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Why a $7000 Benefit Is An Insult to Veterans' Families

03/23/2015 01:31 EDT | Updated 05/23/2015 05:59 EDT
Luke Sharrett via Getty Images
FORT CAMPBELL, KY - MARCH 21: WO1 Anthony Woodmansee of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division is embraced by his wife Emily Woodmansee during a homecoming ceremony at Campbell Army Airfield on March 21, 2015 in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The 162 soldiers who returned to Fort Campbell are some of the last to come home from a humanitarian deployment to Liberia in West Africa to fight the spread of the Ebola virus. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

This week, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) announced a proposed benefit of $7,238 for family members caring for severely ill or injured veterans. You'd think Jenifer Migneault, the wife of a man who suffers from PTSD, would be celebrating. But she's not.

The 42-year-old Quebecois woman is known in Parliament for chasing the former minister of Veterans Affairs, Julian Fantino, down a hallway to plead for help. Her husband, Claude Rainville, served for 20 years as a traffic technician in countries such as Rwanda, Syria and Haiti. "Mr. Fantino, as a spouse, can I talk to you please?" she yelled last May after a committee meeting, as the minister and his staff ignored her and kept walking.

Migneault wanted VAC to recognize the struggle of spouses who care for veterans with injuries such as PTSD. Since then, she's used the publicity from her infamous encounter to meet with more than 150 politicians - including Romeo Dallaire, Justin Trudeau and eventually, Fantino himself - to advocate for more family support.

Migneault does not think cash is the solution. She wants a program that trains family-turned-caregivers to live with PTSD. "I can have all the money in the world," she told CBC in reaction to the caregiver benefit. "But if I don't have a quality of life, this money doesn't serve anything."

In the months I spent reporting a story on the spouses of veterans with PTSD for Maisonneuve magazine, I learned that quality of life is the biggest struggle for those who end up as primary caregivers to our wounded and traumatized vets (the proposed benefit applies to physical injuries as well, but my research focused on mental injury). Of course, $7,000 never made anyone's life worse. The new Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole said in a press conference that the benefit will give caregivers "additional support" so they can "recharge their batteries." But at this point, the benefit is a cherry with no cake. If the government is serious about supporting veterans, it needs to educate their families and train them as caregivers. Throwing money at the problem simply isn't enough.

Around 10 per cent of war zone veterans suffer from PTSD, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Most of the women I spoke with had no idea what the mental illness was when it entered their homes (over 75 per cent of the Canadian Forces is male). They didn't choose to become caregivers - their husbands' illnesses sucked them in like a tornado and ripped them from jobs, friends and family in the process. Imagine living with someone who is so paranoid that he thinks every flashing light is a sniper. Someone who smashes a windshield if you don't get in the car fast enough. Someone whose only escape is to drink all day or stay up all night playing online poker. Someone who punches you when he has nightmares about being back on the battlefield. Now imagine you have no explanation for his behaviour or any of the tools to cope with it. No support network because his behaviour has alienated everyone you love. Oh, and no financial independence. Because if your home life is that bad, you probably had to quit your job.

Currently, the spouses of veterans with PTSD receive very few benefits from the government. Though many end up abandoning their own careers to become full-time caregivers, VAC does not provide them with training or compensation. Other than a 1-800 number for emergencies and a peer support group, spouses can't access any resources independent of the veteran. Many told me they were shut out of their partners' rehab process by mental health specialists and VAC case managers. As a result, the families who care for our nation's heroes become hostages to an illness they barely understand.

Too many women are forced into caring for veterans because they have no other choice. They don't have the resources to properly decide whether it's best to become a full-time caretaker, work from home or continue their careers and hire professional help. Maybe Migneault wouldn't have abandoned her work in social development had she been more prepared to deal with PTSD. She could have managed her husband's symptoms when they appeared 13 years ago, rather than let them consume her.

When you live and care for a veteran with PTSD, their symptoms can rub off on you. The condition is called Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS). A study from the University of Rijeka in Croatia found that almost 95 per cent of those married to vets with PTSD took on at least one of their symptoms, such as substance abuse, panic attacks and chronic fatigue. Before Migneault started a social work degree in 2013 and began to better understand Rainville's behaviour, she struggled with depression. Now, she's taken on his hypervigilance. Her husband was convinced that because of her advocacy work, the government was spying on them. Migneault admits she checked the house for cameras.

The government is creating more collateral damage at home by inadequately supporting the families of veterans with PTSD. A VAC representative told me that this spring, the department will unveil an online resource with tools to help caregivers better cope with PTSD. It's a start. But families need more comprehensive training programs, access to counsellors and to be ultimately involved in a veteran's rehabilitation program. Seven thousand dollars is nothing but a smooth talking point. If VAC was serious about supporting veterans, it would take some of the many millions it spends on advertising, or the more than $1 billion it returned to the federal treasury in unspent funds last year and make a serious investment in families.

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen

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