The Compass

Our veterans deserve better

- Pat Cullen Social Affairs Pat Cullen is a journalist and community volunteer who lives in Carbonear. She can be reached at 596-1505 or cullen.pat1@gmail.com.

It is heartbreak­ing to hear the manner in which some of our veterans are living.

Those who have put their lives on the line so the rest of us can enjoy the privileges we have today are now unable to pay for heat in winter or are forced to live in decrepit homes because they can’t afford to maintain them.

We, who enjoy the peace and freedom won at their expense, are a despicable lot. We may not ignore those who fought to save our skins but we certainly dictate to them what we think they’re worth and what we think they’re worth can be very little.

Service officers with the Carbonear branch of the Royal Canadian Legion (RCL) who look after the humanitari­an needs of verterans say some among them simply don’t know the benefits to which they are entitled. Charlie Piercey has been a service officer with RCL Branch 23, Carbonear, for 25 years. He says they don’t know because “they’ve never been told.”

This may be particular­ly true for those who have served for short periods, as well as older vets. They don’t know that if they have a disability, they are entitled to the Veterans Independen­ce Program. It’s offered free-of-charge by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and enables them to get their lawn mowed, snow shovelled and receive home care.

Piercey and Randy Pike, both veterans of the Armed Forces, say they are there to help others. They don’t have to be members of the Legion or even be interested in becoming members. Around 50 veterans over the past two years have received their assistance, most from the Carbonear area.

The paperwork to receive medical benefits they describe as “intimidati­ng,” the sheer amount overwhelmi­ng. And perhaps the most overwhelmi­ng part is a veteran relating his or her disability to their military experience. If they don’t do a good enough job, they’re turned down by the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB) — their grudging acceptance channelled into frustratio­n.

Pike has suggested the review boards have a list of occupation­s which will most likely lead to health issues caused by military service. The boards, he said, should also look more favorably on medical claims that come from this occupation­al hazards list.

He and Piercey say hearing loss and orthopedic injuries are two of the most commonly claimed conditions affecting veterans. The latter must be verified by a medical specialist (unlike hearing loss which is handled by an audiologis­t). Given the shortage of physicians specializi­ng in orthopedic­s in the province, it could take a couple of years before the veteran receives a determinat­ion on their claim.

VAC maintains it is working to improve a system which has seen disability claims grow by 32 per cent overall since 2015, including a 60 per cent jump in disability claims from first-time applicants.

It is also developing “the Cumulative Joint Trauma Tool (which) enables faster adjudicati­on for individual­s who may have suffered from repetitive injuries during years of service in certain military occupation­s (such as infantry).”

There is also an adamancy by these two service officers, particular­ly Pike, that civilians who sit in judgment on veterans have no conception of what that person has gone through and there are too few with military background­s on VRAB boards.

A spokespers­on for the board said it is not imbalanced by civilians.

“Currently, more than half of our Board Members (9/15) have military or RCMP/policing experience (including our Chairperso­n who is a former Deputy Chief of Police and our Deputy Chairperso­n who is a military Veteran,” her email read.

Former Mounties fall under the jurisdicti­on of VAC and VRAB. But Pike has appeared before two of these boards and he says the members told him they had no military service. The compositio­n of the boards may further be tainted by political patronage.

“The appeal boards are for the most part political appointmen­ts,” Piercey said.

That too, has been discounted by VRAB.

“The Veteran’s Review and Appeal Board’s Chairperso­n and Members are appointed through an open, transparen­t and meritbased process available to all Canadians,” the email read.

But there are frustrated veterans out there who feel they are not given the benefit of the doubt and are short-changed. Having an occupation­al hazards list would also cut down on the backlog that has seen decisions on medical benefits claims extend from 14 to 16 weeks to 14 months or longer.

Claims rejected at review go to the appeals board in Charlottet­own, P.E.I. Piercey said the appeals board comes to Newfoundla­nd and Labrador a few times a year. Waiting are roughly 25 veterans, all anticipati­ng a final decision. The board doesn’t take care of them all.

“Before they leave Charlottet­own, they pretty well know how many cases they have lined up and they won’t take anymore,” he said.

Piercey doesn’t understand why these cases can’t be dealt with through teleconfer­encing. It’s a solution that apparently has been advanced over the years, but has gone nowhere. It’s also odd, especially when review hearings can apparently be done this way.

I have just scratched the surface on what is a critical issue. Pike and Piercey are not condemning VAC and VRAB. They realize they are working against difficult odds. But we all know that things must improve if veterans are to receive justice. To have some living in poverty is a sad reflection on the country they served.

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