Veterans service ‘not being honoured’

Equitas raising funds for a lawsuit against the federal government, as Remembrance Day approaches

Canadian Armed Forces veteran John Vanderelst

Maple Ridge’s old soldiers are worried about the new generation of veterans.

Seeing headlines about a class action lawsuit brought against the federal government by Afghanistan veterans, members of the Royal Canadian Legion and Anavets can’t believe how injured and ailing soldiers are being treated by the government.

“I was a card-carrying member of the Conservative Party,” said Doug Schneider, who said he gave that up after seeing how modern veterans are being treated.

“It’s very surprising to me that the Conservatives are doing this. It blew my mind.”

Now a Legion member and on the executive for Anavets in Maple Ridge, he was in the regular forces for seven and a half years, was stationed in Germany in the early 1960s, then rounded out a 17-year association with the military as a reservist.

He said it seems to be a topic of discussion as Nov. 11 comes, as people think about honouring Canadian veterans.

“It’s not just veterans who talk about it – people are disgusted at the way they’ve turned the veterans so that they’re needy,” he said.

“You never made a million in the armed forces, but at least you were looked after.”

But “looked after” is not how Afghanistan veterans are feeling as they return home, especially those who have been injured, or are suffering post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The New Veterans Charter came into effect in 2006, and it gives veterans a single, large payment instead of a disability pension for life. But the payments, at a maximum of $300,000 for permanent disability, are far from adequate, say veterans groups.

Gerard Lenoski is a spokesman for the group Equitas, based in South Surrey, which is raising funds for a lawsuit against the federal government, and raising awareness about the plight of Afghanistan veterans.

Their court case will argue that the promises of past governments are binding, and that federal governments have recognized the sacrifice of wounded soldiers as extraordinary service that puts obligation on government.

“We’re a community group of ordinary Joes and Janes who are outraged at the treatment of veterans,” he said. “They take orders, and put their lives on the line.”

“There are a lot of people whose service is not being honoured.”

The  lump sum payment doesn’t recognize the limits of future employability, said Brian McKenna of North Delta. He is a veteran who did two tours in Bosnia and two more in Afghanistan, and is on the Equitas veterans council. He has PTSD and other disabilities.

He said veterans with lesser wounds suffered prior to the Veterans Charter changes in 2006 are receiving more compensation than more serious wounds after.

“And it’s not percentages less, it’s exponentially less.”

A “blown-up leg” and ruptured eardrum in Afghanistan should be considered no less disabling than was a blown-up leg and ruptured eardrum from D-Day, he said.

Peter Stoffer, the NDP veterans affairs critic, has criticized the Conservative government for trying to balance its books on the backs of veterans and their families.

A B.C. court has approved the class action lawsuit, but the federal government is appealing.

Equitas Society lawyer Don Sorochan says it is nothing more than a stalling tactic to keep out of courts for years.

The government defends the charter, and says Parliament must retain the power to change laws.

Veterans Affairs minister Julian Fantino said this month that the Veterans Affairs budget is more than $3.5 billion for rehabilitation, retraining and medical and financial benefits. In 2005 it was $2.8 billion.

The minister’s office said it has improved veterans support by $5 billion since 2006 in benefits, programs and services.

It’s a complex issue, and it gets batted about at Legions across Canada.

“It’s talked about a lot between us,” said Maple Ridge Legion president Michael Ward. “Especially we worry about the modern veterans. The way the new charter came out – if they’re injured and released, they get a lump-sum payment.”

He said it is predictable that a man in his 20s, who is in a transitional stage in his life, and often depressed or suffering the effects of PTSD, will not make wise decisions with a sudden windfall of money.

“It should be pensionable stuff – they should be looked after,” said Ward. “Unfortunately, politicians just want to get rid of the problem, and they’re given a lump sum, and that’s it.”

John Vanderelst is the Legion’s service officer, who deals with veterans’ needs. Legions are increasingly adding non-veteran civilians to their memberships, but Vanderelst had a 14-year career that included six years of combat arms training, peacekeeping missions overseas, and later he went into logistics support.

“Accounting in a uniform,” he calls his final military task, as he kept soldiers paid and supported.

In a sense, that last job has continued for him. He helps veterans find their way through modern bureaucracy and access the supports available to them, whether through the Navy Benevolent Fund, the Poppy Fund, the Last Post or Veterans Affairs.

A training accident cost him the sight in one eye and he was discharged as a disabled veteran.

“My experience with Veterans Affairs has been relatively positive,” he said. “I always thought the military was going to look after me. I never joined the military to make money, but I knew I had a pension down the road.”

He said the traditional veterans, those who signed up before 1947 and Korean Conflict vets who served overseas, have few beefs.

“Old soldiers – I think they’re quite well cared for.”

But for new soldiers, he joined a march to MP Randy Kamp’s office to lobby for changes.

“I think they’re getting the short end of the stick.”

He said the maximum of $300,000 for permanent disability is inadequate.

“That doesn’t do much for you if you want to buy a house, or if you have a young family.”

“In the end, why can’t most of the benefits that applied to Second World War veterans apply to modern veterans?”

He said the government asserts that it has increased payments to veterans, but it is a disingenuous argument.

“That’s because they’re settling injuries today. The benefit to the government is down the road. There’s obviously a motive to it.”

“I don’t like to slam the government. I’m very disappointed.”

Ceremonies

• On Monday, Nov. 11, join local veterans for a tribute at the Memorial Peace Park bandstand following a march from the Royal Canadian Legion Maple Ridge No. 88.

There will be road closures during this event from 10 a.m. to noon, as 224 Street will be closed from Brown to 119 avenues, including Dewdney Trunk Road at 224th.

• Residents of Pitt Meadows will gather at the Cenotaph at Spirit Square. The ceremony begins at 10:30 a.m. and includes a procession, speeches, and a two-minute observance of silence at 11 a.m. in memory of those who have lost their lives.

The Pitt Meadows ceremony takes place at the Spirit Square Cenotaph at 12007 Harris Rd.

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