Tories on defensive over soldiers let go before qualifying for pensions

OTTAWA – The distinction between a soldier who’s ready to leave the military versus one who is willing to go was on full display Wednesday as the Harper government came under fire amid claims that troops are being discharged before they’re eligible for a pension.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson insisted wounded members are not being summarily given their walking papers and that a collaborative process is followed before anyone hits the civilian world.

“Before being released, members of the Canadian Armed Forces work with the military on a transition plan,” Nicholson told the House of Commons during tag-team attacks by the Liberals and New Democrats.

“All and injured Canadian Forces members are provided with physical, mental and occupational therapy services for their eventual transition to civilian life. Members are not released until they are prepared.”

Critics were unimpressed, accusing the government of trying save money by not allowing wounded troops — who don’t meet the military’s universality-of-service rule, which requires personnel to be able to perform a broad range of duties — to reach pension eligibility, which takes 10 years.

Critics took up the cases of two soldiers reported by The Canadian Press, one of who was discharged last Friday.

Cpl. David Hawkins, a reservist from London, Ont., with post-traumatic stress, was mustered out despite pleas to remain another year until he was able to collect a fully indexed pension.

His case followed that of Cpl. Glen Kirkland, who last spring told a parliamentary committee that he too was being hustled out the door before he was ready because he didn’t meet the military’s universality-of-service requirement.

Peter MacKay, the former defence minister, said last June that Kirkland could stay and no one would be dismissed without their consent.

Kirkland, who suffered physical and emotional wounds from a Taliban bomb that killed three comrades, says when he discovered he was the only one allowed to remain, he chose to take his discharge rather than be given special treatment.

Someone can be prepared to leave, with briefings and plans, but that is totally different than being willing to leave, said Hawkins.

“I told them I was not prepared,” he said Wednesday in an interview with The Canadian Press. “I asked for months if there was any way I could stay in and they said, ‘Nope.'”

Ever since major fighting erupted in Afghanistan, the military has struggled with the issue of how much leeway they can give wounded soldiers who want to remain uniform, but are unfit to deploy.

Former defence minister Gordon O’Connor ordered the regulations reviewed in 2007, but the country’s top military commander at the time, Gen. Rick Hillier, ruled out easing the standard.

Hillier wanted the matter left to the discretion of the chief of defence staff, who must sign-off on discharges.

The current system, introduced under Hillier, gives severely wounded troops up to three years to recover. If they are unable to meet the standards for overseas service, then they face the possibility of being forced to leave.

Mike Blais, an outspoken veterans advocate and former member of the Royal Canadian Regiment, said he believes the pension fight is a dollars-and-cents issue for a government determined to balance the budget by 2015.

“I definitely think this is a consequence of the budget restraint at National Defence,” said Blais president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.

“Allowing these wounded guys to stay; they’re (seen as) excess baggage. They can’t fulfil the requirement, boom — they’re gone.”

Figures put before Parliament last year show that out of 1,218 medical releases, 199 kf them involved members who hadn’t reached the pension threshold.

At the height of the Afghanistan war in 2010, 1,782 members were medically discharged, and of those roughly 250 fell below the 10-year pension mark.

The country’s veterans ombudsman zeroed in on this issue of wounded soldiers without a pension in a report earlier this month. Guy Parent said the Conservative government’s oft-maligned new veterans charter will leave those particular ex-soldiers in poverty in their old age.

Liberal veterans critic Jim Karygiannis demanded Wednesday that Hawkins be reinstated, while the NDP’s Jack Harris called an immediate halt to “this disgraceful practice.”

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