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Veteran Affairs minister vows to change how Ottawa treats returning soldiers

Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence Minister Kent Hehr arrives to take part in the Ceremony of Remembrance in the Senate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, November 5, 2015.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

To read the story behind the Globe's unprecedented, far-reaching investigation into soldier suicides, please click here.

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr calls it "devastating and tragic" that 59 soldiers who served in Afghanistan have since taken their lives, and he promises to transform the way Ottawa deals with members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have been in combat.

"We have to review the entire playbook at Veterans Affairs with an eye to the issues surrounding our men and women leaving combat," the Trudeau cabinet minister said in an interview on Sunday.

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"Clearly and in no uncertain terms, veterans taking their lives is on the ministry's radar now."

A recent Globe and Mail investigation found that at least 54 soldiers and veterans killed themselves after serving in the Afghanistan war – more than one-third of the number of Canadian troops who died in the war itself. Last week, the military provided The Globe with an updated suicide count, which raised the number to 59.

The Globe found there was a shortage of mental-health staff and support programs, and that the military's process for releasing mentally wounded soldiers from the army left many who still wanted to serve feeling lost and betrayed.

Mr. Hehr, the newly elected MP for Calgary Centre, has been named associate minister of national defence in an attempt to bridge the gap between the two departments for soldiers leaving service – to ensure people who need help don't fall through the cracks.

"We haven't totally defined the role. My sense is, at this time, without being fully briefed, is that I am trying to work on that seamless transition between the different ages and stages of the modern veteran," the minister said. He added that this means "when people leave a tour of duty, what do we need to ensure they are immediately transitioned over into the Veterans Affairs file?"

In the federal election campaign, the Liberals promised to reopen the Veterans Affairs services offices that were closed by the now-defeated Conservative government. They also pledged to restore the option of a lifelong pension for injured veterans and hire 400 more service delivery staff to serve former soldiers.

Asked whether Veterans Affairs would bring in a system to track veteran suicides, or review the circumstances of these tragedies in order to learn how it might prevent more, Mr. Hehr made no commitment. But he said that he would work "to implement best practices and go about supporting [veterans] in a fashion where they can receive the benefits and programs they need to return to a healthy state of mental health and living."

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The new minister said the department is committed to reducing the caseload for each Veterans Affairs case manager to no more than 30 veterans. This is a target that was announced under the previous Conservative government.

"It's very tragic circumstances when someone takes their life, whether they're involved in the Armed Forces or in fact just a Canadian. It's a difficult situation for friends, families, loved ones and in fact the country," Mr. Hehr said.

A spokesman for Veterans Affairs couldn't say on Sunday what the average caseload is now, but last March the department said it was 35 clients.

Mr. Hehr, 45, talks of "modernizing" his new department to meet the needs of former soldiers. "I will do my level best to see they are getting the services they need to be successful in their lives."

The Liberals also promised to invest an additional $100-million a year to expand support for families who are caring for veterans with physical or mental-health issues. And they pledged to expand access to the permanent impairment allowance for veterans with career-ending injuries and to increase the earnings-loss benefit to 90 per cent of a veteran's prerelease salary.

Asked if this means a bigger overall budget for Veterans Affairs, rather than just reallocating funds within the department's envelope, Mr. Hehr said only that the Liberals will "do what's necessary to fill our promises" and he would ensure the money that's necessary is there for former soldiers.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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