The nondescript office building on the sprawling grounds of Canadian Forces Base Petawawa doesn't look like much from the outside. But the Integrated Personnel Support Centre is meant to be a refuge for soldiers in need.
The Canadian Forces operates 24 support centres at bases across the country. They’re run through the military’s Joint Personnel Support Unit, or JPSU. Its job is to help injured and ill service members get back to their units or — more often — transition out of the military.
'I’ve had soldiers tell me that, if it wasn’t for us, they’d be hanging in their basement.'- Capt. Kevin Lamorie, Joint Personnel Support Unit
The military recently offered CBC News a guided tour of its support centre in Petawawa. Platoon commander Capt. Kevin Lamorie led the way.
Lamorie has worked with the JPSU since it was formed in 2009 in response to a growing wave of soldiers returning from Afghanistan with physical and mental injuries. Right now, nearly 2,000 soldiers are assigned to the JPSU.
The unit’s role is wide-ranging. The staff works to make sure injured soldiers get to their medical appointments. They try to find employment and training for them both on and off the base.
“The whole basis of our operation is to help them recover,” Lamorie said.
“I’ve had soldiers tell me that, if it wasn’t for us, they’d be hanging in their basement. And that makes my job very, very good to say that we’ve helped them out.”
A recent cluster of suicides by Canadian Forces members has raised questions about whether the military is doing enough to help injured soldiers. Those questions have extended to the JPSU.
In a report released last October, Pierre Daigle, the ombudsman for National Defence and the Canadian Forces, warned of staff shortages and insufficient training at military support centres.
Risk of 'mission failure'
Retired Sgt.-Maj. Barry Westholm has been a vocal critic of the entire JPSU system. A former paratrooper, Westholm helped run the unit’s Eastern Ontario region until he quit last year. In his resignation letter, which he addressed to the Governor General, prime minister and minister of national defence among others, he warned the unit in his region was at a point of “mission failure."
“It's massively understaffed. Overtasked, undertrained; everything that they should have, they don’t have,” said Westholm in an interview at his home in Westmeath, Ont., not far from Petawawa.
To him, Canada’s injured soldiers aren’t getting the help they deserve.
“They’re getting help. There’s no doubt about that. The help that they deserve? No. Absolutely not. It’s impossible. It can’t be done.”
To Westholm, it all boils down to numbers. The JPSU, he says, doesn’t have the staff to properly serve all the service members who need help.
The man in charge of the unit fervently disagrees. Col. Gerry Blais says the JPSU aims to have one military staff member for every 30 soldiers deployed to the unit. For the most part, he says, it’s meeting that goal.
“If you’re at a one-to-30 ratio for the work that’s being done here, that works very well,” Blais said.
“Of the 24 centres across the country, we have four that are slightly above that ratio right now. And the reason being they are smaller centres for the most part. And if one person decides to leave for another opportunity, well, then until we replace them, obviously, that ratio goes up significantly.”
According to figures from the military ombudsman, three of those centres are in Ontario, in Borden, Kingston and Trenton. The fourth is in St. Jean, Que. They’re operating at ratios as high as one to 56.
More than a third return to service
Despite that, Blais says the system is working, with 35 to 40 per cent of soldiers posted to the JPSU returning to full military service. That number is much higher than previously reported. When he appeared before a Senate committee in February, DND Ombudsman Pierre Daigle said statistics from his office showed between five and 10 per cent of soldiers assigned to the JPSU return to their unit.
Many soldiers forced out of the military for medical reasons don’t want to leave. Others say they’re ready for civilian life.
“I’m ready to leave. It’s time for me to carry on to something else; start a second career. And I’m good with that,” said Warrant Officer Mike Crosby.
Crosby was diagnosed with operational stress after tours in Croatia and Bosnia. He has been working in the JPSU as a peer support worker, talking to injured soldiers newly assigned to the unit.
“In my opinion, you never fully recover from this. You just learn to manage the symptoms better,” Crosby said.
“I still have good days and bad days.”
Cpl. Sherry Bordage is also on her way out of the military. Health factors brought her to the JPSU, including a diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress
Bordage credits JPSU staff with helping her get the training she needed to start a new career in real estate.
“My plan incorporates my military family. I'm not going to be serving in a military uniform but I will certainly be serving. I will be helping them find a home.”
The JPSU is eager to show off its success stories. But Barry Westholm isn’t convinced. He fears there may be a link between military suicides and a lack of services for injured soldiers.
“How can there not be?” he asked.
The military ombudsman is continuing to monitor the JPSU and is expected to issue an updated report on staffing and training at the unit in April.
Meanwhile, Capt. Kevin Lamorie, our tour guide in Petawawa, has no doubt about the work his unit is doing.
“I’ve never had a complaint about poor service or lack of service or lack of leadership or lack of anything,” he said.
“Soldiers that are posted here get treated the best and get all the services they need.”