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Smoother military exit system for soldiers still years away, documents show

Internal documents obtained by CBC News show the Trudeau government's overhaul of the cumbersome military release system will take years and ignores key recommendations from the Canadian Forces ombudsman.

Minister blames backlog on previous 'more teeth, less tail' cuts at National Defence

Retired corporal Pamela McArthur left the Canadian Forces in mid-October and has been waiting more than two months for her severance, military pension and veterans benefits. (Pamela McArthur)

Building a smoother, less confusing exit path for soldiers departing the Canadian military will take another two or three years to implement and will likely not include significant recommendations from the Canadian Forces ombudsman, CBC News has learned.

A draft copy of the strategy shows that many key elements of the Liberal government's overhaul of the system — namely the harmonization of financial benefits — will not take place until the 2018-19 budget year.

That is likely to be frustrating for ex-military members who have been routinely caught up in a system that makes them wait weeks, sometimes months, for Canadian Forces pensions or separate veterans' benefits and entitlements.

A copy of the May 2016 draft plan was obtained by CBC News. It was prepared by a joint working group of National Defence and Veterans Affairs, and says building a bridge between the two departments is a priority.

The 12-page document lays out a complex, multi-year program with the stated intent of making it easier for members of the military to transition from uniform to civilian life through more employment, financial certainty and, in some cases, medical certainty.

'Closing the seam'

Both Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr have been tasked with — and often talk about — "closing the seam" between their organizations.

I'm a single mother. What do I do? I'm a young person. I don't have the money and I lived  paycheque  to  paycheque  in the military.- Retired corporal Pamela McArthur

The government and outside experts have come to the realization that ex-soldiers, whose transition out of uniform has been messed up, face higher probability of being in crisis.

In some cases, a bad release from the Forces is believed to contribute to higher incidence of homelessness and perhaps even suicide.

The plan does not include some of the most important recommendations recently made by military ombudsman Gary Walbourne, who has said there should be concierge services to guide soldiers through the complex system and to check up on them afterward.

Walbourne also said Veterans Affairs should automatically accept the military medical diagnosis that ends a soldier's career, rather than insisting on doing its own assessment — a system that sometimes sees veterans denied benefits for conditions that ended their military careers.

He also insisted that soldiers not be released until their benefits are set up, including pension and severance payments.

Ombudsman Gary Walbourne says there should be concierge services to guide soldiers through the complex process of leaving the Forces. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press )

Pamela McArthur, a retired corporal and former military police officer, was released on medical grounds in mid-October and has yet to see her severance pay, military pension or disability benefits.

"I'm a single mother. What do I do?" McArthur said in an interview with CBC News. "I'm a young person. I don't have the money and I lived paycheque to paycheque in the military."

McArthur, who has no income, applied for veterans disability benefits in June, prior to her departure. She was only recently assigned a case manager.

McArthur has been told she'll have to cover the cost of her medication until the government decides on her eligibility, which could take up to a year.

"I don't know if I'm going to be covered. You just don't know," said McArthur, who spent just over nine years in uniform.

'How can people wait this long'

Separately, she has called the Canadian Forces pension line, where a recorded message tells callers not to clog up the answering machine with repeat phone calls.

"So I left a message and I haven't heard anything," McArthur said.

Frustrated and angry for both herself and others, she said the ombudsman's recommendations should be heeded.  

"It's horrible, it's really horrible," said McArthur, adding she cannot understand why a systemic overhaul takes so long and why the military and Veterans Affairs cannot have everything arranged for a departing soldier within a six-month window prior to their last day.

"How can people wait this long? It just doesn't make any sense."

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the backlog has been caused by the former Conservative government's deficit reduction plan that forced the military to make 'difficult decisions.' (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Sajjan said he is also upset with the current state of the system. His department has put more resources into fixing the problem, he said, but concedes it's not enough.

According to Sajjan, the previous Conservative government's focus on cutting overhead at National Defence is to blame.

"We have had this backlog because there were very little resources put to pensions," said Sajjan, referring to former prime minister Stephen Harper's demand that the military have "more teeth and less tail" in terms of bureaucracy.

"The military had to make some difficult decisions when the deficit-reduction plan was brought in by the previous government to balance the budget. Now we're dealing with the impact of those decisions."

Officials at the Defence Department insist they are working on solutions and hope to have a system in place to guide soldiers through transition.

Canadian Forces spokesman Lt. Kelly Boyden said they will run a pilot program called "Guided Support," which "would serve as a media-of-choice gateway to benefits and services."

But Boyden's email response did not define precisely what that means.

'Basically, we're just a number'

A clue, however, can be found in internal documents obtained by CBC News.

According to a one-page briefing note, dated last week, senior officials at National Defence are expected to debate on Friday three proposed "courses of action" to help close the seam.

The centrepiece of the proposal that will go before Maj.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, the deputy commander of military personnel, involves the establishment of a single "web-based portal" for soldiers that allows them to set up transitions accounts where all of the details of their departure can be accessed.

In addition, the military would build transition centres that have a better ability to "triage" soldiers coming through the door, many of whom might have complex health concerns and pension issues.

McArthur said she feels there is no sense of urgency or understanding that people's lives are at stake.

"Basically, we're just a number, a piece of paper, and hopefully they'll get to you."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

With files from David McKie

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