Red Thibodeau, former president of British Columbia/Yukon Command, knows first hand how veterans who left the Canadian Forces decades ago can miss out on Veterans Affairs Canada benefits. He was surprised in 2008 to discover he qualified for the New Veterans Charter Rehabilitation Program—even though he left military service nearly 30 years earlier.
“Now VAC tells anyone being released or medically discharged what’s available and what they’re entitled to. We didn’t have that,” says Thibodeau, who injured his back in a fall in 1978 while stationed in Germany. He left the CF in 1980, after serving six years. “We were always under the impression you got shot or lost a leg or an arm, and then you got a pension.”
Consequently, he never asked for VAC help. It’s quite common among older veterans, says Legion Dominion Command Service Officer Andrea Siew in Ottawa. “Every day we come across veterans who do not know they qualify for benefits.”
The New Veterans Charter (NVC), launched in 2006, focuses on supporting the transition from military career to civilian life for CF veterans with service-related health problems. NVC programs offer financial benefits and medical and vocational rehabilitation. Although current CF members being medically released must apply within 120 days, there is no time limit for older veterans to apply.
Many eligible veterans don’t think of themselves as “new veterans”—yet the charter applies to anyone who served after the Korean War. Some erroneously think only those who saw combat duty qualify for benefits. Others think they don’t qualify because they served in the reserves, or never saw overseas service, or served only a few years.
“If you served, we see you as a veteran,” says VAC District Director Bridget Preston in Victoria. Eligibility for NVC programs is more flexible than for other VAC programs, “so it’s important,” she says, “for anyone who thinks they might qualify to apply. The program is there for everybody.”
Any veteran prevented from assuming his or her role in the workplace, home or community due to a service-related injury, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health problem or deterioration of a service-related injury, can apply for help under the New Veterans Charter—even years after release or retirement.
Both VAC case managers and Legion service officers begin by searching service documents for records of service-related injury. Many veterans who experience problems years after they leave service don’t connect a deteriorating condition with their service career. “It doesn’t have to be a wound,” says Siew. “It could be cumulative trauma, for example, in a supply tech who lifted heavy boxes and developed back issues. You have to maintain a high level of physical fitness in the military, so someone who twists an ankle while jogging can develop problems 20 years later.”
When accepted, veterans are assigned a case manager who helps them apply for VAC benefits and helps them develop a plan to move forward in life. “We connect them with the correct professional,” says Victoria case manager Linda Lamplot. “People won’t come forward and say ‘I’m traumatized.’” So treatment plans follow assessment by professionals—physicians, psychologists or psychiatrists.
Thibodeau injured his back while serving with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. “I ended up with a lump on my spine, but it went away after a few months and nobody thought anything of it.” When he returned to Canada, he was put on ammo detail, regularly loading and unloading 100-pound boxes by hand from a five-ton truck. He dismissed back pain as the result of a hard day’s work.
By the time he left military service, back pain was a fixture in his life. So was depression. The pain was so bad, “I couldn’t take any of the high-paying manual jobs on the oil rigs.” He couldn’t sleep. At times, pain medication cost up to $300 a month, he says.
In 2004 a series of personal problems sent him into a downward spiral. He moved to Victoria, where rents are high and jobs hard to find, and ended up working two jobs to earn enough to cover living expenses. When the pain worsened, he couldn’t work full shifts. “I was getting financially and mentally burnt out.” He resigned as command president.
In 2006, just before the New Veterans Charter came into effect, he applied for a hearing loss benefit, which was approved. “The B.C./Yukon Command service officer who checked my service records said ‘do you remember falling in Germany and having a lump on your spine?’ I said ‘yeah, but it went away.’ She talked me into putting in for (a disability pension for) lower back pain, but it was turned down.” While appealing that decision he met Preston and “my life improved dramatically.” She suggested he apply for help under the New Veterans Charter.
With military records of a fall and injury in 1978 that linked to his current problems, he qualified for the Rehabilitation Program. He was subsequently diagnosed with spinal disc diseases and clinical depression from years of living with severe pain. “Now I have a team of about eight people looking after my well-being.”
The Rehabilitation Program has three components: medical stabilization of physical and psychiatric conditions and restoring basic physical function; psycho-social rehabilitation to restore independence and adapt to disability; and vocational rehabilitation.
Thibodeau and his case manager have developed a rehabilitation plan that involves repairing damage to his spine and improving his physical condition.
Now in his late 50s, Thibodeau receives Earnings Loss Benefits while in the rehab program. These benefits ensure veterans’ total income is equal to 75 per cent of their salary at time of release, with annual consumer price index adjustments. For him, that means 75 per cent of a corporal’s salary in 1980, indexed to 2010—enough to make ends meet now that he’s in affordable housing in the Legion-affiliated Prince Edward Lodge, adjacent to the branch of the same name in Victoria.
He also qualified for enrolment in the Public Service Health Care Plan, which helps with the cost of prescriptions. In addition, veterans may qualify for disability awards for pain and suffering associated with their injuries. Thibodeau has received two lump sum payments for pain and suffering associated with his back injury and hearing loss.
Earnings Loss Benefits support veterans while they complete the rehab program, or as long as they are incapacitated, or until they reach the age of 65. Permanently incapacitated veterans may also receive a Permanent Impairment Allowance, a lifelong, taxable monthly benefit recognizing the economic loss due to restricted employment opportunities, and a Supplementary Retirement Benefit, a taxable, one-time, lump sum benefit to compensate for lost opportunity to contribute to a retirement fund.
Other veterans unable to find a job (or who find a low-paying job) after completing the program may qualify for Canadian Forces Income Support, a monthly, tax-free benefit. It’s also available to those who lose Earnings Loss Benefits at 65.
While awaiting word on back surgery, Thibodeau is building strength and range of motion in a personalized water rehabilitation program with kinesiologist Kristy Webster at a pool in Victoria, a program previously out of his financial reach.
About 50 veterans yearly are referred. A program is developed to improve range of motion, strength and endurance. The goal is to speed healing and minimize physical limitations, and along the way make physical activity a part of the veteran’s lifestyle. “We call it ‘graduating’—eventually they’re into something they can maintain,” says Webster.
Thibodeau’s rehab plan also calls for addressing depression and learning new ways to cope with pain through regular sessions with psychologist Dr. Agnes Sawchyn. Veterans make up about a third of her practice, says Sawchyn. “Very often what we see are depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and along with that also come pain issues.” As well, veterans’ identities are so tied up with the military that sometimes they have difficulty making the transition to civilian life. Troubled relationships, isolation, anxiety, stress and anger are common themes. Veterans, who’ve come from an environment where strength and self-reliance are important values, often have difficulty asking for help, she says.
“When your health deteriorates it sort of emasculates you,” says Thibodeau. “You take pride in what you can lift and what you can carry. When you’re big and strong you don’t want to ask anybody for help. You’re embarrassed. Now I think it’s embarrassing not to ask for help.”