Veterans protesting office closures share their stories

WATCH: Veteran Bill Dubinski slams Stephen Harper and Julian Fantino over the office closures

“I feel abandoned, let down. The government of Stephen Harper feels that we’re all just going to go away and eventually die.”

Veteran Ernie MacKinnon joined the chorus of veterans and their supporters protesting the closure of eight Veterans Affairs offices across the country on Friday.

Offices are slated to shut down in Kelowna, B.C.; Saskatoon, Sask.; Brandon, Man.; Thunder Bay and Windsor, Ont.; Sydney, N.S.; Charlottetown, PEI; and Corner Brook, N.L. A ninth office has already closed in Prince George, B.C.

Hundreds gathered outside the soon-to-be shuttered offices, wearing black, describing the day as one of mourning. Many are calling the closures a betrayal to the men and women – young and old – who served their country.

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The government is closing the offices as they move more services online and to Service Canada outlets.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino said this week that the move will increase the points of service for veterans.

“All veterans requiring personal support will continue to be visited by their case managers at their home, and as well we have some 650 service points for veterans in Service Canada offices throughout the land,” said Fantino on Thursday.

“We do intend to keep on working on these issues to ensure that, whether veterans need immediate service and to be visited by a caseworker, that continues, along with their opportunity to access a local service centre office very, very close by, where veterans’ issues will be dealt with at that point.”

But the veterans feel betrayed by the move toward online services and Service Canada outlets.

There are still around 118,000 veterans from the Second World War and Korean War in Canada – many of them at an advanced age and lacking computer and Internet skills.

Watch the video above: Veterans protest closing of Windsor office

Former corporal Bruce Moncur, who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2006, said the online system can be frustrating even among his Internet-savvy friends seeking benefits and treatment.

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Veterans and supporters rally in Sydney, N.S., on Friday Jan. 31, 2014, protesting the government’s closure of eight regional Veterans Affairs offices. Natasha Pace, Global News

MacKinnon, who joined the military in 1978, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2002 after returning from a tour in Afghanistan. He attributes his diagnosis to the experiences during a tour in Bosnia in 1996.

After his diagnosis, MacKinnon said he was given four months sick leave and eventually given a medical discharge. “I was put to the sidewalk as I call it. I had no services, no benefits, no councillors, nowhere to go,” he said.

“The government says the veterans are slowly disappearing as time goes on, but that’s not the truth,” said retired warrant officer Terry Collins. “I’m 46 years old, I have two young boys – I’ve got a lot of life left. And there’s a lot more like me out there,” he said.

The 22-year veteran was diagnosed with PTSD in 2008, “mainly from my tour in Afghanistan, from what I experienced over there,” said Collins. He said dealing with PTSD on a daily basis is rough, with even driving becoming difficult. “I just get too confused, there’s times when I just have to pull over.”

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Veterans and their supporters gathered in Windsor, Ont., on Friday Jan. 31, 2014 to protest the closure of eight regional Veterans Affairs offices. Jennifer Tryon, Global News

Seven veterans travelled to Ottawa this week to plead their case to the government. Through tears, frustration and stories of loss, they said the office closures put veterans at risk.

“Please listen to what we veterans have to say and please listen to all our supporters as well. Listen to the workers, the town councils, the mayors, the citizens themselves,” said retired Sergeant Ronald Clarke, a 36-year veteran.

WATCH: Protest of office closure in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Clarke, from North Sydney, N.S., joined the military in October 1956 and retired in October 1992. He was diagnosed with PTSD ten years after he retired. He said his disorder stemmed from his time serving in Vietnam.

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In a YouTube video posted by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), Clarke said he found out about the office closures on Remembrance Day. “What a day to find out,” he said.

On Friday, Clarke spoke to a crowd of supporters outside the Sydney Veterans Affairs office. At 4:30 p.m. the office doors will be closed for good, but he insisted he wouldn’t give up the fight.

Clarke said people across the country are upset with the government’s decision to close the offices, adding that he would travel the country to convince voters in the 2015 federal election to vote anything but Conservative.

“I am not threatening you or your colleagues,” said Clarke – a comment directed toward the prime minister – “I’m making you a promise.”

With files from Global News’ Natasha Pace

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