Babylon, P.Q.: Veterans’ wars not over

Veterans’ wars not over

The iPhone app that helps you remember: Go to www.vac-acc.gc.ca

Most of us don’t have the faintest freakin’ clue what the day-to-day is like for Canada’s armed forces in the field in Afghanistan. Not even the most elementary iota of an idea, because 1) we’re not supposed to, and 2) see number one.

An Angus Reid poll last month found that 55 percent of Canadians feel the federal government has been a lot less than generous when it comes to providing information about the war in Afghanistan, as opposed to 25 percent who deemed the intermittent trickle of info appropriate (the remaining 20 percent were too strapped into their tinfoil hats looking for thermite residue in the remains of the World Trade Center to give a shit).

War – in a country that for the most part prefers to see its blood-letting done on the ice between two nets – makes for good newspapers but bad politicking. Your average present-day Canadian is more roses than guns and has a relatively low appetite for destruction (the same poll found that 55 percent of Canucks oppose involvement in Afghanistan) when they can’t see the point, or they think that there is no point (only 6 percent of us think that the outcome in Afghanistan will be a clear victory for Coalition forces; probably not coincidentally, this is the same number who think Anne Coulter is hot).

Yeah, so there is much to be risked by exposing a wary, weary public to the wartime activities of our military machine. But there are also inherent risks to keeping us blind to their work – when put in a position where we can’t scrutinize it, we’re also in a position where we can’t honour it. And not celebrating our service members is not in the historical character of this country, regardless of political bent.

The Harper government’s thinking here seems to be you can’t forget what you didn’t know in the first place, which is an unqualified slap in the face of our veterans, though maybe not nearly as hurtful as the Tory sucker punch that Canadian Press (CP) turned up on Monday of this week.

On Nov. 1, CP, on the basis of 3,500 pages of leaked internal government documents, reported that the Conservatives’ much-ballyhooed New Veterans Charter (NVC) of last year, which purported to give more money to benefits, actually siphons as much as $40-million annually out of current government spending on veterans. Vets like the 529 soldiers seriously wounded in action in Afghanistan since 2002, and the 913 others who have suffered non-battle-related injuries.

The leaked documents also suggest that disabled veterans could now be forced to work in some capacity to supplement their income. This is but one of the reasons that Canadian veterans’ organizations have declared Nov. 6 a National Day of Protest. At issue are several pressing concerns, among them putting an end to the NVC’s Lump Sum Disability Award (a one-time payment of up to $276,080 that bars additional monies except in special circumstances) and restoring the lifetime pain and suffering pension, ending the "widow’s tax" (pensions and awards to families that have suffered a loss are currently not tax-exempt), and ending the reduction of veterans’ military pensions at age 65 (at a time when it is most needed), among many other outstanding, and longstanding, issues.

Veterans’ protests are planned for Ottawa, London, Halifax and St. John’s, while around the rest of the country veterans will converge on local MP riding offices to make their needs known.

If in the meantime you’ve at least a little curiosity about what it is exactly Canadian Forces are doing every day in Afghanistan, as a starting point I’ll direct you to reservist and writer Chris Wattie’s account of the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry in Kandahar province in the spring of 2006, Contact Charlie: The Canadian Army, the Taliban and the Battle for Afghanistan. It’s a dramatic, chronological account of the almost daily, frequently deadly battles with an enemy that is far more sophisticated than they’ve been given credit for, at a time when a Canadian soldier in Kandahar was six times more likely to be killed than a U.S. soldier in Iraq.

Something to think about. And remember.

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Vetting the vets Veterans Affairs breaks down the Canadian historical contribution in lives as follows: In the South Africa War (1899-1902), approximately 7,000 Canadians served and 267 died. In World War I (1914-18), 650,000 did their part, and 68,000 paid with their lives. World War II (1939-45) saw more than a 1,000,000 Canadians go to war, and 47,000 of them did not return. The Korean War (1950-53) recognizes 26,791 service members, and 526 of them lost their lives.

A further 1,700 lives lost are commemorated as "In the Service of Canada," which acknowledges the ultimate sacrifice of those who "gave their lives in service to their country, including peacekeeping and other foreign military operations, domestic operations and training." These numbers include casualties in the Afghanistan conflict: Up until now, since February 2002, 152 members of the Canadian Forces have been killed in Afghanistan, the largest loss of life since the Korean War.

But the dead aren’t the only ones worthy of remembrance. While there are no longer any surviving Canadian veterans of World War I – Lance Corporal John Babcock died this past February at 109 – there are an estimated 593,700 Canadian Forces vets still living, a remarkable 143,000 of whom served during World War II (their average age is now 87) and a further 12,000 in the Korean War (average age 78). To all of them, and not just on Nov. 11, our enduring appreciation.

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