OTTAWA — Canada's military ombudsman is taking aim at the armed forces for cutting loose ill and injured service members before they know what services and benefits the soldiers are getting from the Veterans Affairs Department.
In a landmark report released Tuesday, ombudsman Gary Walbourne says the military should instead keep those troops within the fold until their supports are secure to make sure they aren't "slipping through the cracks."
Canadian Forces ombudsman Gary Walbourne appears at a Senate veterans affairs committee in Ottawa on May 4, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
It's just one of a number of changes that Walbourne says would transform the much-maligned transition system that ill and injured military personnel must pass through on their way back into civilian life.
"Everything we hear about transition, these people slipping through cracks, it's because they're let go from one organization and haven't been accepted into another," Walbourne said in an interview in advance of the report's release.
Ill and injured military personnel have long expressed anger and frustration over what they say is an onerous, lengthy and overly bureaucratic process for accessing services and benefits when they are made to leave the Forces.
"Everything we hear about transition, these people slipping through cracks, it's because they're let go from one organization and haven't been accepted into another."
— Ombudsman Gary Walbourne
Complicating matters is the fact many end up being forced out of the military before their services and benefits are set up with Veterans Affairs. That causes huge stress on service personnel who may already be struggling with physical and mental injuries, said Walbourne.
"We hear the horror stories of those who find themselves couch surfing or in a basement or whatever might happen," he said. "But if a person has been retained by the military while they're going through this transition, life becomes much easier."
Approximately 1,800 service members are released for medical reasons each year.
Military personnel aren't automatically kicked out when they become too ill or injured to meet what's called the universality of service principle, which basically requires that a service member be fit enough to fight if needed.
Calls for concierge service
There are services set up to determine whether they can recover and, if not, various measures are available to help ease their departure from the military.
But too many end up out on the streets before their files have been properly set up at Veterans Affairs, which can take four months or longer, said Walbourne.
The ombudsman is also calling for the creation of a concierge service in which ill and injured service members would have someone guide them through the complicated process of transitioning from military to civilian life.
Similar services have already been established in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Urges military to make decisions on injuries
"I think having someone they know who is in uniform with them and understands the plight they're going through is going to make their life much, much easier."
Tuesday's report builds on the ombudsman's call earlier this month for the Canadian Armed Forces to determine whether a person's injury or illness was caused or aggravated by their military service. That determination would be used by Veterans Affairs to determine benefits or services.
Currently, the military does not make such a determination, leaving it up to the individual member to prove it themselves. Walbourne said that adds weeks and months to the service delay — to say nothing of the stress — for a member already struggling with an injury or illness.
Such a change, along with the military's continued retention of military personnel, would represent a dramatic and badly needed change to the transition system, he added.
'Cutting the edges is just making it smaller'
"We've been talking about this for years and years and we know the system needs adjustment and change," Walbourne said.
"Why not fundamentally change the system? I think we're at a point where cutting the edges is just making it smaller, it's not making it any better."
While Walbourne's recommendations deal only with the Canadian Armed Forces, he and veterans ombudsman Guy Parent have been conducting a joint investigation into the transition system, which has been the subject of thousands of complaints over the years.
The Liberal government has said it also wants to ease the transition for sick and wounded personnel, which is why Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr was also appointed associate defence minister: to help bridge the gap between the two departments.
Hehr's mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls for a "seamless transition for Canadian Forces members to the programs and services" at Veterans Affairs.