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A Veteran Responds to the Minister's "Facts"

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A couple weeks ago, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino accused me of spreading misinformation. I hadn't planned on posting any sort of response to the Minister, as I've found it's best not to favour such accusations with comment. After all, my work speaks for itself: my articles are always referenced, sourced to other media reports or to discussions I have with Veterans.

However, one of those individuals wants to respond to the Minister's
"corrections and clarifications" regarding how the Conservatives are supporting veterans. It seems only appropriate that one of the soldiers deeply affected by changes at VAC be given the chance to reply. So it is a pleasure to introduce you to Veteran Kevin Berry of Military Minds. - JRM

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Dear Minister Fantino,

As someone who has almost died as a result of the lump-sum payouts of the New Veterans Charter (NVC), I feel compelled to respond to your letter of November 4th to The Huffington Post. You defend the indefensible: your Government's track record with Veterans -- and you do so spreading misinformation of your own.

I've been fortunate enough to help operate a PTSD outreach group called Military Minds for the past year. We've helped hundreds of Canadian soldiers and veterans talk about, or come forward with, PTSD issues. When veterans want help, they turn to their friends or Google, not a Government that has a reputation for denying benefits and treating veterans as burdens.

We need doctors, specialists and treatment clinics, not another PTSD App. Check the app store Mr. Minister; there are currently 49 other apps for PTSD. Know what's really bad for someone with PTSD? Making them feel alone, abandoned and betrayed, then asking them to take on another fight for benefits. The NVC's Disability Awards, and the lump sum payment system, do just that by denying them the dignity and support of a lifelong pension.

Canada replaced a fair system with an unfair one, halfway through a war to boot. From the hard-won WWI pensions to March 31st, 2006, veterans could count on one inalienable truth: so long as there was Government of Canada, there would be the steadying hand of support, and daily acknowledgement of suffering, in the form of a monthly pension.

This support was lifetime and without reservation. You know, like the pensions you're currently collecting from the Police Departments you've worked for? There were no conditions, no arbitrary programs, and certainly no carrot or stick threats that could bully veterans. A Private who lost a leg made the same as a Major who lost a leg. It was fair. The priceless peace of mind that is supposed to be there for those injured or disabled in the service of Canada is gone.

The New Veterans Charter was brought in to save money, and lump sums do that very well. A lump sum marks a finite amount of support, and that psychologically taxing reality isn't lost on disabled veterans. However lump sums don't last. For some, it was a few thousand. For others, they had the max award: 100 per cent disability means $298,587.97 in 2013.

Why is it gone? Myriad reasons: some bought homes, a new vehicle, paid bills, or bought medical equipment that was taking too long to get approved. Still others (I'm in this group) lost it to untreated mental health issues, addiction issues, self-medication to address PTSD, or just couldn't manage a large sum of money. The reality is that we now have disabled veterans living on the streets as a result of this legislation. Congratulations, this is happening to save money.

Instead of addressing the grossly reduced amounts of the NVC's disability awards as compared to the Pension Act, you trumpet the NVC's temporary programs that can arbitrarily be taken away. Programs that, according to your own Ombudsman's 2013 report, reject a stunning 53 per cent of the veterans who meet those program's criteria. Those programs are only for the most seriously disabled, and they end at age 65, compared to the lifelong pension of the Pension Act. The lion's share of NVC veterans get nothing. A small one-time payout so YOU can walk away. We are left with our wounds, our scars, and the realization that our government has turned its back on us. You've forgotten.

Looking only at the budget numbers, ($2.8 billion in 2005 vs $3.5 billion in 2013), it's easy to claim things have never been better. They're not. From 2005-2013 the number of clients Veterans Affairs serves have increased. There is more demand on an ever-shrinking system. We've had 40,000 troops fighting in a war for almost 12 years. More wounded veterans = more pensions and benefits = a higher budget. 90 per cent of the VAC budget is financial benefits that can't be reduced or cut in budgets. The remaining 10 per cent -- the actual operating budget -- was reduced by 1.1 per cent in the 2012 budget, or 11 per cent in practical terms. No other government Department received deeper cuts.

According to VAC Union President Yvan Thauvette, Client Service Agents carry 800-1400 files on average. BC-based case managers have clients as far afield as the Yukon, Saskatchewan, and Quebec.

Your response that our Case Managers will visit our homes simply isn't realistic. Expecting WWII and Korea vets to use the Internet or an app on a smartphone is equally absurd. Your government is closing those offices to save money, NOT to improve services to veterans. That 11 per cent operating budget reduction in 2012 had to come from somewhere, correct? Those 9 District Office closures and the 450 jobs VAC slashed in July of 2013, coupled with the annual savings through the lump sums, are where the savings are coming from, Sir.

Mr. Minister, I would respectfully remind you that John Diefenbaker's Bill of Rights, and Pierre Trudeau's Charter of Rights and Freedoms are binding on government. Since Confederation, successive governments have built Canada and our society by making law and decisions that are binding on future governments. That is why your government serves today: It was elected to make decisions for Canadians that will benefit Canada today and in the future. Stating that you have no obligation to honour commitments -- and an established 87-year history of compensation made to veterans by previous governments -- flies in the face of this reality.

You are correct, stating that Veterans have stood up in the face of tyranny. I'm doing so now. Your Government continues to cut funding to VAC, slashed compensation, refuses to negotiate, denies earned benefits, and is attempting to block redress through the courts. Your government, Sir, is not living up to its duty to veterans. Your Government has learned the cost of everything, yet knows the value of nothing.