Soldiers with PTSD might not get full pension, advocates warn

The mental-health struggles of Canadian soldiers have caught a lot of political attention of late, but veterans advocates remain concerned that PTSD could jeopardize a soldier's pension.

10-year-rule could jeopardize pension for members who have been medically released

A Canadian soldier with a sunflower stuck to his helmet patrols the Panjwaii district, near Salavat, southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in September 2010. Canadian soldiers who are medically released prior to 10 years of service are not entitled to a full pension. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

The mental-health struggles of Canadian soldiers have caught a lot of political attention of late, but veterans advocates remain concerned that PTSD could jeopardize a soldier's pension.

A Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) member has to serve 10 years before being eligible for a full pension.

But by coming forward with physical or psychological injuries — such as post-traumatic stress disorder — in their first decade of service, many soldiers are at risk of being medically released and losing out on a full pension, says Michael Blais, president and founder of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.

"It seems there's a dedicated effort to release those who are wounded prior to the 10-year period," says Blais.

"As a consequence, we have these kids out there, seriously wounded and no pension, and feel they've been abandoned."

On Tuesday, two days after the government pledged to spend $200 million over six years on mental health counselling for soldiers, Auditor General Michael Ferguson released a report criticizing the military for making it so difficult for soldiers to get psychological treatment.

Neither of these two announcements, however, address the issue of soldier pensions.

Meeting the 'Universality of Service'

As with many vocations, every member of CAF pays into a pension.

A report by Auditor General Michael Ferguson has criticized how difficult it is for psychologically troubled soldiers to receive mental-health counselling. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In order to work, however, they must meet the military's "Universality of Service" standards, which are a set of physical and psychological criteria that ensure a member is fit to carry out their designated job.

According to the Department of National Defence (DND) website, "every member, regardless of military occupation, must meet the Universality of Service standards in order to remain in the CAF."

If members sustain a physical or psychological injury any time during their service, they can seek rehabilitation services and counselling in order to regain their ability to meet the Universality of Service standards.

But because they aren't eligible for a full pension before they've completed 10 years of service, many soldiers feel that coming forward with a PTSD complaint in their first decade could put them on a fast track to dismissal, says Peter Stoffer, an NDP MP and veterans affairs critic.

Once the Department of Defence determines that a person has PTSD, "all of a sudden the clock starts ticking on your removal from the military," says Stoffer, who is calling for the abolishment of the 10-year rule.

Based on the current rules, if Armed Forces members are released prior to the 10-year mark, they are only entitled to a return of their pension contributions.

'Arbitrary and unfair'

The ombudsman for the Canadian Forces has called the Universality of Service rule “arbitrary and unfair."

In October, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson denied the notion that service members are dismissed prematurely.

"No member of the Armed Forces is let go until they are ready to move on," he said.

According to a document produced by DND called "Caring for our Own," when a CAF member incurs an injury or illness that results in an inability to meet the Universality of Service standards, "our goal is to prepare the individual for transition" to the reserve force "or to civilian life."

Stoffer says that because the Universality of Service standards compel soldiers to be combat-ready at all times, the attitude at DND is "if you're not deployable, you're not employable."

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson has said that 'no member of the Armed Forces is let go until they are ready to move on.' (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Data released from the Canadian Forces Mental Health Survey last month shows that one-third of Canada's soldiers worry that seeking mental health services would harm their career.

The survey, which was developed by Statistics Canada with the DND, interviewed about 6,700 regular force members and 1,500 reservists between April and August 2013.

Stoffer says there are currently 200 cases of people with mental health issues being let go before the 10-year mark.

"I'm dealing with a guy right now who's going to be kicked out at nine years, six months – he's six months shy of the full term," Stoffer says.

He says the 10-year rule is "a cost-cutting measure."

When asked whether the 10-year-rule was indeed a way for the government to save money, a media representative for the Canadian Forces referred CBC News to two Canadian Forces web pages that spell out military benefits.

Need for 'creative' solutions

Veterans advocates say that the PTSD designation not only affects their members' pension eligibility, but could also limit their job prospects outside the force.

Blais from the Canadian Veterans Advocacy says that even if they don't meet the Universality of Service standards, a wounded soldier should still be able to serve.

"Maybe not in a deployment zone, but in Canada [somewhere]," says Blais.

Philip Ralph, an army reservist and national program director at the advocacy group Wounded Warriors, says the government should look for other ways to accommodate those who sustain lasting injuries while serving.

Ralph suggested keeping them on until they qualify for a full pension or creating some sort of disability pension "that would give them the dignity of their service."

Given how, as a soldier, "you put your life on the line for your country," Ralph says the government needs to "be more creative in thinking of ways" to help those who sustain PTSD early in their military career.


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