Nova Scotia

'We answer those calls': VETS Canada gives Christmas aid to struggling war hero

A highly decorated Canadian Afghan war veteran was about to pawn the last of his belongings in order to give his young daughter a Christmas.

Struggling with physical, mental and financial injuries, a Canadian war veteran finds help with VETS Canada

Collin Fitzgerald , a highly decorated Canadian war veteran, finally got some help from Nova Scotia-based VETS Canada just hours before Christmas. (Submitted by Kerri Tadeu)

It was getting close to Christmas and a desperate Canadian veteran was about to pawn the last of his belongings in order to provide some sort of holiday for his young daughter.

Broke, Collin Fitzgerald made a call Dec. 23 to a Nova Scotia charity called VETS Canada.

"I was going into a huge depression. I didn't know what I was going to do. I was almost going to literally take stuff that I can't get rid of to a pawn shop so I could do something for my daughter," he said.

A highly decorated Canadian Afghan war veteran, Fitzgerald was honoured for helping wounded comrades in a burning vehicle under enemy fire. But for the past two years, the Ontario man was enmeshed in legal battles, some connected to his post traumatic stress disorder, and also has fought to clear his name of criminal charges he says he never committed. Earlier this fall, he won and the Crown withdrew all the charges against him.

Help came

His legal battles have left him $200,000 in debt.

When he made his last-ditch effort for help, VETS Canada's founder Jim Lowther answered the phone. 

Master Cpl. Collin Fitzgerald, middle, is honoured with the Military Valour decoration for gallantry and devotion to duty in Afghanistan in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Feb 19, 2007. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

By 10 a.m. Christmas Eve day, Fitzgerald was able to tap into $750 worth of gift, food and gas cards in order to put food on the table, pick up his eight-year-old daughter who lives about two hours away from him and provide some presents for her.

"We're just doing what we do every day. We answer the calls at 11:00 on Friday night," Lowther said.

"I am happy, I am glad they called us. He's had a rough time. It is a good feeling that someone is going to have a happy Christmas."

'I can't thank them enough'

Fitzgerald said he felt tremendous relief.

"In less than 24 hours, he was able to get money into my account. VETS Canada has been amazing. I can't thank them enough."

Collin Fitzgerald served eight months in Afghanistan and has felt let down by some of the post-traumatic stress disorder care he's received. (CBC)

The grassroots organization, based in Halifax, began in 2010-2011 when Lowther, a military veteran himself, realized there were men and women like him slipping through the cracks, coping with mental and physical injuries, losing their families and ending up suicidal and on the street.

He said December has been a busy month for the charity that now has a network of 135,000, most of whom are ex-military or RCMP.

"It's been a busy month. We're going to be over 100 veterans that we've assisted this month alone."

'I don't like begging people to help'

On Christmas Eve day, Fitzgerald was making a list of things to purchase.

"Presents for my daughter,  books and games so we can interact with each other. I plan on getting some food and making her some Christmas supper," he said, adding "I don't like begging people to help."

It stung when his requests for help from other agencies who assist military veterans were met with "a lot of red tape and bureaucracy" and turned down, he said.

"It upsets me. It enrages me," Fitzgerald said.

 "Knowing when [people] are reaching out, they are not getting the help that they need."

Extended assistance

VETS Canada will also help him with the obstacles preventing him from getting back on his feet, both in health and financial issues.

"I tried to assure him that things will eventually work out. We help them [veterans] move forward so they can get back on their feet," Lowther said.

He said in the new year, he will be in touch with other partners who can advise Fitzgerald, and a conference call will  be set up.

With files from Rachel Ward and Shaina Luck