When Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose this year to spout his annual Remembrance Day propaganda half a world away in Hong Kong, the symbolic nature of his distance from a growing number of Canada’s alienated and neglected veterans seemed quite apropos.
Indeed, while war veterans have never enjoyed the support they required, the gap between “support our troops” rhetoric and the miserable reality of countless veterans’ lives has become increasingly wide in the Harper years. The list of scandalous treatment is voluminous, including high rates of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (at least one in four Afghan vets suffers from PTSD), homelessness among former soldiers, clawed-back benefits, refusal to pay proper funeral expenses, and increased rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, along with huge increases in violence committed against loved ones, significant governmental invasions of privacy, and demonization of any vets who dare speak up for their rights.
Numerous vets have remarked on the irony that the biggest battle they ever wage is with the government whose uniform they wear, with some of those epic struggles lasting decades. “We shouldn’t have to fight on Canadian soil,” declared wheelchair-bound veteran David Desjardins in 2011 after four years of struggling to get his benefits.
Times and rhetoric may change, yet soldiers remain the cannon fodder of the national security state. They serve as a useful symbol of the virile values celebrated by the War Department and all of Canada’s “mainstream” political parties. Trained to dehumanize and kill their opponents, most never overcome the natural inhibition against murder and torture, and suffer the debilitating consequences on their return to a society that raises its eyebrows at their failure to “adjust”.
Once home, they are ultimately abandoned by those who sent them to the front lines, a disconnect perhaps best illustrated by the image of Conservative MP Rob Anders snoozing through a hearing on veterans’ concerns (and his subsequent comments attacking the vets who spoke up in protest). Then there’s veteran advocate Sean Bruyea, whose file at Veterans Affairs grew to some 14,000 pages, with his confidential medical and financial files seen more than 4,000 times by over 850 people. One Veterans Affairs memo famously advised staff that it was time to take the gloves off with Bruyea, who subsequently told the Ottawa Citizen “to be accused of being an enemy, that shocked me.”
While the War Department’s top-heavy PR team pumps out stories of amputees who “come back” by taking part in events like the Army Run (now the fastest-growing marathon in Canada), they work in equal measure to hide the stories of departmental incompetence and neglect.
Perhaps that’s because the presence of soldiers who do not return in one piece physically or psychologically — whether survivors of horrific injuries or self-medicating addicts dealing with psychic pain — remind us that war is not glorious and noble, but a brutal reality whose truths need to be hidden from the next generation of recruits. Harper announces a program for rehiring of veterans, but veterans complain they don’t get a fair shot and are passed over. Could part of that be fear that the appearance of a double-amputee co-worker might prompt others in the workplace to remember that war is not the clean, bloodless video game it’s so often made out to be?
This is not a new story. Every year, regardless of who holds power in Ottawa, we read Auditor General reports, ombudsman conclusions, medical analyses, and individual accounts of armed forces members who are struggling to survive with the horrors they participated in and which were inflicted upon them. Family members travel to Ottawa to plead their cases, news headlines report that veterans’ concerns are falling through the cracks, ancient veterans are sitting in courts trying to have class action lawsuits settled from half a century ago, while beribboned generals do luncheon talks about how warriors never leave anyone behind.
The abuses that soldiers suffer when they seek compensation from the Canadian government are similar to how the government treats everyone from torture survivors and targets of racial profiling to First Nations activists and environmentalists. All are viewed as enemies, and attempts to seek justice are met with a stonewalling bureaucracy that employs the tools of secrecy, deception, surveillance, harassment, and demonization to dismiss their concerns while upholding the image of military and spy agencies as “honourable” institutions incapable of doing any wrong.
And so the list of those who suffer grows. Looking back over the past few years of government indifference, perhaps we should remember the children of Petawawa, whose anxiety and stress disorders when a parent was deployed overseas were described by the Ontario ombudsman as a crisis, with many children considering suicide. The Ontario and federal governments dickered over who should pay for counselling, leaving the children and their loved ones as bereft political footballs. Then there were the soldiers suffering PTSD who were simply shipped back to Kandahar. Unforgettable as well was the response of the War Department to countless cries for help from PTSD sufferers who were waiting many months, despite suicide attempts, to see a psychologist: that help came in the pathetic form of a self-help video borrowing the wisdom of Star Wars character Yoda that “if you believe, you will achieve.”
Even if soldiers do find health care, the Auditor General pointed out in 2007 that the military fails to keep track of whether its medical staff have the requisite licences and certifications. In 2008, then veterans’ affairs ombudsman Mary McFadyen found a military health-care system stretched to the limit, with CFB Petawawa, home to 5,000 troops, served by only one psychiatrist and one psychologist. Four years later, another report stated the situation at Petawawa was still a “crisis,” with the War Department cutting medical doctors involved in suicide prevention and treatment of PTSD.
It’s hard to rile up the population to head off to new wars when the human damage done to soldiers is apparent (not to mention the civilian cost we never hear about in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places where Canadian Forces have wreaked havoc). These inconvenient facts are simply not part of Remembrance Day. Harper doesn’t want us to remember that in August, 2012, the Ottawa Citizen reported that families of soldiers are being denied basic benefits and supports by a hugely bureaucratic system. Equally unpleasant was the finding last February of Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent that legally required, clear explanations for rejection of benefits have not been delivered, and that “the appeal processes available in case of objection are formal, time-consuming, inconvenient, often intimidating to veterans and may be very costly.” The Auditor General had previously identified this in 1998, as had the Veterans Affairs Department itself in 2004 and 2010, but nothing has changed.
While some soldiers are remembered, others are swept aside, such as Canadian Paeta Hess-von Kruedener, who while working in a clearly marked UN observer post in Lebanon in 2006 was killed with three others by a 500 kg Israeli smart bomb. The inquiry into his death was a whitewash, Canada’s alliance with Israel clearly deemed of greater importance.
And then there’s the story that reeks of the worst aspects of Canada’s war culture: secrecy, dishonesty, deception, abuse and the reckless neglect that led to the suicide of a young Canadian soldier in Edmonton.
During the spring and summer of 2012, a remarkable battle of wills played out in a small commission room in downtown Ottawa, home to the rarely convened Military Police Complaints Commission. The grieving parents of Canadian soldier Stuart Langridge wanted to know answers, but were met with denial, cover-up, and threats from some of Canada’s most powerful institutions.
Attendees at the commission hearings were struck by the presence of Stuart’s mother, Sheila Fynes, sitting in the front row as the most intimate details of her son’s 28 years were revealed, cross-examined, doubted, and attacked by government lawyers. Her strength, resolve, and courage, taking on the power of the military — the War Department had even ordered her not to contact them because of her relentless search for truth — was reminiscent of Peg Mullen, a similarly strong-willed mother whose efforts to find out what happened to her son in Vietnam were documented in the book and movie Friendly Fire.
For Fynes, this commission was the follow-up to three previous investigations which appeared designed to absolve the military of any blame in Stuart’s suicide. Witnesses to the inquiry revealed the story of a bright and humorous young man who began changing after deployment to Bosnia and whose personality underwent a severe about-face after his return from Afghanistan, with a half dozen suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse, night terrors, and an inability to access the help he needed from the military.
Throughout the summer, the family agonized as government lawyers claimed confidentiality prevented them from releasing key documents. These might show that the military took extreme steps to cover up the details of Stuart’s case, rewriting the narrative to remove any connection between Stuart’s PTSD and the failure to properly treat him, leading to the eventual tragic outcome. Indeed, it came out that officials censored and slashed a report that revealed Stuart was on suicide watch.
As a final insult, War Minister Peter McKay, the self-proclaimed friend to military families, refused to allow this family access to the interim report of the commission, which will only be seen by one side of the case (the military). Their full access to its preliminary findings will allow them the kind of input that may assist in the whitewashing of their role.
Stuart’s father, Shaun, a former RCMP officer, did not mince words when he testified at the inquiry.
“My son is dead because he didn’t get the proper care,” he declared. “It’s disgusting what they did to my son. He was killed by the military.” He added that Stuart didn’t “fall between the cracks, he was stuffed between the cracks,” and rather than being cut down after his body was discovered, was left hanging like a slab of meat for five hours.
As the Fynes anxiously await the outcome, wondering if they will at last get not only answers, but also the kind of recommendations that will help others with PTSD, thousands of families deal with the daily horrific consequences of war on the home front. While McKay warns the military ombudsman not to be an advocate for veterans, families are forced to undertake the kind of extreme measures employed by Greg Woolvett, a father who, after his son’s two suicide attempts, literally kidnapped the soldier from CFB Petawawa for treatment in Windsor.
All of which leads us to the conclusion of David Snyder, the father of a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan, who told CTV in 2008, “War is stupid. Everybody knows that. Well, no they don’t. The politicians don’t know that.”
Something to remember year-round.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. ‘national security’ profiling for many years.
Photo: Brent Moore/Flickr