The swelling anger at Veterans Affairs

Many Canadian veterans are angry at Veterans Affairs Canada, an anger shared by the department's outgoing ombudsman.

Steve Bird, 46, lived all over Canada during his 23 years fixing helicopters in the military.

In 2002, he was badly injured while pulling a fuel cell out of a helicopter and, after three operations, he is still in constant pain.

He also has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, related to various active assignments over the years. But for seven years, Veterans Affairs denied him a disability pension, saying his injuries were not related to his work.

Veterans' Ombudsman Pat Stogran, a retired colonel, at a press conference in Ottawa in August 2010 where he slammed Veterans Affairs; and in Kandahar in April 2002, when he was the commander of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. (Canadian Press)

Six appeals later, he was finally granted a disability pension and Bird wonders why it took that long for the federal department to do what was right.

"I felt abandoned," he says. And he is not alone.

Phil Minty's grandfather, William Coulson, was injured by shrapnel and mustard gas in the First World War and was designated completely disabled.

Yet, Veterans Affairs awarded him only a small disability pension and Minty remembers his grandfather writing monthly letters in the 1960s to try to get a modest increase. It never came.

"People think the older vets were treated better than those today," says Minty. "It's just that their stories didn't get told."

In their years in opposition, the Conservatives and Reform party often dined out on these veterans' stories, promising to bring changes should they come to power.

Indeed, in the 2006 election campaign, Stephen Harper promised a Veterans Bill of Rights that would require Veterans Affairs Canada to give servicemen and women the benefit of the doubt when they make a claim or apply for assistance.

But now, faced with an uproar over the decision not to extend the term of a popular veterans' ombudsman — a former colonel who raged against departmental stonewalling and has promised to bring forward the stories of deserving veterans — it seems clear the Conservative government has not fixed the problems it vowed to solve.

The bill of rights now exists, but veterans like Bird say it hasn't changed how they're treated.

"I felt I was being called a liar from day one," he says.

Veterans' charter

On coming to office, the Harper government also enacted a new "Veterans Charter," which was designed to change how veterans' benefits and services work.

The charter was meant to be a "living" document that could be adapted as unforeseen issues developed.

But many veterans now argue that the charter is rife with problems that are not being addressed.

For instance, injured vets no longer receive a monthly disability pension for life.

Instead, they are granted a lump sum payment up to a maximum of about $276,000, based on the level of disability.

The issue is that, even if invested properly, the amount equals hundreds of thousands of dollars less than what someone would have received under the previous system over the course of a normal lifetime. And that's if it's invested.

Many also question the wisdom of giving a young, injured serviceman, who is perhaps also suffering from PTSD, a large sum of cash up front.

Find your own way

Another problem with the system, according to the veterans who have been calling the ombudsman's office, is that injured veterans may be eligible for other monies in other programs. But the labyrinth of criteria and eligibility requirements makes it extremely difficult for anyone to figure out what is available.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper pays his respects as he tours the Commonwealth Berlin War Cemetary in Berlin, on May 8, 2010 to commemorate VE Day. He was with veterans Byng Giraud(right), from Trail, B.C., and Harry Irish from Brockville, Ont. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"They don't offer help. Their attitude is, if you find your own way, then fine, but otherwise you're on your own," says Bob Grant who was a reservist for 25 years.

Grant's father, Michael, was a veteran from the Second World War. When he returned, he had lost most of his hearing and suffered from night terrors, which stayed with him until he died. Grant's sister, who was seven at the time, had to walk their father around the block to help calm him down during his panic attacks.

Veterans Affairs denied him a disability pension or even a pair of hearing aids, although they did send along a set of glasses.

Grant says that from what he sees, Veterans Affairs has not improved much since his father was a vet. He says every past government — Liberal or Conservative — is to blame, but he is especially disillusioned with the current one.

"The Conservative government stands up in Parliament and says, 'We stand up for our brave men and women.' They're saying one thing and doing another," Grant says, arguing that if Canadians don't make veterans' assistance an election issue, nothing will change.

See you in court

Another issue that has not been resolved under the new charter is the long-term disability program that soldiers pay into while serving. It is set up as an insurance plan for those who are injured in the line of duty and unable to serve.

The problem, however, is that those who receive a monthly disability pension under the pre-charter system are now seeing the government claw back that pension and other income from the insurance payouts.

Some veterans are currently fighting the clawback in court in a class-action lawsuit.

They say the clawback is unfair because they paid into the insurance plan in good faith and because it is not applied equally to those who leave or who remain in the Canadian Forces.

A Senate Committee and a former DND ombudsman have agreed the practice is "profoundly unfair," but the government has not budged.

As well, veterans argue the clawback works to deter veterans from working and reintegrating into civilian life.

Veteran Affairs clearly does not want to be a welfare system for veterans; the department worries about creating a dependent population and many veterans agree this can become a problem.

However, they argue that they only want what they've been promised: that if they put their life on the line, they will be taken care of if they get hurt.

The impasse has led to a relationship that has become highly antagonistic in recent years and in which the government has been taken to court by veterans on a number of occasions: over interest not paid on pensions held in trust; over pensions not granted to veterans' widows; and over compensation for exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange.

Many of these cases are still winding their way through the court system and veterans argue that the government is spending more money fighting them in court than they would have to pay out if they just conceded the cases.

Carla Murray is Steve Bird's wife. She says taking care of him is a full-time job and that getting reimbursement from Veterans Affairs for his pain medication and for travel to see specialists is a constant battle.

She also wonders what veterans who come back with missing limbs or mental health issues do if they don't have wives, husbands or family to advocate for them.

"A lot of these guys don't have it in them to fight anymore," she says.

Bird says he would not recommend any young person sign up for the military today.

"Everything is great until you get injured," he says, adding that's when you become a liability. "The sooner they can get rid of you the better."