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Veterans press MPs for benefit changes in hopes of stemming suicide rates

Kevin Berry, a former soldier with the Canadian Army's 3rd Battalion, is shown at his home in Port Moody, B.C., on Dec. 20, 2011.

RAFAL GERSZAK/The Globe and Mail

His service dog by his side, Kevin Berry sat in front of a room full of MPs and rolled up his left sleeve. Tattooed on his forearm are the initials of 12 of his fellow Canadian soldiers who have died after being dispatched to Afghanistan.

Of those, five have died by suicide.

"Make no mistake, I'm here today because lives hang in the balance," Mr. Berry, 30, told the veterans affairs committee on Tuesday, after high-profile questions about the recent suicides of four Canadian soldiers.

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Mr. Berry was a private who served in Afghanistan and left the military in 2004. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and now has a service dog, Tommy, to help manage his mental health. He and other veterans' advocates are raising concerns with Canada's New Veterans Charter, enacted in 2006. Among other changes, it offers injured soldiers lump-sum payments, while the old system spread injury benefits out into monthly payments.

The federal government says Canada is spending more over all on veterans, and that it's expanding mental-health treatment. But some veterans' advocates say the old system offered more support, and the new one is failing some of the wounded.

Mr. Berry told MPs about a friend with PTSD, a wife and two young sons who attempted suicide two weeks ago. "He decided that his survivor's benefit to his wife, should he take his own life, would make more financial sense than if he remained alive," Mr. Berry said, after earlier saying: "This is happening right now. We are seeing suicides right now as a result of this legislation. Men and women who are penniless, as a result of this."

The New Veterans Charter's lump-sum payments are of particular concern to outspoken veterans' advocates – both because the sums are insufficient in certain cases, they say, but also because regular payments offer continuing support to struggling veterans. "Most of the complaints of guys is they don't have the money to get by," Mr. Berry said.

Corporal Glen Kirkland – a veteran who is now a real-estate agent in Brandon, near CFB Shilo – told the committee Tuesday about selling a home to a soldier named William Elliott.

"I had to explain to William Elliott that the previous person, who was military-based, killed himself in that house," Mr. Kirkland recalled, before telling MPs Master Corporal William Elliott eventually also killed himself in the house. Mr. Elliott was among the four soldiers to have recently taken their lives. The others are MCpl. Sylvain Lelièvre, Warrant Officer Michael McNeil and Master Bombardier Travis Halmrast.

"These are not isolated situations. These guys are not getting the support. It's very clear, and there has to be something done," Mr. Kirkland told the committee.

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Total veterans funding has increased, Conservative MP Parm Gill told the veterans and their supporters Tuesday. Veterans said any funding increase has coincided with a spike in veterans returning home wounded, and with suicides.

"I'm not saying the New Veterans Charter doesn't work, but there are cases outlined to us where it simply has failed or where there are major gaps in the process," Jim Scott told the committee. Mr. Scott, whose son was wounded in Afghanistan, is a representative of Equitas, a group of veterans that has launched a class-action lawsuit against the government over changes to veterans' benefits.

On Tuesday, the federal government announced a partnership with the War Amps to fast-track injured veterans' access to medical benefits. "This government has made it a priority to reach out to ill and injured members of the Armed Forces," Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said.

Mr. Berry called on the government to do away with lump-sum benefits for injured veterans, and bring back monthly payments. "We've lost hope as veterans now. We're disillusioned," he said, later adding: "If we have hope, we can save lives. People will live better."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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