10/31/2012 12:12 EDT | Updated 12/31/2012 05:12 EST

The Myths We Believe About Canadian Veterans

With all the veterans Canada has, you wouldn't think we need an awareness campaign. Yet the number one comment I hear from the veteran's community is that civilians either don't know what is happening to them or, worse, don't care. Here is what I have concluded.

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In this photograph taken on July 17, 2011 a Canadian flag is placed on a memorial marker honoring Canadian soldiers who died in combat in Afghanistan erected inside the Canadian forces quarters in Kandahar military base in southern Afghanistan. Canada ended its nine-year combat mission in Afghanistan on July 7, closing the curtain after the deaths of 157 troops and signalling the start of further American and NATO withdrawals later this year. AFP PHOTO/ ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

With all the veterans Canada has, you wouldn't think we need an awareness campaign. There are almost a million current and former members of the Canadian Forces and RCMP; one in 35 Canadians has served our national interests. Which means that few Canadians don't know someone who has served. So everyone should be knowledgeable about veterans and the issues they face.

Yet the number one comment I hear from the veteran's community is that civilians either don't know what is happening to them or, worse, don't care. I have to admit, I was in that position myself until two years ago. Since then, I've spent a fair amount of time trying to explain the hows and whys of that apathy, both to myself and to the veterans I serve. Here is what I have concluded.

Citizens are not paying attention. Because people, on the whole, only pay attention to news that directly affects them. Which means that, unless a loved one is a veteran, most people won't really notice those news items. Most people don't know much about the lawsuits and ill-treatment by Veterans Affairs Canada. Not many know details about the New Veterans Charter or cuts to VAC. And few -- including this advocate -- understand the complex issues related to pension clawbacks. Understanding such things takes work. And unless an issue directly impacts our life, we aren't inclined to make the effort.

There's also a huge assumption at the heart of citizen ignorance: we assume that those who suffer through serving us will be looked after. Because why wouldn't they be? If we can afford to hire people to be peacekeepers and peacemakers and peace officers, then surely we can afford to look after them if they get hurt, right? And because we all pay our taxes, and since no government has ever said "we can't afford veterans," then it is safe to assume veterans are cared for.

Apparently not. While we've all been trusting veterans' care to government, governments have been finding a multitude of ways not to provide for them. By denying claims. By clawing back pensions and injury awards. By reducing pain-and-suffering awards to paltry amounts. By not treating all veterans as equal. By delaying processing and stalling on appeals and dragging its heels on payouts. By slashing the staff and centres which assist veterans. All the time telling us that they care about veterans.

But probably the number one reason for citizen apathy is simple lack of awareness. Not a lack of awareness of the issues; a lack of awareness of veterans themselves.

A million veterans. One in 35 people. How many do you know?

See? Exactly my point.

When we hear the word "veteran," the image that leaps to mind is of a wizened old man in a wheelchair, tartan blanket over his lap, perhaps missing limbs, being pushed towards a cenotaph on Remembrance Day. We think of bonnets and berets and medals on blazers. We see a man who survived mustard gas and rats in the Somme. Or who stormed Juno Beach. Maybe, if we are particularly aware, we think of a guy who fought over the 38th Parallel in Korea.

But the Great War veterans have all passed on. The World War II veterans are passing. Korea was 60 years ago. (And, in all honesty, when we think of Korea, don't we mostly think of M*A*S*H?)

When we think "veteran," we certainly don't think of Canadian troops in Cyprus. Although we should; they were there long enough. We don't think about Mounties in Côte d'Ivoire or the DRC or The West Bank or Sudan. What comes to mind isn't DEW line stations or the October Crisis or West German border crossings. It isn't search and rescue, Winnipeg floods, Quebec ice storms, or BC forest fires. It isn't the Gulf War or Somalia or the Balkans or Haiti. It MIGHT be Afghanistan. But it isn't Rwanda. Or Swiss Air 111. Or Eritrea. Or East Timor.

We also don't think of women sailors or First Nations soldiers or black airmen or Asian Mounties...or any minorities. We think of old white men in wheelchairs, wearing poppies on Remembrance Day.

To be fair, though, veterans themselves often suffer from the same tunnel vision as the rest of us. And it doesn't help that Veterans Affairs separates veterans into over 20 different categories.

One thing is absolutely certain: we all need to change what we think of when we hear "veteran." We need to make that image match reality. The reality of one in 35.

We all know a veteran; we just don't know it. But think about how much things change when the word has a familiar face. Suddenly, all those news items are not about some anonymous old man. Now, it is your work colleaugue who is fighting for hearing aids. It's the waitress at the coffee shop who has PTSD from pulling bodies out of the North Atlantic. It's your study-partner who was humiliated at that appeal board hearing. It's your biker buddy who's homeless because his pension is too small to rent a place to live.

It's the receptionist who had her psych records shared around the Minister's office. It's your neighbour who is dying of unexplained illness and rare cancers after being exposed to depleted uranium. It's your boss, who sought out snipers in a desert while wearing forest camoflage and carrying half his weight in equipment, and who has been denied a pension for a damaged back.

When "veteran" has a face and a name and a relationship with you, the news is much more important. Now we care. Now we are paying attention.

Which is why we need an awareness campaign. We need to be aware of the veterans among us.

Veterans Among Us is a nationwide awareness campaign which takes place on November 1st and 30th. It calls on Canada's veterans to wear their medals or insignia as they go about their day. For more information, check out the event here.