Soldiering on, at enormous costs: Federal cuts leave veterans traumatized, homeless

 

He spent a five-year deployment working for the Canadian military in Europe before being released on disability in 1990 after injuring his leg on duty. Claude Rochon figured the worst was behind him after leaving the military. 

 

But he never expected to fight yet another decades-long battle as he struggled to re-integrate into civilian society. 

 

The shock of an unstructured environment and undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) left him unable to return to a previous career as a teacher. On top of that, he lacked financial and medical support from Veterans Affairs Canada. He did what he could to keep himself afloat, but the traumas of returning to Canada after what he had experienced as a soldier eventually lost him his job, his family and ultimately his home. 

 

Rochon spent years living on the streets. He encountered tough weather and an even tougher society, before the Cockrell House found him. 

 

It was an outreach worker who noticed Rochon’s struggles in Victoria four years ago—while he was moving between shelters and parks, even spending time in the wooded outskirts away from the city—and introduced him to the transitional housing facility. “At the time, I was staying wherever I could find a place, really,” he recalls. 

 

Founded in 2009, Vancouver Island’s Cockrell House is dedicated to housing veterans struggling with homelessness and providing access to other services, such as psychologists. 

 

“I was slowly trying to work on things myself, but I found the Cockrell House helped speed up that process and offered some consistency,” says Rochon. The wide-ranging supports on offer at Cockrell—ensuring he got to his doctor’s appointments and providing a regular point of contact with Veterans Affairs, for example—helped Rochon gain some stability.

 

Through working with an on-site psychologist, he began to realize his outbursts of anger and depression weren’t inexplicable occurrences, but were instead creeping symptoms of PTSD—which can take years to manifest. “I didn’t understand what was going on with me or what it was, but it was the PTSD coming through,” he says. “Someone else had to tell me I wasn’t all wrong, I wasn’t just angry. But that there was something else going on with me.”

 

 

A fresh batch of returning soldiers met with budget cuts

 

The 12-year, on-going intervention in Afghan political struggles by NATO and allied forces has seen the largest deployment of Canadian troops since the Second World War.

 

As soldiers have returned home from the conflict, many, like Rochon, have encountered various struggles with reintegrating into society.

 

There are additional concerns that there won’t be sufficient resources for all of the returning troops, particularly after $226 million is cut from the Veterans Affairs’ budget by March 2014. That will coincide with the time the last round of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are slated to return home from the war.

 

At the heart of the national debate regarding veterans’ rights has been the 2006 New Veterans Charter—federal legislation determining services available to veterans injured in the line of duty. Before the new charter, the Pension System had veterans receiving a monthly cheque, with additional monthly support for the severely injured. When signed in 2006, the new charter had veterans receiving a lump sum, rather than a pension plan. Although this was reversed in October 2011, additional monthly support remains nonexistent.

 

This October, the Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent released a report calling for urgent action, citing the charter puts the most severely wounded at risk. Parent also wrote there was little support for younger veterans under the age of 65 to access economic and vocational rehabilitation programs.

 

“I’m not in favour of the [2006] charter at all,” says Angus Stanfield, founding director of Cockrell House and president of the BC/Yukon Legion Command. “I don’t see the government budging too much really because it’s down to an issue of dollars and cents. 

 

“I think they’ve gone a little too far with the cuts.”

 

Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, pre-empting the release of Parent’s report, announced the charter would receive a full review this fall—something the ministry previously said wouldn’t happen until 2016 when legislature required it to do so (five years after the most recent changes).

 

Veterans Affairs has attempted to rebut further criticism by making a series of announcements since 2012 for new projects aimed at improving support services for veterans. Critics, however, feel progress has been too slow. 

 

 

Nationwide study incites government action

 

Even before the influx of returning troops from Afghanistan, homelessness among Canadian veterans has been prevalent. Adding to the problem is that veterans can be hard to find, making it difficult to calculate numbers and evaluate services. According to Stanfield, “they isolate themselves and try to handle it on their own.” 

 

“Most aren’t in the city,” he adds. “You see this type of dropping-out of society where they just want to avoid society.”

 

Three years ago, University of Western Ontario (UWO) nursing professors Susan Ray and Cheryl Forchuk launched the first nationwide study looking at homelessness among veterans. They found the main causes included a lack of help transitioning from the structure of military life to the flexibility of civilian life. Alcohol and other substance abuse—common coping mechanisms for many serving in the military—worsened, their report found.

 

The study also found it took, on average, 27 years for a veteran to become homeless. It made it clear the government needed to be more proactive in aiding veterans struggling with homelessness and in preventing this from occurring. As well, veterans have different needs from Canada’s general homeless population. Many deal with disorders like PTSD. According to Stanfield, even though a veteran may exhibit symptoms, it can take years for him or her to realize it’s PTSD and seek help. 

 

As a follow-up to their previous study, Forchuk launched a pilot project in four Canadian cities that focused on a housing-first strategy with support for mental health, addiction and vocational training. This time, the federal government funded the program through its Homelessness Partnering Strategy. Cockrell House received part of the $1.9 million, along with housing initiatives in London, Calgary and Toronto. 

 

The two-year project launched in May 2012 and concludes in March 2014. What seems to be helping so far is having military-style structure and house rules within veterans’ accommodations (unlike the general homeless population), addictions counselling, and a greater connection with other veterans, according to Jan Richardson, project manager. 

 

Although funding runs out in the spring, each city is working on a sustainability plan drawing from municipal, provincial and other sources, says Richardson. 

 

Receiving funding from legion branches and other donations prior to the project, the Cockrell House used the government money for more outreach workers and counsellors. 

 

 

“You’re told to soldier on and not think about things”

 

Rochon’s re-adjustment back into civilian society meant he was no longer able to teach because of his hidden PTSD.

 

“I can’t be in a small classroom anymore, where I can’t leave easily,” he says. “I’m starting to understand my triggers now, but it was hard before. I was depressed and angry. I’d be relying on other things to help, like alcohol and that stuff.”

 

Having one leg shorter than the other as a result of his injury and subsequent surgery led some to openly mock him and judgment from those at home in Canada. He still undergoes surgeries on his leg, the latest occurring earlier this month.

 

Rochon is now part of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association where he helps other veterans connect to services. He sees them trying to cope with the same issues he faced, inclined to dissociate rather than participate in society. 

 

The importance of connecting with other veterans was something Tim Laidler recognized after going through the Veterans Transition Program when he returned from Afghanistan. 

 

Laidler returned from Afghanistan when he was 23 in 2008. The hopelessness of fighting a war without a clear outcome and playing witness to brutal atrocities led him to find solace in alcohol use and the calming dissociation that comes from playing hours and hours of video games.

 

As he was young enough to return to his studies at the University of British Columbia—he left for Afghanistan in his third year—and live on campus, Laidler didn’t experience homelessness, but instead a different kind of precariousness. He returned to see friends graduate, get good jobs and move on with their lives while he struggled.

 

“I was pissed off and couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get a job,” he says. “I was good at locking down [and focusing on schoolwork], but there’s a difference between surviving and thriving.”

 

Eventually, he joined the Veterans Transition Program, which was started in 1999 by UBC psychology professors Marvin Westwood and David Kuhl. The program involves group therapy sessions meant to ease soldiers’ transition from war into civilian society. In November 2012, the program received $1.45 million from the Royal Canadian Legion, Veterans Affairs Canada and other organizations to become a non-profit called the Veterans Transition Network. The new funding spread its reach nationwide.

 

“Through the program, I realized that my experiences in Afghanistan, seeing so much death and destruction, were triggers preventing me from moving forward,” Laidler says. “It helped me link the proper emotion, which wasn’t anger, to my stories and find some sort of conclusion.”

 

The group therapy sessions provide an opportunity to speak candidly about one’s feelings and experiences, and is transformational for many of its participants. “It was the first time I’d seen a soldier tell a story and cry at the same time,” says Laidler, who’s now the executive director of the network. 

 

“In military culture, that’s not accepted. You’re told to soldier on and not think about things.”

 

 

Lasting effects of Afghanistan yet to be seen

 

Although Cockrell House and the Veterans Transition Network have been fortunate enough to receive federal funding, major budget and job cuts have been made to Veterans Affairs district offices across the country. 

 

“The overall number of veterans is decreasing so we need to look at those figures,” says a Ministry of Veterans Affairs spokesperson. “Overall, fewer veterans are asking for services. We have more staff than we need.”

 

However, as UWO’s Susan Ray discovered when conducting her study in 2010, many veterans don’t know they are eligible for benefits and their propensity to withdraw from society might make it appear as though they don’t need these services. 

 

Still, Veterans Affairs insists numbers are decreasing. Many soldiers and their advocates doubt that. They’re concerned the lasting, generational effects of Afghanistan have yet to be felt. The ministry also insists this new wave of troops returning home have different ways of accessing need such as through online services rather than face-to-face interaction.

 

“I would agree with that,” says Laidler. “Most of the cuts have been targeted at administration and local offices. The newer generation goes online. We’re less likely to go into an office.”

 

To keep up with these trends, Veterans Affairs invested in the development of a smartphone application, PTSD Coach Canada, developed by Ryerson University professor Candice Monson. The app allows veterans to check their symptoms and locate support services. 

 

But it may not be enough to effectively connect with veterans. “The younger generation may be less likely to show up at offices, but how do we reach them?” asks Ray. “An app isn’t enough. There needs to be more investment in a different type of outreach work, and I don’t see that happening yet. There will be gaps in services.”

 

Ray also points to older veterans struggling to access services, such as those in Cape Breton who have to drive four hours to Halifax after their local office shut down. 

 

 

Progress slower than it should be

 

“Yes, the Department of National Defence is doing better in screening people and Veterans Affairs has outreach workers in shelters, but they’re spread pretty thin,” says Ray, citing only two workers covering the entire Greater Toronto Area. “And the onus is still on the veterans to say they’re not feeling well and to prove that this is related to service. It’s still a long process between filing a claim and receiving help.”

 

Rochon has seen faults in the system firsthand, through his own experiences and then through helping other veterans. Due to mismanaged paperwork, he is only now receiving disability benefits for his leg. He had to fight Veterans Affairs three times to receive proper compensation.

 

“It started with a mistake, but they would have seen this mistake when looking through my files, and they didn’t do anything about it,” he says. “They have to be more proactive. They know the process, but leave it to the soldier to figure it out. I had to fight for my case.”

 

Decades later, he sees some change, but progress is slower than it should be. For him, the coming budget changes will lead to the elimination of senior and experienced staff and replacing it with new initiatives that will leave yet more holes.

 

Ray would rather see more attention directed towards preventative care, instead of struggling to help veterans once they’ve already lost everything. She is planning a study—pending a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research—to follow veterans for three years upon their release from service and to evaluate what makes a successful transition.

 

For his part, Stanfield wants to see services for veterans broadened, including expanding Cockrell House to a 15- or 16-unit complex from its current 11 units. There could be more locations on Vancouver Island alone, he says, not to mention around the Lower Mainland and in the Okanagan. 

 

“Afghanistan is yet to come,” he says. “I’m sure they’re out there now, but it’s only a matter of time before they get to us, before they need us. I think we’re just reaching the tip of the iceberg here.” 

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