06/24/2012 09:09 EDT | Updated 08/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian Forces Return To Civilian Life: Members Seek Help Before Being Medically Released From Military

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HALIFAX - Some military members who are about to be forced out of the services for medical reasons are increasingly concerned about their futures outside the Forces, says the head of a group that helps veterans across the country.

Jim Lowther of Veterans Emergency Transition Services said he's getting a steady stream of calls from serving members seeking help for everything from finding a doctor and a job to navigating complicated paperwork and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It's a phenomenon Lowther suspects will only get worse as the dust settles from Canada's 10-year involvement in Afghanistan and troops continue to be medically released.

"We see a lot of guys and girls who have done multiple, multiple tours and who are now being forced out of the military because of mental or physical illnesses," he said from his home in Halifax.

"Almost every one wants to stay in. They're terrified of getting out. They love it. It's their family. ... They're having a hard time coping and knowing that they're not going to be able to support their families as well."

Lowther said volunteers in the organization's offices in every province are responding to regular calls from personnel looking for guidance as they prepare to transition out of the military because they can't meet certain standards required to stay in.

Under the Universality of Service policy, members must be physically fit, employable and deployable for operational duties. If not, they can be medically released like the hundreds who were let go years after the military began its involvement in the Afghan conflict.

Documents from the Department of National Defence show that almost 12,000 Forces personnel were medically released from 2001 to 2011. Those releases rose sharply to a high of 1,338 in 2006 and 1,252 in 2009 from 614 in 2001.

The figures don't reveal the nature of the medical problem, but many are likely linked to PTSD and injuries caused by the conflict's signature weapon, improvised explosive devices.

National Defence and Veterans Affairs have set up several programs in recent years to help members transition out of the Forces. They include initiatives to help them find jobs, move into another career, get hiring priority and receive education, retraining and financial compensation, according to an email from a Defence spokesman.

But Lowther says some are reluctant to use the services because they feel uncomfortable seeking help from the same department that ordered their release.

"Unfortunately, it's not working that well," he said. "There's not much trust there. For some reason, they don't want to go that route and that's why they call us."

Lowther said a key problem is that people who are getting out have trouble finding a doctor to treat their PTSD and other mental health issues.

John Whelan, a veteran and psychologist who treats former and serving members, says he often sees people who received treatment in the Forces only to stop it when they get out.

"They go through this transition of their career being over and then when they're referred to me they're in a full mental health crisis again," he said from his office in Halifax.

"What goes with this transition out of the military is this complete loss of confidence in an identity that they spent many years developing and all of a sudden that's gone.

"So my biggest concern is that when they leave the military they are isolated."

He adds that despite the government's "scramble" to put programs in place for leaving members, the military has adapted its policies in recent years to keep and find jobs for people who would have previously been medically released.

A spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said the government was committed to caring to the mental health of the country's veterans.

"Providing veterans with the mental health assistance they need is Minister Blaney's top priority," Jean-Christophe de le Rue said.

"That's why we doubled our number of Operational Stress Injury clinics that provide services to veterans, serving members and their families suffering from post traumatic stress disorder."

Between Veterans Affairs and the Department of National Defence, 17 such clinics are operating across the country, de le Rue said, adding that as of June, Veterans Affairs was helping more than 15,300 veterans and their families with mental health conditions.

Peter Stoffer, the NDP critic for veterans affairs, said the federal government has improved the programs available to veterans and members being medically released, but that more needs to be done to care for personnel who can be devastated by injury and the loss of a their military life.

"It becomes their way of life, it becomes their DNA and when all of a sudden that is no longer there, it is quite an adjustment for them," he said.

"So you've got these individuals with a variety if operational stress injuries or PTSD being told you're no longer good enough to serve in the military. Now what do you do? It is a huge shock."

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