Military to disband and replace oft-maligned support units for wounded soldiers

The country's chief of defence staff is planning to dismantle an often-criticized support unit for the wounded established during the Afghan war. Gen. Jonathan Vance told a Senate committee that the Joint Personnel Support Units will be folded into a wider, more professional organization.

Units were created in crisis, Gen. Jonathan Vance says, and time has come to do better

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance told a Senate committee that he intends to disband the Joint Personnel Support Units, which care for wounded soldiers, and replace them with an organization that will better help members transition out of uniform. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

After an attempted overhaul last year, an often-maligned support unit for ill and injured soldiers will be disbanded, the country's top military commander says.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, testified before a Senate committee on Wednesday that the function of the Joint Personnel Support Units (JPSUs) will be folded into a "proper, professionalized" organization that will better help members transition to civilian life.

"The JPSU was created in crisis," Vance told reporters following the meeting. "I think enough time has passed, we've gained enough expertise about how to manage this better." 

The units were set up in 2008 during the Afghan war as centres where wounded troops could be posted until they recovered or left the military. The 24 personnel-support centres are located at bases and wings across the country, and offer programs and administrative support to troops unable to fulfil their regular duties.

Internal defence department studies have shown few of the soldiers posted to JPSUs returned to their units.

Soldiers have long complained the JPSUs and their subordinate Integrated Personnel Support Centres are habitually understaffed and that the units have often proved unhelpful in preparing them for a post-military career.

Last year, an internal assessment team, ordered by Vance and led by Brig.-Gen. David Anderson, identified myriad problems, many related to staffing and resources.

At the time the report was written, there were approximately 1,400 clients in the system and nearly 50 vacant staff positions out of a total complement of 297.

The report noted that on one base of 8,000 service members, there was only one person manning the support centre where 160 injured soldiers were posted.

The review team told Vance that base commanders often held "a negative view of the JPSU structure" and even troops themselves described the centres in "derogatory terms."

The perception, according to the report, was that the JPSUs housed "lazy" or under-performing troops.

New branch coming, but not soon

The military embarked on an overhaul of the administration, but it was clear in Vance's testimony, and remarks afterward, that the revamping had been abandoned.

He said he intends to re-establish a personnel administration branch, which was scrapped years ago, and many of the JPSU functions and most of its staff will be moved there.

"It's not going to happen in two months. It's going to take some time to do this right," he said. "Doesn't mean that what the JPSU has done has not been brilliant. They have dedicated staff that try to do all they can."

The new organization, which has yet to be named, will have a wider mandate than simply shepherding the ill and injured.

Vance said he wants to see the whole system of human resources within the military "professionalized," noting for the Senate committee that many of the policies governing the current system are decades old.

"As we look to create new, modern, highly agile personnel management policies, I need HR experts. People who are solely dedicated to this. And we don't have that branch anymore," he said.

Retired sergeant major Barry Westholm quit JPSU in 2013. He calls the branch 'understaffed, overtasked, and undertrained.' (CBC)

Barry Westholm, a retired sergeant major who oversaw a JPSU, told CBC News the old personnel administration branch was replaced because "it didn't work."

He said the resurrected structure will need to be different. 

The joint personnel support system was actually a "brilliant" concept that was far ahead of its time, Westholm said, but it suffered not only from a lack of staff, but an absence of support from military leaders.

"It was poorly managed," said Westholm, who quit his position at Camp Petawawa, Ont., in 2013 in frustration over the system. "I feel bad. I always knew it was a mess. And I feel very worried, very concerned for all of the people who transitioned through there since 2008-09. Those people, a lot of them, are in crisis."

He said he believes the staffing shortage had far-reaching consequences for troops with post-traumatic stress and may have contributed to a number of suicides.

Military brass have repeatedly defended the system — both in public and before parliamentary committees.

"And now they say they want to create a professional system?" said Westholm. "If you look back, historically, at what they were saying about the JPSU, they were lauding how great it was, how top notch it was, how ill and injured in the Canadian Forces were getting the best care possible.

"The things they said were wrong."


Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.