Afghan wounded are being short-changed, critics charge

OTTAWA—Canadian soldiers wounded in Afghanistan are being financially short-changed compared with their counterparts in Britain and Australia, say advocates who are demanding Ottawa boost its compensation.

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn announced changes Wednesday meant to improve financial benefits for wounded veterans — and faced immediate calls to increase the lump payments, which are now capped at $276,079.

Canada is lagging Britain, which pays out close to $1 million, and Australia, where wounded veterans can qualify for payments of more than $300,000, said Brad White, of the Royal Canadian Legion.

“I think there’s room for growth,” said White, the legion’s dominion secretary.

White appeared with Blackburn at a Parliament Hill news conference as the government unveiled legislation to enshrine previously announced changes to veterans benefits.

Those include guaranteeing a minimum annual income of about $40,000 for soldiers undergoing rehabilitation as well as allowing more seriously wounded veterans to tap into permanent monthly allowances.

Blackburn also announced that injured soldiers who qualify for a lump sum compensation award will be able to opt for annual payments over any number of years.

But he was mum on growing calls to increase the amount, a refusal that opposition politicians and veterans’ advocates are vowing to reverse in the coming weeks and months.

White applauded the package of changes but wasted no time making it clear that veterans expect action on the lump sum payment.

He said the legion is “committed to promoting further changes to the new veterans charter to increase . . . this amount.”

NDP MP Peter Stoffer, his party’s veterans affairs critic, said the government should hike the maximum payout to about $340,000 as a start, a move that would put more money in the pockets of all injured veterans.

“I’m not sure why the government didn’t address it now. They knew it was a problem. They know it’s not enough,” Stoffer said.

Complaints about the lump-sum payment loomed large in a recent Toronto Star series that probed the treatment of soldiers wounded in Afghanistan. Soldiers recovering from grievous injuries called on Ottawa to increase the lump sum compensation.

Blackburn conceded that the overhaul of veterans benefits in 2006 — known as the New Veterans Charter — had shortcomings, which were exposed as wounded troops came flooding back from Kandahar.

“This charter had deficiencies and with our presence in Afghanistan suddenly those deficiencies appeared in full light. As long as we did not have injured soldiers coming back, we didn’t see that,” Blackburn told the Senate subcommittee on veterans affairs earlier in the day.

Senator Roméo Dallaire says Canada’s military should look at ways to keep injured soldiers in uniform and on the payroll, instead of forcing them out.

The move would allow the armed forces to keep the experience and talents of the soldiers while enabling the injured troops to stay in a job they love and want to continue, said Dallaire, who chairs the Senate committee.

Dallaire’s suggestion runs hard up against military policy — known as the universality of service — that dictates that all uniformed personnel must pass a yearly fitness test to ensure they can be deployed on missions.

As a result, the Canadian Forces is now preparing to formally notify some soldiers injured in Afghanistan that they will be medically released from the military since they are unable to pass the fitness test.

But with more than 1,500 wounded and injured so far in Afghanistan some are wondering whether it’s time to rethink the policy and find a place for the wounded to remain in the defence department, despite their disabilities.

“Universality of service says you can’t do that because everybody has got to be deployable unless you find a way that the government establishes special criteria of military employment that permits them to stay in uniform and be injured but not deployable,” Dallaire said.

“Is it workable? Well, it’s just a matter of trying to do it,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

Dallaire, who commanded a United Nations force in Rwanda, was firm that “universality of service must prevail” for the regular forces and reservists to ensure Canada’s fighting force isn’t diluted.

“So you’ve got to create a different animal, a different entity so they can still stay within national defence and be usable,” he said of the wounded.

“Maybe it’s a special branch (where) there are certain restrictions on promotions but they continue to serve,” Dallaire said.

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