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Year of the Veteran

The following editorial was published in the Guelph Mercury, January 16, 2006.
Not a lot has changed since then.

Norman Ward has never heard of Phil Ochs. In fact, Norm probably wouldn’t know a war protest song if it hit him on the head. It’s unlikely he’d support it anyway. Norm is a veteran of the Second World War, and the idea of protesting duty didn’t occur much to people in those days. He served Canada with the pride and dignity that has defined his life; a dignity made more difficult by advancing age and botched radiation therapy. He hasn’t walked in 10 years. Now 81 and in declining health, he is confined to the Grace Christian Home in Lennoxville, Quebec.

At the passing of Year of the Veteran two weeks ago—a designation to raise awareness and honour the sacrifice of those who helped deliver us the freedoms we enjoy—I look how Veterans Affairs Canada treats its duty, and shake my head that dignity and pride have become the true casualty. In a branch of government that seems increasingly disconnected from the very families it is mandated to serve, it strikes me there are a lot of people who, like Norm, have never heard of Phil Ochs.

The 1960s protest singer is long dead; the war in which he perished was an internal one. Today, listening to his performance of “Universal Soldier” should arguably be part of the hiring practice at Veterans Affairs. If it doesn’t bring a tear to a candidate’s eye, perhaps they’d be better suited elsewhere.

“It’s a book,” sighs Veteran's advocate Jim Stoneburgh. After speaking with only a handful of veterans, this becomes clear. There is depth and complexity and horror and humour and irony and anger in each of their stories. The public relations officer for the Royal Canadian Legion in Guelph has heard them.

"Age has something to do with it. The further you are from the actual war, the more detached you become," he says, referring to the front line at Veterans Affairs. “The compassion you would normally expect in a position of this type is not really evident. The people administering at the grass roots level have nothing in common with that generation. When [a vet] comes in with a genuine problem, they’re dealing with someone who’s stressed out and overworked; who cannot relate to being old, cannot relate to being poor, and cannot relate to having served.

“The way you qualify for a job now,” he says, “is you understand and implement the law to the letter. The spirit of the law is long gone. There’s no common sense left.”

Stoneburgh is not alone in this view.

Bill Dougherty saw two of his friends die in separate incidents involving Labrador helicopters, both on domestic soil. Their names were Phil Young and Darryl Cronin. Bill is himself wrestling with a financial bureaucracy of pension benefits and loss-of-earnings definitions tracing back to a parachuting accident in the Arctic that has left him unable to work since 1999. He was cut loose by the Army, and as such is one of the more recent casualties of Veterans Affairs at work.

“The guys that are coming back and that need the help now have really got a battle ahead of them," says Dougherty. "And the fact that the military never took us aside and said anything…. Just the fact that they don’t tell you everything….” His broken voice trails off.

Greg Oakes casts back to 1993. “When Jean Chrétien got in, they gutted programs left, right and centre, and sadly, veterans and their widows were affected greatly.” The Service Officer for the Elora Legion has been working hard for the last ten years herding cats. “We’re trying to keep the profile of the veteran in peoples minds, so that these government guys actually ‘get it.’ ”

You have to wonder whether they do. “You can just cite recently, the 60th Anniversary of the Second World War,” recalls Stoneburgh. “Nobody showed up. Nobody. It was a bloody disgrace. That’s how much they consider the veteran.”

This is how strong and deep the feelings run; well below the radar of most everyday life, except for those affected. And despite best efforts, no one knows exactly where they all are. In 2006, there remain an estimated 250,000 World War II vets still alive, Canada-wide.

Norman “Dinty” Ward is among them. He resides at the Grace, waiting for an air mattress. It’s not the kind you take camping. It’s for the deep, angry sores he’s acquired in the course of being wheelchair bound these many years. His pressed service uniforms still hang at attention in the closet of his home. After this Year of the Veteran, government needs to work harder to acknowledge the sacrifice of a generation of Canadians, and demonstrate it to them in a meaningful way.

©Garrett Klassen is president of Crunch! Communications in Elora, Ontario, Canada.


Universal Soldier
by Phil Ochs


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