Veterans and public grapple with the aftermath of Kandahar combat mission

OTTAWA – The first Remembrance Day following the end of the Canadian combat mission finds many veterans disillusioned with the Conservative government, despite its promises of cash and its words of support for the troops.

This hardened cadre is refusing to go quietly into history, concerned that Ottawa is treating them as second-class veterans compared with those that fought in the world wars and Korea.

At the same time, the public is in a reflective mood about not only the future of its armed forces, but what it has asked of men and women in uniform since 9/11.

Former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran says the reflex of the government, and to a lesser extent the general public, is to forget about Afghanistan. He points to the reluctance of Ottawa earlier this year to carve the conflict into the stone of the National War Memorial.

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He says the exclusion speaks volumes to soldiers.

The official line is that the war Afghanistan is not over, it’s premature to discuss such a change, and the troops are still in harm’s way with the Kabul training mission a point brutally driven home by the recent death of Master Cpl. Byron Greff.

But Stogran said he believes something more basic is at work.

“The mandarins in Ottawa really want us to separate contemporary conflict from the world wars for monetary reasons; for callous, self-serving, parsimonious and disingenuous reasons,” he said in a recent interview. “If they can say there were the two worlds (wars) and Korea and then everything else, then they can say there were different kinds of veterans too.”

The Canadian military and the families of soldiers have been at war for 10 years, he said.

“They are every bit as worthy of ceremony and celebration and respect as the sacrifices that were made in the Second World War.”

Unlike soldiers of previous wars who sometimes suffered in silence, modern day veterans are much more aware of their rights and the obligations of the state, and they are not afraid to make a fuss in public.

Reconciling the saccarine statements and flowery assurances of the House of Commons with the often pitiless reality faced by returning veterans is something the Harper government will struggle with for years.

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Ex-soldiers are not afraid to use the courts, to protest, and even launch hunger strikes to get their point across, said Mike Blais, whose group spearheaded weekend demonstrations.

“They all share disappointment and they’re very displeased with the way they’ve been treated,” said Blais of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, which has increasingly become a rallying point for the disaffected.

He said the Conservative rhetoric around soldiers has raised expectations, making the disappointments all the more bitter.

“Our goal is to remind the Conservatives that soldiers are a national treasure, they are a conservative value and as such they are worthy of the same special consideration given to the gun registry (opponents) and other so-called important Conservative measures,” said Blais.

Revisions to the legislation governing the treatment of veterans is something the Conservatives often trumpet, but like so many other things the devil is in the details, he said.

A spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said the changes are more than lip service.

“Since 2006, our government has made significant investments to ensure our veterans have the care and support they need,” said Codi Taylor in an email to The Canadian Press.

The government highlights how it is pumping $2 billion in additional benefits for the most severely injured, yet downplays the fact it is spread over 50 years. The replacement of life-time, guaranteed pensions with a mixture of lump-sum payments and transitional benefits, as well as the newly-introduced taxation of those benefits, also grate against ex-soldiers.

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“It leaves the perception they’re not worth as much as the ones who came before them,” said Blais.

The line that separates veterans benefits was drawn on April 1, 2006, the day the New Veterans Charter came into effect. Those in the system before that date collect life-time pensions, while the rest fall under the new regime. Veterans Affairs’ own documents suggest that new regime was designed to limit escalating costs.

“A shift to greater use of lump-sum payments with customized rehabilitation services would serve, over time, to regain control of an alarming future liability scenario,” said a 2004 backgrounder, posted to the department’s web site.

Meanwhile, a recent poll conducted for National Defence shows that the public is slowly letting go of the image of Canadian soldiers as peacekeepers.

The survey conducted by Ipsos Reid and posted online by the government, shows that 52 per cent believe the Canadian military should take an active role in future conflicts, a change from repeated polls conducted during the war that suggested a majority wanted a return to blue beret missions.

“Some focus group participants felt that the Canadian Forces should be deployed more selectively,” said the June 2011 poll, which interviewed 1,651 people with a margin of error of 2.8 per cent.

The training mission in Kabul has been greeted with comfortable support, according to the research.

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But it also shows Canadians, like soldiers who are adjusting to their new reality, are torn over the Afghan war.

“While support for the mission in Afghanistan has decreased, pride in Canada’s role there has not, with over three in four Canadians (77 per cent) saying they are proud of the role that the Canadian Forces has played in Afghanistan.”

The result says a lot to Stogran.

“Canadians are loyal to a fault and it takes a lot for Canadians not to believe in their government,” he said. “We’re optimists. We like to believe that everything will work out. We like to believe that we’re looking after our veterans, but the reality can be smoke and mirrors.”