Guy Parent - Veterans Ombudsman
Interview: Military Veterans
KEN POLE
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 4)

“What we’ve got here is ...failure to communicate.” The often mis-quoted line from the 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke, tends to sum up the oft-reported fractious relationship that Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) has with the thousands of people it’s supposed to represent and protect. We hear many stories about troubled and frustrated vets and, although most issues are resolved efficiently and effectively, an average of 2,000 become formal case files for the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman (OVO) every year.

Guy Parent- Veterans Ombudsman

Veterans’ problems are not unique to Canada, but under the direction of the current ombudsman, Guy Parent, the process continues to mature. Parent is only the second to hold the position since its creation in April 2007 – about the same time the new Veterans Bill of Rights was passed.

Parent’s predecessor, Patrick Stogran, the first ombudsman, who held the office until November 2010, was a retired Colonel who fired parting shots at critical “senior bureaucrats” and their parliamentary bosses for “the shoddy treatment of our veterans” over the years.

Unlike Stogran, Parent was a non-commissioned officer – but not just any NCO. Trained as a Search and Rescue Technician, he served as a SAR Tech for three decades before being promoted up the chain to Chief Warrant Officer of Air Command in 1991 and, four years later, CWO for the Canadian Armed Forces overall, where he was responsible for 47,000 NCOs and privates – some of whom have reconnected as clients of his current office due to unresolved issues with VAC. Between his retirement from the military in 2001 and his appointment as Veterans Ombudsman in late 2010, he spent time in the office of the National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman, winding up as director of its Special Response Team. From there, he was drafted by Stogran, serving as the OVO’s Director of Research and Investigations until his current appointment.

Parent’s depth of experience in and out of uniform has imbued him with a keen awareness of issues faced not only by military veterans but also former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who are also part of his mandate. Parent says his office protects the interests of approximately 800,000 Canadian veterans and retired RCMP officers, while family members balloon the total to about a million.

FrontLine’s interview request came in response to Statistics Canada’s early July release of Life After Service, a report based on surveys showing that Regular and Reserve military veterans have a higher prevalence of physical and psychological health issues than the general population. That report is seen by VAC as a precursor to a requirement for additional study to “deepen understanding” of the issues facing vets and their families. In the meantime, the OVO continues to field an annual average of some 7,000 contacts – 2,000 of which  are taken up.

“I must say that [VAC] is very cooperative and we have some great success in resolving issues,” confirms Parent. “Sometimes it’s just communications, sometimes it’s very simple administrative things, or sometimes it’s circumstantial. My role is to ensure my team identifies to the department the special circumstances of each case.” As Ombudsman, Parent also serves as a special advisor to Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, ensuring the Minister is aware of developments on veterans’ issues.

Asked about the communications conundrum, which can work in both directions (from veterans to VAC and in reverse), Parent says that while his office’s role as a “translator” is not mandated as such, it has come to be expected. The advent of social media has added to the challenge, but he is confident of the OVO’s capacity to rise to fill that need.

“We have a high level of credibility in that respect – we only produce evidence-based reports,” he says. “We don’t make assumptions. Sometimes the Minister will come to me and say, ‘well, this is what the department tells me and this is what the veterans tell me; is that quite right?’ We provide the fact-based information.” Parent says the OVO takes the same approach directly with parliamentary committees and individual Members of Parliament who have been contacted by a constituent.

According to Parent, the OVO and VAC collaborate on fact-checking these reports to ensure they are factually accurate “It’s mainly verification of statistical data and that sort of thing,” he clarifies.

In a similarly consultative approach, in preparation for reviewing the New Veterans Charter and before completing its NVC report and actuarial analysis, the OVO met with key advocates from within the Veterans community, including chairs of past Veterans Affairs Canada advisory committees and representatives from various organizations.

The OVO report on the New Veterans Charter highlighted serious issues with the financial support given to veterans, especially those who have been permanently disabled in combat. It found that hundreds of the cohort of veterans deemed to be totally and permanently incapacitated would be hard-hit when they reach the age of 65 because they do not have military pensions and some NVC benefits would end.

“We either deal with these issues now or we are going to have to deal with the cost later,” Parent told reporters, noting that injured veterans are “no longer employable because they are not deployable” and when they leave the military, they miss out on career opportunities. “Because there was a loss of opportunity to prepare for their retirement years … there is a debt owed to them by the government.”


Veterans share a laugh while awaiting a Commemoration Ceremony (2013).

Fantino’s response was to promise a “comprehensive” parliamentary review of the Charter, saying that the government was “committed to taking a responsible approach in reviewing the options to ensure veterans have the support they need, when they need it.”

However, the fact that there are still occasional headlines about cases that could have – and should have – been resolved long before the situation was allowed to deteriorate underscores Parent’s call for action sooner rather than later.

“I’m in my fourth year now, and a challenge right from the start has been inadequate communications from the department,” he tells FrontLine. Veterans and their families can become so discouraged by the complexity of the programs offered by VAC that they back away and don’t seek help. “Some think it’s not worth the hassle,” he notes with obvious dismay. This situation further underscores the need for better communication by VAC to its constituents.

Lack of understanding can cut both ways. People handling files don’t always have a good sense of how they’re supposed to proceed, and military culture can prevent individuals from coming forward with the truth about their injury or illness for fear of being “cut loose.”

Another issue, according to Parent, is the “silo aspect” at VAC, in which staff in one branch are not always aware of what’s happening in others, and may inadvertently duplicate work or, on the contrary, interfere with the other.

An almost universal and arguably warranted complaint by disgruntled veterans in Canada and elsewhere is that they feel they have been used up by their country and put on a shelf. It seems especially so for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – what once upon a time was often called “shell shock”. Because PTSD is “invisible”, there can be difficulty in accepting and diagnosing it. Someone who has lost limbs to an improvised explosive device, for example, might be easier to help than someone else who escaped physical injury but saw fellow troopers shredded by that same IED.

Parent agrees that handling the cases of veterans of earlier conflicts can be “a lot less complex” than those of personnel coming home from two or three deployments in Afghanistan or, before that, the Balkans, where idealistic but fundamentally vapid rules-of-engagement severely limited their operational flexibility. These can be very complex issues and can be compounded when they transition from one system to another. While still in uniform, they have access to a full spectrum of care through the Department of National Defence, including the best pharmaceuticals. When they become a VAC responsibility, the care ­spectrum can be quite different and the pharmaceutical options less comprehensive. “That’s a big challenge, and is something we’re concerned about,” says Parent. “Veterans’ transitions from military to civilian life has got to be done much better than it is now,” he continues. “Maybe there needs to be more overlapping.”

The OVO has made a point of training its staff on how to deal with PTSD and other “difficult” cases. This is helped by an increased level of cooperation with DND. “With PTSD, for example, we do a ‘hot transfer’ of a file so the individual doesn’t have to retell their story again and again.”

Parent calls his intervention specialists “one of the best teams in the world.” They include former VAC and DND personnel who connect with their clients by being “soft-spoken, able to rationalize and simply talk to people.” However, in addition to the many cases where success may be a matter of diligence and cooperation, there are also cases where a caller may be grasping at unrealistic “wants” – as opposed to legitimate “needs” that can be met by VAC – and may never be resolved.

He agrees that sometimes policies and regulations can be unfair, particularly when legislation and regulations limit the level of assistance VAC can provide. “Sometimes we need to change legislation, and that can be a long process,” he adds. “We try to get things working with the department to at least look at the procedures and regulations – things that can be changed without getting into legislation can be a lot simpler.”

It helps, he suggests, that awareness of the problems facing veterans has been increased by individuals such as retired Army General Roméo Dallaire’s decision to acknowledge his PTSD which dated back to his frustrations as commanding officer of a United Nations multinational force that was prevented from “interfering” in tribal genocide in Rwanda in early 1994. “I live every day what I lived 20 years ago,” Dallaire said in June when he retired early from a Senate appointment to focus on being an advocate against further genocides and the use of child soldiers. “You can’t walk away from the scale of destruction,” he told reporters on Parliament Hill. “Nor can you walk away from the sense of abandonment that my troops and I had.”

Visible in a different way is Jody Mitic (see the 2009 photo below), a Canadian Army sniper team leader who lost both legs to a landmine during his second Afghanistan tour. After rehab, Mitic was walking again and a year later completed a five-kilometre run on his prostheses. Last year, he and his brother Cory finished second in the televised Amazing Race Canada, and became a national model for perseverance and hope. A respected advocate for wounded veterans, Mitic is now taking a run at municipal politics in Ottawa. “Jody has overcome the physical and psychological hurdles,” enthuses Parent. “This is what you want, to talk to guys like that about their transition and what was successful for them.”

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Ken Pole is a Contributing Editor at FrontLine magazines.
© FrontLine Magazines 2014

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