Thank you so much.
My name is John Colin Hewitt. I was named after my grandfather, Colin Bruce, a World War II pilot, and his father, a Boer War veteran. I grew up seeing my mother look at my father wearing his uniform in that indescribable way a woman's eyes convey the look that a man will live and die for.
Thank you for hearing me speak today. Let me begin by commending all the past and present casualties of war and the suicides. Your valour is not lost on us. We understand why you have done this.
To begin, I am not a war veteran. Let me tell you a bit of my story that led me into the priority process. I will skip right to my injury. I was injured in para school in Trenton, Ontario, during crash week. I landed badly, felt a sharp pain in my back, and at lunch I was locked up and sent to the hospital, carried away on a stretcher. I was given some muscle relaxants and I ran immediately back to school to complete my para course. I did not know then but I had herniated a disk in my back that hit my sciatic nerve. I jumped nine more times with pain increasing. Finally, on a rucksack march, my legs went numb and I dropped. An MRI showed the injury and I was put in JPSU.
At that time I only had a grade six education and learning disabilities to boot. I hired a specialist for a month to reteach me grade one. By the end of the month, I was up to a college reading level. From there, I completed high school and all the prerequisites for college. While awaiting release, I did two years at Lethbridge College. I had to drop two courses because of the workload, which was so intense due to my lack of education.
I entered into the priority system only to find that my school was only transferable to Parks Canada, which was exempt from the priority system. I was able to land a seasonal job as a park ranger. When the job ended, I was desperate for work, so I went back on the tugboat. I had severe pain. I found out about the VAC rehab system. I did not want to be provided for but I had a new baby at this time so my wife was off work. Out of desperation, I took a job with the Coast Guard as a labourer. I ended up in the hospital on the Alaska border and was flown home. My wife went back to work early while I looked after our baby so I could recover and get some money to live.
Veterans vocational rehab was approved by this time, and there was an assessment done. Once again, I went back to work as a labourer at DFO. Once again, the pain was overwhelming, even with cortisone shots. I saw a doctor and he said to me, “No more labour jobs.” My back was screwed. I needed back and knee surgery.
At this point, after reading an investigative report into veterans committing suicide after war due to systemic problems, I decided to get a psychology degree. It took me three or four tries to upgrade my English for the psychology program, while going through back and knee surgery, a divorce and a constant fight against the Veterans Affairs system that said I was too young for this injury. Their doctor said my back was getting better—the opposite of what my doctor said.
Then it struck me. I knew why veterans were committing suicide. I was outraged. Why would VAC say these things? I went to an officer at the Legion who had experience dealing with Veterans Affairs. He said, “You know this is an insurance company, don't you?” Now it all made sense to me. I decided to fight back, get a lawyer and gather evidence but the doctors would not write me letters confirming the degeneration of my injuries, stating, “I do not deal with insurance agencies.”
VAC finally left me alone when I was scheduled for surgery. After surgery, I finished upgrading. My prerequisites were entered into the psychology program, and once again, I was attacked for my learning disabilities. I was told a degree would take me too long. The final blow was an intelligence test the day before my psychology finals. All along I knew their intentions. They found my verbal abilities were well above average, but my math and spelling were well below average, disqualifying me from funding and pushing me back into labour.
I was done fighting. Without going into detail, I woke up in an ambulance, having been brought back to life. My dreams were crushed, my faith in Canada, myself and humanity were gone. Desperate, I started volunteering at a disability centre to gain some entrance-level administration experience, knowing I needed to preserve my back so I could play with my son in the future. I took a typing course, again began to apply for positions in the priority system and was denied, denied and denied.
I fought back, phoning everyone I could and demanding answers. I had no choice but to fight until I broke through.
I'm now at Service Canada. Here, I found what I can only explain as people accepting me for the way I am and empathizing with and understanding my past troubles. The manager quite frankly was too good to be true in terms of my diminished trust. He placed me beside a fellow PPCLI veteran who took me under his wing. The team leader was an ex-DND employee who spearheaded a mental health community and set up a decompression room. I had miraculously landed in a dysfunctional veteran's paradise.
I'm well behind my colleagues, and I have a feeling of constant guilt and pain that is always present, but they tell me every day that I'm worth it and to take a walk when I need to. They say, “When you get sore, we're behind you, no matter what.” What they have done for me brings tears to my eyes. It will take me a long time to get my well-being back, but I have time.
I told them that I was excited to share this news, and they told me that I was lucky to be at this office. Quite frankly, other veterans would not get this support in some of the other places, but with this, I digress.