11/06/2013 03:41 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 10:53 EST

Let Wounded Canadian Soliders Serve, Defence Chief Told


OTTAWA - The country's top military commander has the power to keep wounded soldiers in the Canadian Forces if they wish to continue to serve, and he should exercise it, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan said Wednesday.

Many military jobs can be performed by physically or mentally disabled soldiers without compromising the need for a fit fighting force, said former corporal David Hawkins, who's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.

"There are positions within the military where you don't need to go overseas," Hawkins, 26, told a Parliament Hill news conference.

"Yes, men and women go overseas every year, but men and women also stay home every year to serve the country at home. They do other jobs here."

Hawkins, a former reserve combat engineer, is among the roughly 200 troops each year who are medically discharged before they're able to reach the threshold of service that makes them eligible for a pension.

He pleaded to stay within the military in order to eventually re-train as a firefighter, but was denied under the so-called universality-of-service rule, which requires Canadian Forces members to be fit to deploy at all times, at home and abroad.

Each discharge has to be approved by Gen. Tom Lawson, Canada's chief of defence staff, who ought to be taking the wishes of individual soldiers into consideration, said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.

"Why an individual who has made the sacrifices and suffered the injuries, as Cpl. Hawkins has, can't be kept in the service doing useful work, certainly until he's entitled to a pension — there is something wrong with this system," Harris said.

"That has to be fixed. This practice must end."

On Wednesday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called directly on the prime minister in the House of Commons to ensure that no soldier injured in combat is involuntarily released before he or she qualifies for a pension.

Trudeau spoke on behalf of Cpl. Glen Kirkland, who was also wounded in Afghanistan, and is scheduled to be released next March under circumstances similar to those of Hawkins.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson rose to take on Trudeau, insisting that the department makes "every accommodation to keep soldiers" and provides them with the best possible care before they are let go.

He also took a few political shots, referring to Liberal defence cuts in the 1990s as "a decade of darkness." Wounded veterans, Nicholson said, "will now experience a decade a delivery under this Conservative government."

Within the federal civil service, there are provisions made for people with disabilities, and the Canadian military should be held to the same standard, said Harris.

But veterans advocate Mike Blais, a retired soldier, argued there is a financial motive for the government to deny soldiers the opportunity to serve until they hit the 10-year threshold for pension eligibility.

"It might be up to Tom Lawson's discretion, but this is a political matter," Blais said Wednesday. "I truly believe that for guys like David Hawkins and many, many others, this is a cost-saving event."

The military has been grappling for more than six years with the issue of how much leeway they can give wounded soldiers who want to remain in uniform, but are unfit to deploy.

The regulations were reviewed under former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, but no changes were made.

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