to talk to; another soldier would be great.
That is all I have.