03/13/2014 05:04 EDT | Updated 05/13/2014 05:59 EDT

Afghan war veterans face bigger struggle than those who came before: advocates

KABUL - History can sometimes have a strange echo.

The Harper government is preparing in a big way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War at the same time as it faces the human toll of its own vastly smaller military adventure.

The cares, concerns and complaints of veterans from the war to end all wars and follow-on calamity of the Second World War helped shape the social and political landscape of 20th century in important, under-appreciated, and now sometimes forgotten ways, say historians and advocates.

The recent image of frustrated ex-soldiers locked in testy exchange with an equally exasperated Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino made great grist for question period and good television, but historian Desmond Morton was struck by the parallel with the personalities and events following the Great War.

Canadian soldiers in the 1920s had to plead their case for assistance the Board of Pension Commissioners and its hidebound chairman, Col. John Thompson, himself a veteran, but who never served at the front.

"Fantino is tough. No more crap from these guys was the message" out of that infamous meeting, said Morton, who wrote the book Fight of Pay: Soldiers Families in the Great War.

"After the First World War, Col. Thompson was a stickler and in terms of the government, from a cash-cutting point of view, he was their ideal guy. He was determined not to waste public money on whiners."

Today, Ottawa has invested heavily in new programs and care for veterans, but Fantino's no-nonsense approach has rubbed many ex-soldiers the wrong way.

But like the Harper government of today, the country was — after 1918 — digging itself out of a fiscal hole. The Union government of Sir Robert Borden had borrowed heavily from the Americans to fight the First World War and it had bills to pay.

Today, it's the balanced budget commitment of 2015 and the clean-up of the economic crisis.

Back then, soldiers' expectations had been raised by Borden's pre-Vimy Ridge pledge: "You need have no fear that the government and the country will fail to show just appreciation of your service to the country and that no man will have just cause to reproach the government for having broken with the men who won and the men who died."

Today, federal lawyers arguing against a class-action lawsuit by Afghan veterans say not all governments should be bound by Borden's pledge. At the same time, politicians such as Justice Minister Peter MacKay pump up expectations when they refer to soldiers as "the country's greatest citizens."

After the First World War, veterans became so frustrated with Thompson and their compensation that a special Parliamentary committee for pensions, insurance and re-establishment of returning soldiers had to be appointed, one of several mid-1920s inquiries into the plight of ex-service members.

Today, a House of Commons committee — at Fantino's recommendation — is examining the adequacy of the oft-maligned new veterans charter, which did away with the pension system for non-economic loss and replaced it with series of lump sum awards and benefits.

Some of today's veterans say they are being cheated by not having pensions for life.

An actuarial report by the veterans ombudsman last fall said the new system is in some cases is more generous in the short-term, but after age 65 it leaves the most critically injured in poverty.

Outspoken veterans advocate Sean Bruyea says, in some respects, today's returning soldiers have it tougher than their great-grandfathers because Canadians were heavily invested in previous wars.

They may not have been to the trenches of Flanders or stormed the beaches of Normandy, but people back home instinctively understood and appreciated what soldiers had gone through.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, remains a distant and lately ignored experience.

"How is this going to affect veterans? Are they going to start beating themselves up and asking whether their sacrifice was worthwhile; whether losing their leg or their best buddy was worthwhile?" Bruyea said.

"Canadians are probably more aware that it is one century since World War One than of the close-out of Afghanistan."

The Harper government invested little political capital in events in Kabul this week. No member of the government attended Wednesday's ceremony at NATO's Kabul field headquarters, although a welcome home for the last plane load is being planned for next week.

The sense of social isolation is even stronger because unlike previous wars fought by volunteer armies from all walks of life, Afghanistan was the fight of a professional military that lives separately on bases across the country.

"When you have an unpopular war and very little understanding what a soldier does, that's a recipe for disaster for veterans," Bruyea said.

The Conservatives pledged in the recent throne speech to commemorating the 12-years spent trying to secure the south Asian country from the Taliban, but what form that will take remains unclear.

For the moment, Bruyea says ex-soldiers face "a barrage of talking points" and he predicts, like previous generations, they're prepared to make political noise to get what they want.

"They're going have to become loud. You know? Fight for survival or give up."

The government argues that it champions all veterans with program like helmets to hard hats, which allows ex-members to move into the construction trade. But that is very narrowly focused, advocates complain.

Tim Laidler, the executive director of Veterans Transition Network, recently told a Parliamentary committee that more emphasis needs to be put on helping soldiers make the move to civilian life.

Morton says veterans of previous generations changed the political and social landscape of the country and he hopes the same can be said for those returning home this week.

"I wish people would understand that when you go into these things, they're not cost-free," said Morton.