01/02/2012 02:08 EST | Updated 03/03/2012 05:12 EST

Canadian Forces: Families Of Elite Troops Cope With Hardship By Fending For Themselves, According To Survey


OTTAWA - Canada's elite troops and their families have faced a "disjointed" level of social support from the military — and in some cases implemented their own programs to cope with the hardship and uncertainty of their lives.

The findings are contained in a survey conducted by the army's special forces operations regiment, which includes the highly trained JTF-2 counter-terrorism unit.

The survey found some units were "doing their own thing" to provide outreach to families.

"With the stand up (Special Operations Forces) units it has become apparent that there is a requirement to provide support to not only the unit itself but to the families," says a briefing note prepared for the regiment's former commander, Maj.-Gen. Mike Day.

The document, which provides a rare glimpse of the travails of the country's most exclusive military formation, was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The review was initiated by special forces, but the Director of Military Family Services, which manages and funds social program in the defence community, joined.

It quickly became apparent the ultra-secrecy that surrounds the regiment and its missions was paralyzing its soldiers and their families. Over the years, many were afraid to ask for social services — or seek help — for fear of inadvertently violating operational security.

In some cases, units were so worried about secrecy they wouldn't hand over the names of members to the support agency.

The result, according to the survey completed in the latter half of 2010, was that relatives faced "disjointed deployment briefs and follow-on support."

Everyone in military uniform has access to family-support programs at bases across the country. But instead of utilizing existing services, some special forces units were creating and funding their own programs, such as emergency support.

The families were in need of child care, child and youth programs, second-language training, peer support groups, and more social events. In some cases, the units were asking for educational programs that helped families cope with stress, healthy living, financial planning and parenting.

"The desperation of units led them to designing/staffing/operating an organization that does not have the authority or funding to provide the services they envisage," says a summary prepared for Day.

"There appears to be a barrier (between the units and the Military Family Resource Centre) that has been created by the units doing their own thing no matter what the good intentions were."

The ad hoc network saw "services provided to families being funded out of public funds, (when) there is no authority to use public funds."

Last year, the Defence Department acknowledged some of its social-support programs were being carried out without federal Treasury Board approval and immediately sought permission for them.

Despite the Harper government's assurances of care for troops, the report noted the chief of military personnel, which oversees the system, has seen a funding decrease. The effect has been that bases must fund support positions and programs out of their own budgets.

The special forces regiment has been pressing for "a separate, but equal support network" where members can deal with their own security-cleared staff.

The current commander, Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, said "there was obviously some friction" between units and the family support, but noted nine positions had been set up — or were the in the process of being created — to serve units at the Ontario bases of Trenton and Petawawa.

Celine Thompson, director of the Military Family Resources program, said it was clear early on that the secretive nature of operations affected families, who were uncertain what they could say and when they could ask for help.

It was important to have "someone with security clearance with whom they build some trust," said Celine Thompson, who is no relation to the general.

The culture of paranoia, which in some cases fed the situation, must change and the highly trained units need to strike a balance between secrecy and ordinary vigilance, said Brig.-Gen. Thompson.

There were times when it was hard to get members of the special forces booked on routine transport flights for fear their names would come out.

"It was, frankly, ridiculous in some senses," the general said. "We've taken a step back from being completely rigid on operational security and the identity of our members — in fact we only insist on it for JTF-2."

Both Thompson and his regimental sergeant-major said the fact that special forces is a closed community gives them some advantages in that individuals and their families tend to be more mature and independent.

Before being allowed to join the regiment each soldier is given a battery of psychological tests. Still, there are times when people need help, said Chief Warrant Officer John Graham, who spent 15 years as member of JTF-2.

"It is challenging at times because the guys in our SOF community, their ability to communicate what has led to their stress, is challenging because of the classifications of what led to it. Which is why it's imperative ... for us to have our own embedded health-care professionals."