Families of single soldiers say death benefit unfair

The families of at least four unmarried soldiers killed in Afghanistan have stepped forward to file human-rights complaints, alleging Veterans Affairs discriminates in favour of married troops in the payment of a $250,000 death benefit.
Errol and Elaine Cushley comfort one another as the casket with their son Pte. William Cushley is marched past during the repatriation ceremony in Trenton, Ont., on Sept. 6, 2006. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

The families of at least four unmarried soldiers killed in Afghanistan have stepped forward to file human-rights complaints.

The relatives allege Veterans Affairs discriminates in favour of married troops in the payment of a $250,000 death benefit, The Canadian Press has learned.

The cases, which are at the investigation stage, follow the dismissal last week of a similar complaint by the parents of Cpl. Matthew Dinning, who died in an April 2006 Kandahar roadside bombing.

A federal human-rights tribunal rejected the complaint of Lincoln and Laurie Dinning because Veterans Affairs abruptly decided to recognize their son's girlfriend as his common-law spouse, technically making him no longer single.

Errol Cushley, the father of Pte. William Cushley, and Beverley Skalrud, the mother of Pte. Braun Scott Woodfield, confirmed they have launched their own challenges of the death stipend, which was instituted as part of an overhaul of veterans benefits in 2006.

The families of Trooper Jack Bouthillier and Trooper Marc Diab have launched similar complaints.

"You have four men killed in the same battle, three of them are paid $250,000, (but) William does not qualify because he is single. It doesn't make any sense to me," said Errol Cushley, who lives near Wallaceburg, Ont.

"I always understood you couldn't discriminate on those grounds."

William Cushley was one of the soldiers killed in the opening phase of Operation Medusa, as Charles Company of 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment charged across Kandahar's Arghandaub River into the teeth of a Taliban ambush.

Matter of fairness

The death benefit complaint is a matter of equity and fairness, and not driven by money, said the grieving father.

"People are going to try and turn it into that and I don't care," said Cushley.

"I would gladly give everything I own to have my son back. I'll give them $250,000, you give me Will back. He was my only son."

Skalrud's son died in an armoured vehicle accident in November 2005 as Canadian troops moved into Kandahar.

The death benefit had not been enacted at the time, but the Conservative government chose to backdate it for the families of troops who had died in the months prior to April 1, 2006. Still, Skalrud was excluded because Braun Woodfield was single.

"It felt wrong in the pit of my stomach right from the beginning," said Skalrud.

"Was the life of my son worth less than a married soldier? That's what this says to me. This policy is wrong and I'm definitely willing to pick up the torch."

Her comments were echoed by Jihan Diab, whose son Marc died in March 2009.

"It's not right. My son served as equally as any other married soldier -- or soldiers that were in common-law status," said Diab.

Issue in limbo

The Canadian Human Rights Commission does not comment on complaints that are under investigation. But on the dismissal of the Dinning case, a spokesman said an important policy issue has been left in limbo.

"The question is still an important one and has yet to be addressed. Entitlement to these benefits in similar situations remains an issue," said David Gollob, the commission's communications director.

Both Cusley and Skalrud say Veterans Affairs has told the human-rights commission their complaints should not be pursued because they were not filed within one year of the alleged discrimination taking place, required under the law.

But the parents argue they are part of a continuing discrimination because some of the latest soldiers to die in Afghanistan were single.

Raynald Bouthillier, whose son was killed in a roadside bombing in March 2009, said he wasn't aware until recently that the government made a distinction between married and single soldiers.

"I think when other families find out they'll say something," said Bouthillier of Hearst, Ont.

Call for investigation

New Democrat veterans affairs critic Peter Stoffer demanded an investigation into the Dinning case Wednesday, saying the federal government owes it to the family to explain how and when it decided to recognize their son's girlfriend as a common-law spouse.

The family had four years of emotional anguish fighting the case through a human-rights tribunal only to have the department accept a previously rejected application, he said.

"It's rather cruel," Stoffer said. "The most respectful way I can say this is that it's very, very disrespectful of those families who've lost loved ones serving their country."

He said he believes the department deliberately short-circuited the Dinning complaint to keep the families of all other single soldiers at bay.

The cost of paying the benefit to all soldiers was examined by the department in 2007. It was estimated that paying single soldiers would have bumped up the cost of the program by $3 million per year.

"If there are other Canadian Human Rights Tribunal cases involving the New Veterans Charter death benefit, it would not be appropriate to comment before decisions are rendered," said department spokeswoman Janice Summerby.

Under the old system, the federal government paid a supplementary death benefit, calculated at two times the member's annual earnings.

The cash went to the spouse, or another designated beneficiary of the soldier. If there was no beneficiary, the money would go into the estate.