10/31/2013 02:59 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Soldier support centres under-staffed, lack experience: ombudsman

OTTAWA - The watchdog that oversees the Canadian Forces is raising serious concerns about the signature organization the Harper government relies upon within the military to help speed the recovery of wounded soldiers.

Joint personnel support units across the country are under-staffed and lack experienced people to guide physically and emotionally battered troops through their career transitions, the military ombudsman said in a preliminary assessment released Thursday.

Pierre Daigle undertook an assessment last summer following a series of complaints about the centres, which are supposed to prepare the wounded to either return to their front-line units or be discharged from the military.

Troops who can no longer carry out their regular jobs because of a physical or mental injury are posted to one of 24 joint support units across Canada, where they have three years to recover enough to meet the military's universality-of-service rule, or leave the military altogether.

The centres, critical linchpins in a system designed to speed the recovery of injured and traumatized soldiers, came up in the House of Commons this week when Defence Minister Rob Nicholson insisted wounded soldiers are not being summarily hustled out the door into civilian life without due care and consideration.

In interviews with a few hundred clients and staff, Daigle's investigators found — among other things — that a government policy which prohibits pensioned reservists from working at the units is creating a brain drain.

"The change in policy to not allow reservists to work while in receipt of a regular-force pension was cited as a strong contributor to experienced people leaving the organization," said the assessment, a copy of which was released to The Canadian Press.

"Feedback gathered by ombudsman staff suggested that training should be enhanced to better equip staff to manage potentially difficult situations. The effectiveness of (joint support) staff appears to depend more on individual personalities and experience than training programs or a formalized competency profile."

Many academic studies have found soldiers often respond better to the guidance of those who have been in the military themselves and understand the culture.

Sixty per cent of interviews suggested existing staff lack adequate skill and knowledge for the job, and pointed out a need for training to improve staff effectiveness, comfort and confidence, said the report.

The head of the joint support units, Col. Gerard Blais, said they have been working with the ombudsman's office to resolve the concerns.

"Most of the issues have been or are definitely in the process of being resolved," Blais said following the release of the report.

A special exemption has been granted by the vice-chief of defence staff to retain 42 pensioned reservists across the country for three years in order to maintain experience levels, he said.

The staff in each centre "care immensely" for all of the individuals in their charge, Blais added.

But, Cpl. Dave Hawkins, an ex-soldier with traumatic stress who was discharged despite his pleas to remain in the Canadian Forces, described his experience with the system as "a joke."

His case came before the Commons earlier this week when The Canadian Press revealed Hawkins was discharged from the military after pleading with staff at the support centre in London, Ont., to remain a reservist.

He said staff at the centre gave him an ultimatum to either return to work or face the loss of his support funding.

Success at the centres doesn't seem to be measured by care, but by statistics, and pressure is coming from up the chain to deal with mounting cases, Hawkins said.

"They wanted to push me through the system right away," he said. "I think it's just so that their statistics on the board get better."

Hawkins asked to stay in the military until he reached the 10-year mark for pension service. A similar case involving another Afghan veteran, Cpl. Glen Kirkland, came up last spring.

Cpl. Andrew Knisley, who lost his right leg in a Taliban bomb blast, told London radio station AM 980 that he too is being discharged before becoming eligible to collect a pension, despite assurances from former defence minister Peter MacKay.

In the Commons on Wednesday, Nicholson, the current minister, defended the preparation process that's undertaken by the joint support centres.

“All and injured Canadian Forces members are provided with physical, mental and occupational therapy services for their eventual transition to civilian life," he said.

"Members are not released until they are prepared."