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Injured veterans deserve more than cheap buyouts

“I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered: there’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive; and they are for the town’s end, to beg during life.

“I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered: there’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive; and they are for the town’s end, to beg during life.”

Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff may have been a buffoon with an over-the-top instinct to eat, drink and survive, but he was brave enough to lead troops in deadly battle — and all too clear-eyed on the prospects facing the few survivors. The situation didn’t change for quite a few years, but by the end of the First World War things were looking up. Disabled veterans were receiving ongoing medical coverage for conditions incurred during military service. However, all was not rosy, and in 1921 the Edmonton Veterans’ Amputation Association, facing the reality that the government was not sufficiently meeting amputees’ needs, published a fundraising “Alberta Amputation Annual.” There was an unsettling note by the association’s president about a veteran who had lost two legs and had tuberculosis, resulting in a full disability pension, but had been turned down for a supplementary “helplessness” allowance because he still had arms. This was one of several examples the president gave of what he termed “inequality of pensions.” Cheese-paring is another term.

Lately the approach taken by Veterans Affairs Canada has been in the news, with many veterans complaining about their handling by the department. This is a theme I have often heard when talking with veterans. It may reflect an institutional problem. Long years ago an acquaintance newly working for Veterans Affairs commented scathingly to me about many war veterans looking for a free ride. Undoubtedly some do, but over the years I have known many veterans with medical conditions stemming from military service. Indeed, a few years after this chat I shared a hospital room with two such veterans for a month and a half. Never have I encountered the attitude of unjust entitlement he described. Looking back, I doubt he was expressing attitudes developed from his encounters with veterans; I think he was just taking on attitudes then common in his workplace.

War injuries can last a lifetime, a point made to me as a small child in the late 1940s when my mother took me to a service at the Calgary cenotaph. Pointing to the Colonel Belcher hospital across the street, she said there were still men there whose lungs had been ruined by poison gas in the First World War, which had ended three decades earlier. The reality that an ongoing need of lifetime care being highly probable emphasizes the disgracefulness of our government spurning moral responsibility in buying injured veterans off cheaply for a seemingly generous lump sum settlement. Veterans groups oppose this.

Anyone thinking that these objections are overly paternalistic might usefully wonder how many of the injured young soldiers who think their offer is a hot deal, then go on to blow their windfall on big cars and other toys, are acting while in the post-traumatic grip of self-denial as to the full impact of their injury. A similar disregard for the real interests of veterans shines through the government’s decision to get rid of an ombudsman who has spoken out strongly and eloquently on the veterans’ behalf rather than parroting the governmental line.

St. Albert resident David Haas has extensive regular and reserve force peacetime military service.