Thank you, Chair.
When most people speak, they say thanks at the beginning as a salutation or a greeting. Mine's a little different. I say thanks because this is an opportunity for us to skip the middleman between the government officials and those of us receiving it at the bottom end, an opportunity to actually tell you how your department's working. Sometimes it's working, and sometimes it isn't. With that, thanks for having me here today.
I'm retired warrant officer Brian McKenna from Delta, B.C. I was recently released from the Canadian Forces last year by way of a 3b, which is a medical release. While serving in the Canadian Forces, I was diagnosed with severe irritable bowel syndrome and intestinal bleeding from an illness I caught in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan; I also had PTSD from my service overseas.
I'll speak to you today about the process of getting out while having a number of ailments.
First of all, while gender integration is policy in the Canadian Forces, it is still a male-dominated society, so I'll start with the first thing that caused me the most grief as a man, and what I think we should do about it. Many men share this concern that have been in my shoes. We are what we do as men. Put two men who don't know each other in a situation where they need to talk, and within 20 seconds they'll be asking each other what they do. That's how we get to know each other. This committee needs to understand that point. A release from the Canadian Forces is not the end of a job; it's an identity crisis. What am I now? Even our family members introduce us to other people as soldiers. They'll say their brother's in the army, or their sister's in the navy. They'll say their dad was air force—not “was in”; they'll say “was”. It's a thing you actually are. It's a culture. A 25-year-old Canadian Afghan vet will have more in common with a Vietnam vet from North Carolina than he will with his next door neighbour, same age, same gender. It's a culture.
I use the case of Canadian indigenous peoples as an example of the pain caused when we as a society try to take away their culture and identity. We've seen what happened to them, so stop doing it to us. Stop telling yourself that every single person in the Canadian Forces who can't get on a plane tomorrow must leave the identity they define themselves with today. There are release cases of necessity, for sure, but they should be extremely rare. There should not be hundreds or thousands a year whom we have no place for.
Second, what do we do about the ones we have to release? A lot of the identity of service personnel is bound up in their love of doing their job for their country, their Canada. There are many ways to continue that. The civil servant jobs of this nation should be immediately open, after a release has been decided—not executed, but decided—for that injured service person before they leave the forces, and then immediately after release for those who aren't injured.
If someone in the Department of Fisheries can no longer serve, they get offered jobs in Immigration or Canadian Heritage before they're released from the civil service. Why not for our vets? There are some programs and policies related to priority hiring that are helping vets now, but you have to release completely to start.
If the military has decided it has broken you and you have to go, it would be a good idea if they could scour the civil service jobs before they release you. The government shouldn't look at these people as a resource to pull from in the future, but rather, people they shouldn't have let go in the first place, even if there's no role for them still in the military.
Third, finding doctors and caregivers is a transition piece that's very important. When you serve, the military handles your health care. You're theirs. When you release, the only part of handling your care is to give you a three-month prescription ahead of time, once only, so that you will have 90 days' worth of those pills in your pocket.
In many provinces, the waiting list to find a family doctor is many more than three months, and the doctors see us coming. They know about VAC processes. They know that VAC adjudicators who are not doctors routinely overturn doctors' findings, and that they will have to fill out the new form, again and again, or that they will have to submit more painfully obvious statements to the VRAB after denial. Without medical training, those people on the VRAB will overturn those doctors' statements.
My experience with medical practitioners was that they are actually okay with the military. The military refers a patient, and the military generally responds to the advice from that person. They hate VAC. When you take steps that make a doctor's life harder, you take steps that make a veteran's health care less secure.
I'll use one example of how that's going to come to bite us really soon. The idea that vets who have a medical prescription for cannabis are going to somehow get in front of a specialist between now and May is a dream. These guys aren't even going to get to a family doctor by that time, and I anticipate that you all know that. No specialist worth their salt is going to rubber-stamp them when they walk in. They're going to have to build a history with these people, study them, watch their progress. You will have a tonne of veterans by May who haven't been able to achieve that appointment. That's what happens when you rush through a policy in six months to save money, and that is frustrating my community like you wouldn't believe.
We've been arguing with the government for 11 years on how to fix the charter. No progress. But you start shedding a couple of dollars on the cannabis policy and you rush something through in six months, and that thing you guys just rushed through suggests I can find a pain specialist in Vancouver by May. You all know better than that.
Fourth, this will be the last point, which will be quite short, before I move on to suicide.
VAC needs to prefund care the same way CPP and EI are funded. In the current system, expenditures on vets' benefits come out of the departmental budget. Therefore, there's constant and extreme pressure on the department to keep costs down. Case managers can feel like budgetary gatekeepers rather than the health care enablers they're intended to be.
It's not a surprise that a Veterans Affairs application for benefits is multiple pages, whereas an EI form has five questions on it. When benefits come out of a prefunded pot or a funded liability, the civil service opens the purse strings a lot more easily. When every cent affects the bottom line of a departmental budget, the pencils get sharper and the denials pile up.
This all leads me to talking about suicide. I cannot give you scientific evidence, but I have lost friends and fellow soldiers to this. Most of us have, and these losses aren't average Canadians, so claiming that they match national levels, as the department has done in the past, isn't good enough. These are people mentally and physically screened to be able to do the job. They are then mentally and physically screened even harder to be able to do the deployment. If they can't hack it, they are pulled off work-up training.
So why then do we have so much loss? To me, it's the pile-on effect. It may not be the tour, but the divorce after the tour. It may be the sexual dysfunction that comes from the anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pills we are forced to consume. It may not be the deployment to Iraq, but the posting to Shilo just after the tour, or a veteran's denial or two. It may be the realization that it's hard to search for jobs or better one's own education during rocket attacks in Kandahar.
I think we are looking in the wrong spot when we search for the big one, the root cause, the smoking gun that led to suicide. I think you need to have emergency funds available and instantly pay people's pension cheques if they get messed up, so that doesn't become the pile-on effect. Stop the checklist form of releasing members and plan a real exit strategy as opposed to ticking off the form to confirm they've had all the briefings. Release way fewer members in the first place.
Suicide is a tragedy. I don't believe we'll ever bring it to zero. I do think we can mitigate the loss by protecting vets from the pile-on effect of multiple problems crashing in, the death by a thousand cuts. If we make sure they have all their ducks in a row with all their administration sorted out and stop having VAC adjudication err on the side of no, we can work to lessen the number of suicides without a new policy or without a new initiative.
Thank you, all.