The long, strange fight of Veterans Affairs crusader Sean Bruyea

Robert Smol on the battle for recognition by disabled servicemen.

Sean Bruyea is every complacent politician's and senior bureaucrat's worst nightmare — a decorated former intelligence officer who, being disabled himself in the course of serving his country, was able to spend years studying the inner machinations of Veterans Affairs Canada.

As a journalist and former intelligence officer myself, it was no real surprise to discover that senior officials in the department of veterans affairs somehow accessed and discussed Bruyea's personal medical information — right up to the minister's office — without his knowledge or consent.

All with the apparent intention of finding some way to discredit him as a critic.

Sean Bruyea and his wife Caroline leave a news conference on Parliament Hill on Oct. 7, 2010. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

But that this could come about with such casual disregard for his rights speaks volumes to the political paranoia that had been building up within Veterans Affairs for a few decades now, and to a man who just wouldn't back down.

Twenty years ago there was nothing to indicate that Sean Bruyea's life might take the course that it did.

A graduate of the Royal Military College and the Canadian Forces School of Intelligence and Security, Bruyea was posted in 1988 to the fighter squadron that flew out of Cold Lake, Alta.

It was only two years later, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and Canada pledged to join the war of liberation, that things began to go terribly wrong.

As I can personally attest, the outbreak of the 1990 Gulf War threw the Canadian military into a tizzy as we frantically mobilized for an operation that no one had foreseen.

Unlike today, when even battle-hardened units deploying to Afghanistan are given three months to prepare, then Capt. Bruyea and his unit had only one week to get ready for war.

As he would later say, the stress of having to deploy, unprepared, to a war zone was "the preliminary to PTSD," the post-traumatic stress disorder that would change his life.

From my many discussions with him over the years, it seems that this junior officer was personally tasked with a grossly inordinate amount of critical responsibilities in those frantic days leading to his unit's deployment to the Gulf.

Not only did he have to prepare his own intelligence group for war, but he also had to substitute for an absent administrative officer to ensure that many other personnel matters were dealt with for the larger air force contingent from CFB Cold Lake.

To make matters worse, National Defence headquarters initially denied Bruyea the critical intelligence his unit needed on the Iraqis (which he would end up acquiring from an affiliated American unit).

This was no little thing. Remember, at the time we here in Canada were led to believe that our military was confronting a formidable battle-hardened army that might even unleash chemical and biological attacks.

Gulf War syndrome

By the time his unit was deployed to the Gulf in December 1990, Bruyea was already "extremely fatigued" and, like many of his fellow servicemen in the region, began to exhibit the symptoms of what became known as Gulf War syndrome.

Bruyea, then a young captain, leading an intelligence briefing during the Gulf War in 1990. (Photo courtesy Sean Bruyea)

"I suddenly started getting recurrent fevers," he told me. "I would wake up and the bed would be soaked with sweat. At times my heart rate would go down to 30 beats a minute. I just could not figure out what it all was."

Diagnosed with combat stress reaction, basically the short-term version of PTSD, Bruyea quickly came to realize that if he wanted to save his career he would have to downplay his psychological condition.

"When I arrived home I met with a military psychologist and the first words he told me was 'Everything you tell me I am going to have to tell your commanding officer.'

"So of course I was not going to admit what was affecting my ability to work."

On returning to his unit in Alberta in 1991, his physical problems worsened; some continue to this day.

"Every organ, every system seemed to be affected," he said. "The nervous system, the urinary tract, the gastro-intestinal tract. They all seemed to go through these periods of failing."

For the next almost six years, he sought medical treatment for his physical conditions but not for the psychological ones, as these were not given much sympathy within the Forces at the time.

In 1996, with his conditions worsening and his career stalled, Bruyea was medically released.

Fighting for compensation

The sad reality of the Canadian Forces at that time was that it did little to educate or inform exiting servicemen about their options.

For Bruyea, not only did the military fail to tell him about possible compensation by Veterans Affairs but it also failed to inform him about his right to access the military's own long-term disability insurance program.

Only a chance meeting with another disabled veteran in 1997 made him aware of possible avenues of compensation.

But discovering that he was eligible to apply was only the beginning.

As shocking as it seems, a medically diagnosed and documented disability from the Canadian Forces does not automatically mean recognition by Veterans Affairs.

For Bruyea, that meant not just a long and taxing application process but also considerable personal expense. After receiving his medical files from DND, Bruyea then had to pay medical specialists out of his own pocket to complete the pile of forms required by Veterans Affairs.

Two and a half years — and $30,000 in medical bills later — Bruyea was finally awarded a modest monthly pension from Veterans Affairs, which later would turn into another campaign worth fighting for.

Not just a 'client'

By this point, Bruyea had become understandably frustrated with how the federal bureaucracy treats its newer veterans.

So, in 2003 when Ottawa refused to condone Kuwait's efforts to award Liberation of Kuwait medals to Canadian Gulf War veterans, Bruyea joined forces with another veteran  of that conflict, former nurse Louise Richard, who has also done much to publicize Gulf War syndrome and whose health records, it was recently revealed, also found their way into ministerial briefing papers.

Their volunteer campaign at the Kuwaiti embassy in Ottawa ensured the medals went out to eligible Gulf War vets.

At the time, we should remember, Canada — like Britain and the U.S. — was denying there was even such a thing as Gulf War syndrome, which some researchers have suggested affected up to 30 per cent of those who served in that conflict.

But of particular concern to Veterans Affairs was Bruyea's outspoken opposition to the law passed in May 2005, which established the controversial New Veterans Charter and the fact that Ottawa would no longer provide a lifetime monthly pension for service-related disabilities, substituting instead a one-time lump sum compensation.

Department documents would later admit that the reason to end the monthly disability pensions was that it represented an "alarming future liability" for the Canadian government.

As Bruyea says: "Every good crime story tells us that if you want to find the motive, follow the money."

Still, that can't be the only justification for the bureaucracy to treat him the way it has. For that, you probably also have to take into account the fact that younger veterans like Bruyea and myself are still not perceived by the government and, indeed, much of the public as real veterans, comparable to those who fought in the First and Second World Wars.

As Bruyea has told me, Veterans Affairs often referred to him as a "client," not as a war veteran in the traditional sense of the term.

If there is any solace in his current situation, it is that, largely through his advocacy, that view may finally be changing.