THE BLOG

We Must Pay More Than Lip Service to Our Soldiers and Veterans

05/15/2015 07:36 EDT | Updated 05/15/2016 05:59 EDT
KennethMoyle/Flickr
Apparently. First time I've ever seen such a sign on a house (the bumper stickers are more common - and usually bilingual).

From Canada to the United States to Europe, many families' loved ones made it back from Afghanistan thanks to John Bloggins (his name has been changed to protect his privacy). For months at a time, the Canadian combat medic lived at remote Afghan outposts, mending bullet wounds and severed limbs.

But when Bloggins left the military in 2012, who was there to mend him?

Like so many Canadian veterans, Bloggins struggles with crippling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), financial problems and the challenge of fitting in among civilians, who have never had to try and save a comrade who's just been ripped apart by a bomb. All with a minimal network of support.

For Bloggins, PTSD makes just leaving the house an act of courage. Ordinary objects in the street, like garbage cans, set off flashbacks, or anxiety attacks. He eats in restaurants in a corner, back to the wall. When he first came home to Canada, Bloggins had to find his own psychiatric help, with little assistance from military.

"Canadian goodwill towards our soldiers and veterans is overwhelming. Canadian action is underwhelming," says Sean Bruyea, a veterans advocate and former air force intelligence officer, who served in the 1990-91 Gulf War.

The world just marked the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day. When we passed through Chicago's O'Hare airport last week, bold banners celebrated soldiers and veterans. Entire lounges were set aside for vets. Men and women in uniform were swarmed by grateful U.S. citizens who wanted to shake hands and say "thank you."

Of course, the U.S. military is vastly larger than ours, and their culture more militarist.

But what Canada can learn from our southern neighbours is how to better support the men and women who serve our country.

The U.S. boasts over 1,700 veterans' hospitals and clinics. Veterans' Affairs Canada runs just one hospital -- Ste. Anne's Hospital near Montreal --and a few clinics in major cities. Bruyea argues it's essential to have such hospitals because veterans' needs are unique. "Here, we're thrown into a [public] system where the doctors don't understand the culture and conditions of soldiers' injuries."

Bruyea notes there's even a U.S. program to build temporary family housing near veterans' hospitals so vets don't lose their personal support system during long treatments.

Finances and employment are huge challenges for Canadian soldiers leaving the military. Bloggins racked up almost $100,000 in debt because of out-of-pocket health costs, and reimbursement money the government reneged on for career training and housing relocation. His first apartment after returning from Afghanistan was furnished with a lawn chair and a TV.

Businesses across America offer discounts for soldiers and vets. Every state also offers disabled vets exemptions on property taxes, up to 100 per cent.

When Bloggins was discharged, he got a checklist to ensure his military equipment was returned. There was no checklist to help him prepare for civilian life -- financial options for his pension, or available career training or employment assistance programs. He had to figure it out on his own.

Veteran status also carries little weight with Canadian employers.

"[In the U.S.] you go in for a job and say you're a vet, they give you priority. Here, they look at me funny," Bloggins says bitterly.

Ontario MPP Jim Wilson wants to change that. Just last week, he proposed giving vets first crack at provincial government jobs.

Americans believe that supporting vets is as much the community's responsibility as the government's. On one web site, alone, we found a listing for more than 100 different non-profit organizations serving soldiers and vets. Canada has the Legion, and a few scattered groups like Wounded Warriors in Whitby, Ont.

It wasn't always like this.

When Canadian soldiers returned from World War II, Bruyea says local business and community leaders formed committees to ensure vets had jobs and the support they needed to start a new life. It's time to re-examine that idea.

In our travels, we've encountered Canadian soldiers on training and advisory missions in Haiti and throughout Africa. We've gained a keen appreciation for their contribution toward building a better world.

Soldiers deserve more than a handshake when their service ends. "Support our Troops" must be more than an empty slogan on a bumper sticker.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.

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