Advocacy group urges openness about issues veterans face

WATCH: No one denies Canadian troops deserve recognition, but the National Day of Honour ceremony wasn’t without controversy. Chief Political Correspondent Tom Clark explains.

TORONTO – Stop pointing fingers. Start working together.

That’s the message from one veterans advocacy group as soldiers and their families gather for a one-time day of honour, marking Canada’s 12-year war in Afghanistan and the 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members who contributed to the mission.

VETS Canada posted a message on its Facebook page Friday morning, offering its solution to the numerous problems it says veterans are facing today, including homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide, unemployment and broken families.

The organization says it has seen first-hand the toll that war has taken on veterans that have “fallen through the cracks” and still need help.

“We compare wars and criticize the Government of the day for sending our troops and for not doing enough when they return broken,” it said.

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VETS Canada said they have a different approach for helping injured veterans and, on the National Day of Honour, finger-pointing and protests aren’t needed.

The majority of groups and individuals marking the day have avoided laying blame, turning the attention rather on the sacrifice of those who fought in the Afghan war.

“We gather to pay our respects to the brave men and women who gave their lives and sacrificed so much to fight terrorism and defend freedom in Afghanistan,” said a spokesperson for Veterans Affairs on Friday.

However, in anticipation of the commemorations nationwide, there has been criticism of the government’s handling of the events.

Many retired and serving soldiers said they felt the Harper government was undertaking the commemorations in a half-hearted manner.

“The government, it seemed to me, since 2007-08, has wanted to put this all behind it. Afghanistan was not a political plus for the government. My guess is that this the minimum they can do,” said historian Jack Granatstein.

The Royal Canadian Legion has scrambled to organize local events, after being given just two weeks notice.

One branch received notice from the feds on Wednesday.

“You can’t put something together with only one day’s notice,” said Dominion president of the Legion, Gordon Moore.

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“They’ve know about this since last year, and (had) they … communicated with us – not just the Royal Canadian Legion but other veterans groups – we would have been able to help right from the very start to put this program together and do it right,” said Moore.

Be open about the problems facing veterans, advocacy group urges

VETS Canada is asking that politicians, veterans and families alike talk to each other and acknowledge the problems Canada’s veterans face.

“[Today] we pay tribute to our fallen and remember the injured. Should it not be reversed – Remembering our Fallen while paying tribute to the injured living in mental and physical pain?” wrote VETS Canada on Friday.

“Just by putting a name to a problem it becomes real and we can start dealing with it,” said the group.

VETS Canada works specifically to help transient and homeless veterans in emergencies and assisting those at risk.

“Injured soldiers and veterans has become a catalyst of discord, public discussion and in some cases, positive initiatives,” Frank Harrison, VETS Canada’s national director of operations, told Global News.

One of the initiatives VETS Canada has developed is a free app (you can download it here) that allows Canadians to submit information to the organization’s volunteers if they come across a homeless person they believe is a veteran.

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The organization then responds to the identified person to see if they are a vet and if they want help. If they do, VETS Canada helps them in this process.

“Our Boots on Ground Teams can be mobilized to assist an organization and if needed literally hold the hand of a homeless veteran at a time of need,” said Harrison.

Silence and stigma in Canada’s military

Last month Global News launched a series detailing soldiers’ experiences with PTSD and their struggles to get help.

Many detailed the fear they felt in speaking out about mental health, the fear of losing their job and of facing stigma.

SPECIAL SERIES: Invisible Wounds – Crisis in the military

Since the series launched, other soldiers and veterans contacted Global News to share their stories, detailing their struggles accessing health care services through National Defence (DND) and Veterans Affairs, but many did not want to speak on record, fearing the repercussions going public could have on their jobs and their pensions.

Criticism of the federal government’s support for veterans has reached a fever pitch in recent months, dotted by rallies, bickering in the House of Commons, and highly-publicized clashes between veterans and Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino.

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In January, hundreds of vets and their supporters protested the closure of eight regional Veterans Affairs offices.

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

Both the feds and the military have been under increased pressure to help Canadian soldiers and families struggling with mental health problems and the consequences of PTSD.

In March, the wives of soldiers and veterans went to Ottawa to discuss the difficulties faced by spouses of veterans with PTSD, many of whom they say are suffering in silence.

On Wednesday, the military released new videos they hope will help the families of Forces members suffering from operational stress injuries (OSI).

At the launch of the video series, Gen. Tom Lawson, Canada’s chief of defence staff, said the health of Forces members would be a top priority for the DND.