Ottawa rapped for booting wounded veterans before they qualify for full pensions

Steve Mertl
Canadian Cpl. David Hawkins poses with children in Afghanistan in a 2008 handout photo. Gravely injured troops who want to remain uniform are being booted from the military before they qualify for their pensions, despite assurances to the contrary from the Harper government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Cpl.David Hawkins

The Conservative government, so obsessed with micromanaging its message, is having a public relations meltdown.

The Senate-expenses scandal keeps oozing political poison like a cracked bitumen pipeline, defying attempts to patch it up. And now Canadians yet again get to contrast the sordid battle over ruling-class "porquisites" with the way Ottawa treats its military veterans.

The government is already in trouble over reforms that replaced pension benefits for wounded veterans with a lump-sum payment that critics say will push disabled soldiers into poverty.

It's been defending itself against a class-action suit by injured Afghanistan war veterans by arguing it's not bound by promises of previous governments, dating back to the First World War, to look after wounded vets.

[ Related: Legion chief slams Ottawa’s claim it’s not bound by longstanding promises to wounded veterans ]

Now a simmering battle has re-emerged over the discharge of dozens of injured military personnel before they reach the minimum length of service to qualify for a veteran's pension.

The issue has centred on two soldiers whose stories were reported by The Canadian Press: Cpl. Glen Kirkland and Cpl. David Hawkins, both veterans of the Afghan mission.

Newly minted Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told the Commons on Wednesday that wounded vets weren't being booted from service prematurely, CP said.

"Before being released, members of the Canadian Armed Forces work with the military on a transition plan," Nicholson said.

"All and injured Canadian Forces members are provided with physical, mental and occupational therapy services for their eventual transition to civilian life. Members are not released until they are prepared."

That's not what the affected veterans say.

Hawkins, a London, Ont., reservist who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), was discharged despite please to remain another year so he could qualify for a fully-indexed pension given with a minimum 10 years of service, CP said.

Kirkland, who was wounded by a Taliban bomb that killed three comrades, was also facing discharge until he went public before a parliamentary committee last spring.

He was allowed to stay in the military but said this week he will now take his discharge after learning he's the only one to receive that consideration.

According to CP, the two soldiers didn't qualify for continued duty under the military's university-of-service regulation. It gives wounded soldiers three years to recover from their injuries – physical and/or emotional . If they can't meet the standards for overseas service they can be forced to leave. Apparently there's no alternative, such as performing other duties at home.

Former defence minister Gordon O'Connor ordered the rules reviewed in 2007 but then-chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier barred any changes, leaving the final decision on discharges up to him and his successors, CP reported.

According to figures tabled in Parliament last year, there were 1,218 medical discharges, 199 of which involved soldiers who hadn't reached the pension threshold, CP said. In 2010, at the height of Canada's Afghan involvement, 1,782 soldiers were medically discharged, 250 of them short of the 10-year mark.

[ Related: Ombudsman's report, critics pressure Conservatives to fix veterans charter ]

Critics see the policy as an effort to pinch pennies at the expense of wounded vets.

"I definitely think this is a consequence of the budget restraint at National Defence," Mike Blais president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, told CP.

"Allowing these wounded guys to stay; they're (seen as) excess baggage. They can't fulfil the requirement, boom — they're gone."

In a post on his group's web site earlier this month, Blais urged Canadians to lobby their MPs to honour historic commitments made to wounded veterans.

"The fabric of the nation is under siege," he said. "How can we expect our young men and women to serve in Harm’s Way, to rally to our call during domestic crisis, to be there when we and our families are confronting national peril if we are to marginalize their efforts in the aftermath of their sacrifice, if we fail to fulfill the obligation, the sacred obligation, that we, all Canadians, bear for those who stand on guard for thee?"

Food for thought for a government that lionizes our military's historical achievements.