Chinta Puxley / The Canadian Press – 2008-11-09 17:25:01
(November 9, 2008) — The weathered, beret-wearing veteran is a constant image on Remembrance Day.
Proud elderly men and women, their chests adorned with long rows of medals, will gather at cenotaphs across the country this November 11 to pay tribute to their fallen comrades and soak up the adulation of a grateful public.
Few Canadians will give a thought to the veterans who are filling lines at soup kitchens and crowding beds at homeless shelters — those who ended their military service so psychologically scarred that it was impossible to fit back into life at home.
Their marriages have broken down, they have fallen into cycles of substance abuse and addiction.
Now they are on the street.
Although other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have programs and special shelters for homeless veterans, advocates such as retired colonel Patrick Stogran say Canada has ignored the problem.
Warriors come back from combat without the proper support, he says.
“It’s like leaving someone bleeding on the battlefield,” says Stogran, who is Canada’s first ombudsman of Veterans Affairs. “Someone sleeping in their car can’t integrate back into society.”
Stogran has visited shelters across the country — from Calgary and Edmonton to Halifax and Charlottetown. Every single one has served former military officers, he says. Many won’t automatically identify these men and women as veterans. As Stogran says, they aren’t the ones you see in Remembrance Day ceremonies.
Many of the “walking wounded” are younger men and women who served as peacekeepers in Bosnia or who have returned from Afghanistan. About 14,000 soldiers have taken part in the Afghanistan mission since it began in 2002.
People are coming back as “stress casualties that have slipped through the cracks,” Stogran says.
“Guys came back with baggage. We may have a decade of lost veterans out there. Veteran Affairs has not been reaching out to them.”
Gary Scammell knows how hard it is to forget. Since he fought in Vietnam at the age of 20, he has been doing his best to do that.
Forget the memory of being under fire. Forget watching his buddy die by his side. Forget the chronic fatigue that comes from endless sleepless nights, jolted awake by the slightest rustle.
Scammell is one of a dozen homeless veterans living at a shelter in Calgary. He fought for the United States in Vietnam, but is now a Canadian citizen.
“Not very many Canadians think of the vets anymore,” says Scammell, 60. “A private life is what we’re all looking for. You don’t have any here … There is no sense of pride. You are in a cage. Everybody, when they go by, looks. There is no dignity. That’s something that you fought for in the military. Suddenly, you lose it. All of it.”
Veterans are no strangers to those who work in homeless shelters across Canada.
Brian Bechtel, with the Main Street Project in Winnipeg, recalls meeting an 86-year-old man who came in for food recently. He had survived one of the mostdisastrousraids of the Second World War — in which almost 1,000 Canadians perished — only to end up living in poverty in Manitoba.
“This guy was at the Battle of Dieppe,” Bechtel says. “He spent a whole day in the surf, waiting to sneak out, survive and get away from the Germans. He was in our shelter.”
Louise Gallagher, with the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre, says the shelter houses about a dozen veterans every night. Some were in Korea, others kept the peace in Cyprus and Bosnia.
Their stories are heartbreaking. One former Cyprus peacekeeper was under fire and is still haunted by the memory of watching his two friends get hit.
“He’s a drug addict, an alcoholic,” Gallagher says. “He didn’t want to go to a legion because he felt less than everybody. He didn’t want to talk to people.”
Experts are split about why veterans are ending up on the street. While some say they become homeless for the same reasons as everyone else, others argue that veterans face particular challenges that make them more vulnerable.
Pierre Allard, with the Royal Canadian Legion, says soldiers and peacekeepers are exposed to some potentially horrific situations which can lead to anxiety disorders, depression and other psychological problems down the road.
Addiction often compounds the problems and “puts them in a risky situation.”
“They are members of a family when they’re serving in the military. And when they leave the military, that sense of belonging sometimes disappears and they are a little bit left on their own, especially if they are suffering from some mental difficulties,” Allard says, adding former servicemen can be harder to help because of their background and training.
“They’ve got a bit of values and codes of service — ’we’re strong, we’re better than everybody else so we can cope’ — and sometimes they can’t cope.”
A British study done this year at the University of York found military training makes veterans feel better equipped to endure the hardships of the streets. This makes them less fearful of living there, but it also makes them less likely to seek help.
“These factors, together with their greater propensity to drink heavily — which many claim was initiated or exacerbated by the military lifestyle — combine to make them more susceptible to sustained or repeat homelessness,” the study reads.
Some echo the view that veterans are no different than others who find themselves living on the street. Hugh Milroy, CEO of Veterans Aid in the United Kingdom, says vets are driven to his shelter by poverty, addiction, divorce and social isolation.
“It’s nothing to do with military service. It’s nothing to do with post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Milroy, pointing to the Canadian experience in the Second World War.
“Huge traumatic things happened to Canadians … People came back and got on with living.”
It’s not usually until years after their military discharge that many veterans find themselves on the street, Milroy says.
“These people are alone. We’re trying to rebuild them.”
Canada is starting to take the problem seriously. Veterans Affairs is quietly putting together a policy on homeless veterans at the urging of Stogran. The issue has crossed the desk of the Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson. A briefing note for a November 2007 meeting, obtained by The Canadian Press, says “the current economic boom in Alberta and associated increases in the cost of living have had an impact on some veterans.”
Although the document notes a number of reports of “people identifying themselves as veterans accessing food banks and homeless shelters in Alberta,” the department doesn’t commit to action. Instead, the note details how the department and other organizations are helping veterans.
“The needs of our clients are a priority for Veterans Affairs Canada,” the note says. “We encourage Veterans, their families or other agencies who may be involved with them to let us know if they need help.”
That’s not good enough for the veterans ombudsman.
Stogran says the government should be reaching out to veterans at local shelters on “their home turf,” rather than expecting veterans to come to them. He feels Veterans Affairs bureaucrats are too risk-averse and politically sensitive to deal with the issue head-on. He notes they did not accept an invitation to attend a gathering of homeless groups during the recent federal election, although representatives from the Department of Indian Affairs were there.
It’s time Ottawa realized that veterans must get more than home care and supports for seniors, Stogran says.
“There is a need here that should be filled with some degree of urgency. Time is of the essence. If there is any way that we can put a sense of urgency on these issues, then we might save a young person.”
— With files from Shannon Montgomery in Calgary
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