OTTAWA - Two new reports paint a troubling portrait of post-military life for the country's soldiers, suggesting that for many the return to the civilian world is marked by health concerns, a sense of social isolation and less cash.
The Statistics Canada surveys, released in tandem Thursday, present a challenge to the Harper government, which has staked a lot of its political reputation on supporting the troops and has poured tens of millions of extra dollars into both the veterans affairs and defence budgets to help ex-service members achieve a soft landing in their new lives.
The Pre- and Post-Release Income survey and the Health and Well-Being of Canadian Armed Forces Veterans reports examine the quality of life and financial burdens of the country's former service members over a 15-year period, starting in 1998.
The income survey, which measured to 2011, looked at the tax and Veterans Affairs records of 70,771 ex-soldiers and found that both regular and reserve members experienced an income decline on shedding their uniforms.
In the case of wounded soldiers released on medical grounds, the drop is steep. It could amount to as much as 20 per cent.
Full-time members, in their mid-40s with no medical condition and who quit or retired, saw an average income decline of two per cent, but that figure jumped to 11 per cent if the ex-soldier sought rehabilitation or training services at the veterans' department.
The income slide is felt the most in the lower ranks, the survey said.
A spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino pointed out the survey results show that ex-soldiers after three years as clients of the department receive on average $70,700 — or $5,891 a month.
In an attempt to stem criticism, Fantino caused a stir last spring when he told a parliamentary committee that some wounded troops receive as much as $10,000 per month — figure that included every government entitlement.
It turned out there were only four veterans eligible to receive that amount, all of them senior officers and severely disabled.
His spokesman said the Statistics Canada data does not capture all the government has done lately.
"The averages provided in this report are reflective of income from 1997-2011 and therefore the data is informative but not necessarily reflective of today's reality," said David Pierce in an email.
"Minister Fantino recognizes there is more work to be done and remains committed to improving the lives of Canadian Veterans and their families."
An overhaul of legislation governing veterans benefits in 2011 saw the Conservatives introduce a supplement to the permanent impairment allowance and a minimum pre-tax income of $40,000 a year for the most seriously injured.
NDP veterans critic Peter Stoffer acknowledged the influx of cash, but said the steep decline in income was a dramatic illustration of the long wait time applicants have before benefits and it's something the government hasn't addressed.
"It is a slow, slow movement towards additional financial support," said Stoffer. "Those benefits should have been immediately available to vets upon release."
The Health and Well-Being of Canadian Armed Forces Veterans, which covered the year 2013, found that when asked, regular force veterans rated their health more poorly than the general population, their "sense of community belonging" as lower and they were "less often satisfied with life than most Canadians."
It found that almost a quarter of those leaving the military reported both physical and mental disorders.
According to the survey, 13 per cent of departing full-time members were reported to have suffered from post-traumatic stress, roughly in line with previous studies, and 17 per cent had some kind of mood disorder, including depression.
The rate of those contemplating suicide was seven per cent among regular soldiers and five per cent among reservists.
Some of the physical complaints included chronic pain, back injuries and 26 per cent of regular forces members were struggling with obesity.
Notably in the context of the ground war in Afghanistan, the report says veterans leaving the military between 2007 and 2012 were generally younger than in previous years and in poorer health.
"Considering their younger average age they had notable prevalences of poor self-rated health, poor self-rated mental health, physical and mental health conditions and disability assessed as both reduction of activities in major life domains and as needing help with basic and instrumental activities of daily living," the report said.