By Heather Killen
Rosanne Dornan says she loses a lot of sleep studying legal proceedings and medical terms about radioactive isotopes hoping to help her husband’s appeals to VAC. She says a generation of modern veterans is being ignored by Veterans Affairs in their hours of need.
A military wife and mother says the Department of Veteran’s Affairs Canada is ignoring the needs of the new generation of war veterans and their families when they don’t fit into neat bureaucratic nooks.
Rosanne Dornan, of Kingston, says the government agency that was formed to serve as an ally for veterans and their families is now deserting some of them in their battles for fair treatment and compensation.
Moreover, its own bureaucracy is waging some of the wars because it isn’t changing its policies fast enough to keep pace with the new realities of modern veterans. While there are mechanisms for appeal, often the people reviewing the decisions lack the expertise, or autonomy to make an independent ruling, she says.
“Veterans aren’t a group of gray-haired soldiers selling poppies,” she said. “They aren’t just old men saluting the cenotaphs. There is a new generation of veterans, some of them as young as 25, coming home from modern conflicts like the Gulf War, and Afghanistan.”
These modern veterans are not receiving appropriate support, or representation by Veterans Affairs, according to Dornan. She is calling for an independent inquiry to review the department and publically report its findings.
She says she is concerned that young veterans are returning home with injuries that aren’t recognized or considered eligible for compensation under Veterans Affairs criteria. In these cases veterans are forced to fight the Department of Veterans Affairs to access the support they need and the disability compensation they deserve.
Her husband Steven has a distinguished 25-year military service record, having served in both Bosnia and Afghanistan. Seven years ago he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a non-curable cancer that attacks the lymphatic system.
They believe this cancer was caused after he was exposed to various chemicals including depleted uranium during his second trip to Bosnia in 1995, as a member of an International Weapons Inspection team.
While the Canadian military is among the groups that continues to deny a direct link between exposure to depleted uranium and cancer, Italian troops who were diagnosed with cancer after returning from Bosnia and Kosovo, have been compensated for similar exposure.
For six years, her husband has been in the bureaucratic gray zone of not being clearly killed or maimed in action; yet, he’s slowly slipping away from her as a result of the cancer he probably developed as a result of doing his job.
“When I watch those people on television paying their respects to the coffins of dead heroes coming back from Afghanistan, I wonder if they realize how the government treats the ones lucky enough to come home,” she said. “Sometimes there are worse things than being dead.”
Injured veterans face an arduous bureaucratic process when applying for compensation, she said. Too often they are left to navigate a system of proceedings and red tape they aren’t familiar with; and are denied compensation on the basis of administrative errors they didn’t realize they were making.
“If civilians are injured on the job, they can expect to receive assistance from Workers Compensation,” she said. “But we have to prove everything, starting from the fact that he served in Bosnia, to establishing a conclusive cause of his illness.”
She added that for many veterans, it’s hard enough to manage their daily needs let alone prepare a conclusive appeal case to prove beyond all doubt that these injuries are job related. Board members are paid and appointed by the government and lack the appropriate knowledge and expertise to mitigate on behalf of soldiers.
“We are provided ‘free’ legal representation (Bureau of Pension Advocates (BPA) for our disability claims and reviews, but the very people they give us to ‘fight’ our battles to try and achieve a disability pension are hired or appointed by VAC. This would be considered a conflict of interest in any arena,” she said.
MEDICAL CRITERIA OUTDATED
Medical criteria used to determine eligibility for compensation is also outdated and slanted towards those with severe physical incapacity, rather than the range of symptoms and injuries that now occur in modern conflicts, she added.
Dornon is quick to add she’s not condemning the military and is grateful for the opportunities it has provided for her family; and she is also thankful that the Royal Canadian Legion offers the families the support and advocacy services that is lacking at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“My husband chose to join the military and it’s been a good life, they’ve treated us very well,” she said. “The fact is though, in doing the job he loves, he got sick and will die prematurely. Canadians need to know how their sick, injured, and dying veterans and their families are being treated by Veterans Affairs Canada and our government.”
She added she’s not going public with her complains to just better her husband’s chances for an appeal, but rather change things for the younger generation of personnel like her son, who has also joined the service; and all modern veterans who are being largely ignored by the government. She added she wants things to change for everyone.
In the fall of 2007 Col. Patrick Stogan was appointed as the first veteran’s Ombudsman, an independent department created to assist veterans with their concerns and issues. Dornan said this position doesn’t review decisions made by Veterans Affairs, or Veterans Review and Appeal Board, yet veterans have made over 5,000 inquires and more than 1,700 of these have complaints proceeded to cases that are investigated.
Many of these complaints are related to benefits and services available under Veterans Affairs Canada. She said these numbers point to greater problems in way VAC operates.
Dave Shebanowski, a former Canadian soldier living in Ontario, was also diagnosed with cancer after being stationed in Bosnia from March through to September 2001. He says he spent four years researching his appeal for disability compensation that was eventually awarded.
“I had to go on social assistance to get the drugs for my treatment. The military at this point refused to help. These were the darkest days of my life. I attempted suicide three times. My family was terrified for me,” he said.
Shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer, a friend mentioned that a number of relief workers stationed in Bosnia were also developing cancers. Shebanowski said he started researching the topic and confirmed a high incident rate of cancer among those who served in Bosnia during that time.
Military doctors were unconvinced by his theories and dismissed his concerns, he said. Eventually, however he found peer-reviewed scientific papers that supported his theory and began the process of compiling an appeal of his disability claim.
Shebanowski added he’s now taking his second series of radiation treatments and the prognosis is not optimistic. He said that had been awarded compensation for treatment earlier, it may have may have made a difference in his prognosis, and this is one reason the bureaucratic process needs to be simplified.
He agrees that one of the biggest challenges he faced was finding enough evidence to prove his case. He relied on things such as Parliamentary transcripts and internal memos to help him substantiate his claim. He said his message to other veterans is to keep applying and not be discouraged.
“The more involved you get, the more frustrating it gets,” he said. “You have to keep pushing until the system breaks. Even when you’re denied, fight harder.”
Overall Shebanowski said he hopes that other veterans will hear his story and realize it’s possible to win their appeals; and he hopes that civilians will back veterans in their fight for fair treatment.
“Unhappy lives are what most of us have,” he said. “People need to speak up and ask questions. It’s civilians that run the army at the end of the day.”
ROYAL CANADIAN LEGION
Marc Gauthier, command service officer at the Royal Canadian Legion, said he helps veterans prepare their appeals for the Veteran’s Affairs Review Board. While the majority of veterans are treated very well by Veterans Affairs there are a few cases that fall through the cracks.
“It’s not a perfect system, but the intent is there,” he said. “There are the odd ones who fall through the cracks, but they have made tremendous steps in rectifying some of the problems of the past.”
Gauthier says Veterans Affairs has responded to the changing demographics of modern veterans by putting new programs and supports in place for younger people. More effort is being made to acknowledge and treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other health concerns that were previously ignored.
New outreach initiatives are also attempting to help those personnel re-adjust after a posting, and that the military is offering more counselling and debriefing opportunities before and after a mission.
And these days it recognizes and compensates veterans for more symptoms than before and has extended some of the benefits previously available. He says the system does realize that the needs priorities are shifting to a younger group with different concerns.
NEW BREED OF VETERANS
“They have been looking at ways to address the new breed of veterans, many are 35 or 36 years old, and looking at regaining their health and leading productive lives,” he said. “The system is putting new supports in place to assist with rehabilitation.”
According to Gauthier about 75 to 80 per cent of the time, veterans are treated well by the system. And in those cases where they were denied compensation, it’s because they weren’t able to successfully establish their claim. However there are a number of appeal levels, which can reverse earlier decisions.
He added that cases involving health concerns like Dornan’s are particularly difficult to prove, as there is no clear causal link identified between his illness and his tour of duty. Because public money is on the line, all disability claims are closely scrutinized as a matter of course.
The system is still under review and more tweaking will continue to take place, but in the meantime he also acknowledges how frustrating it can be when people fall through the cracks.
“It’s not an easy job some days, but it’s the system I’m stuck with,” he said. “There are always opportunities to be better informed.”