The seaplane crashed just yards from water, its mangled wreckage holding the bodies of two young men.
A doctor walked through the plane’s shattered remains to examine the bodies. Susan Clarke-Tizzard, a logistics corporal attached to the search-and-rescue team, had to turn away.
“We had two young men shoveled up into a bag. How can you explain that to people?” said Clarke-Tizzard, fighting back tears as she recalled the incident at CFB Trenton in Ontario over 25 years ago. “I don’t know if they can understand the pain and anguish.”
She never served on the front lines, but the pain of seeing young people die and friends traumatized by war has stayed with Clarke-Tizzard for more than a quarter-century, leaving her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her father, Ron Clarke, also developed the condition after completing a peacekeeping tour in Vietnam.
Today she is speaking publicly about her PTSD for the first time, driven by the desire to help comrades who are struggling with the after-effects of war and yet ignored by the Harper government. She is now a volunteer with the Anyone But Conservative (ABC) Veterans Campaign 2015 that her father helped launch on Aug. 17.
When asked what she would say to the current prime minister about her concerns, Clarke-Tizzard produced the following blunt statement:
“Stephen Harper, you breached the sacred trust between the government and the military. You showed a disdain for our veterans. That is unacceptable and can’t be tolerated. It’s time for a change. It’s time for someone who respects and cares for our military personnel and veterans.”
Soldiers from more recent wars—such as Afghanistan— are returning home to find Veterans Affairs Offices closed down to save money, waiting lists of up to 18 months for medical care or counselling, lump-sum disability payments worth less overall than the old monthly pensions under the current Veterans’ Charter, and a federal government who argued in court that it does not have a sacred obligation to help former military members.
Adding insult to injury for many old soldiers was Harper’s visit to a Canadian Legion hall in Fredericton on the same day that ABC launched its campaign, when six veterans were barred from even entering the building by security staff, while both the PM and Veterans Affairs minister Erin O’Toole were greeting others inside.
“He has great marketers. They try to give the appearance of caring and the appearance of doing something, but how much money did he take from Veterans Affairs and put back into the coffers to say that the budget was balanced?” asked Clarke-Tizzard.
According to ABC’s figures, $1.13 billion allocated for helping veterans was returned to the government’s general revenue.
But despite such cuts leaving many veterans struggling, Clarke-Tizzard says she was helped through her pain by a deep faith in God, whom she believes “brought a really strong case manager into my life” when things got tough for her several years back.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the veterans and serving members of the military and those to come,” said Clarke-Tizzard.
Nonetheless, after seeing so many of her friends return from Bosnia and the 1991 Gulf War ruined by both PTSD and physical injuries and neglected by the Tories, she has warned her son not to join the military.
And her message to voters on Oct. 19 remains clear: “ABC please.”
Two words for Harper
When asked what he would say to Stephen Harper, ex-soldier Dan Boudreault said, “I would say two words but they wouldn’t be Merry Christmas.”
The polite version of his two words for Harper is “October 19th.”
Weeks earlier, both Boudreault and his trusty service dog showed up at a Veterans Affairs office in Ottawa only to be unceremoniously escorted off the premises by police, who told him that staff would not be answering his questions on when he would be helped.
That was on July 13, more than eight years after Boudreault survived a terrorist ambush in Afghanistan that left him with a knee injury, sleep apnea, tendonitis, curvature of his spine, depression, and PTSD. His quest for help from Veterans Affairs meant risking arrest.
“What they did was a complete infringement of my right to be at Veterans Affairs in Ottawa and get answers,” said Boudreault, who is also a former Tory voter.
He was already stuck on an 18-month waiting list for a knee replacement and behavioral therapy for his mental conditions, and taking a cocktail of 10 different medications every day, down from 17 last year, an experience that made him feel “like a guinea pig.” In 2009 his wife quit her job to care for Boudreault and their only income is his military pension.
Already struggling to re-adjust to civilian life, Boudreault then lost his daughter. As a former soldier, he was entitled to help from Veterans Affairs, but ended up footing the burial costs himself.
“Living on one income and then having a major tragedy like that, we’ve been borrowing [money], including from in-laws, just to make it,” said Boudreault.
His Ottawa experience was the last straw that drove him into the ABC Veterans Campaign’s arms, where he is now a volunteer, helping their campaign to drive the Harper Conservatives from power on election day in just under two months.
“How can the government get away with nickel-and-diming us?” asked Boudreault. “It’s a lot of frustration on my part dealing with them.”
He says he wants an end to waiting lists, respect from his government, no more denial of services, and no more ex-soldiers being escorted out of Veterans Affairs offices.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party are already promising better veterans’ services if elected, including re-establishing lifelong pensions, boosting disability awards, re-opening the nine shuttered Veterans Affairs offices, and a host of other investments, but Boudreault is still wary of political pledges.
“I want to see actions. I don’t want to hear more verbal diarrhea or promises,” said Boudreault.
Slow road to Persia
War came dressed in black for Reginald Angus Argue. Blackened hulks of burnt-out tanks on a desolate Iranian roadside. Black shawls draped across doorways of seemingly every house, signifying the loss of a family member in battle or bombing raids.
It was 1988, just after the Iran-Iraq war ended, leaving one million people dead and a once-beautiful land scarred by bomb damage and landmines. Argue, then only 21, was there as part of a peacekeeping contingent monitoring a ceasefire between the two nations.
“You’re seeing stuff that ordinary people don’t see,” said Argue. “A lot of us want to [a]waken people to what’s going on and people aren’t really awake, because they haven’t gone through the same experience as us, so that’s why I want to see a government come in who’s more willing to deal with the veterans and able to help us not only transition into society, but allow us to speak out more, allow us to be heard, allow us to be part of the policies.”
Argue, an ex-corporal who is currently president of the Veterans in Politics Canada Foundation, is not part of ABC’s campaign but nonetheless welcomed their efforts after his own experiences when he left the military in 1995.
Under then-PM Jean Chretien, anyone leaving the army could expect a “rum and coke,” and a small pension, treatment that Argue described as “horrendous.”
His situation later improved somewhat, when Veterans Affairs obtained a mobility scooter for him and he said that more services were available for him in the 2000s, even after Harper became PM.
Nonetheless, Argue joined many of his fellow veterans in condemning lump sum payments under the current charter, saying that he preferred the old monthly system.
“Stephen Harper has been catering too much to his special interest groups and a lot of the money that should have gone to veterans has instead been rolled back into the general revenue," said Argue. "But then the federal Liberals under Chretien did the exact same thing, so what we need is a new approach. I’m just hoping that after this federal election comes up that we get the new approach and we get a government in there that’s more willing to listen to us veterans.”
Change we can believe in
Walter Callaghan is a former second lieutenant in the medical services. He developed PTSD after seeing young people whom he had trained and cared for return home injured, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt. He also suffered a back injury in 2003 while serving at CFB Gagetown.
He hit the streets of downtown Toronto on Aug. 22, handing out ABC leaflets to people attending the Warriors Day Parade at the Canadian National Exhibition.
“I personally don’t care whether you vote Liberal, Green, NDP, Libertarian, [or] Rhino Party. Vote anything but Conservatives. Send a clear message to them that they have failed,” said Callaghan, as tartan-clad bagpipers marched behind him.
“They took four years for Veterans Affairs to acknowledge my back injury,” said Callaghan. “I was declared five per cent disabled even though I can’t run, I can’t lift heavy loads. The military themselves turned around and decided I was a permanent injury."
As for his PTSD, it took five years for Veterans Affairs to acknowledge any mental health issues and he is still locked in a fight for benefits a decade later.
“The length of time it takes to get the benefits is ridiculous,” said Callaghan.
He didn’t even realize that he was eligible for the Permanent Care Benefit Allowance until a case manager fought on his behalf, but was also thrown off a rehabilitation program despite being classed as permanently disabled and his benefits were cut too.
“This is sort of ass-backwards,” said Callaghan.
When asked what he would say to Stephen Harper, Callaghan echoed both Boudreault and Clarke-Tizzard, blasting both the PM and O’Toole for having “betrayed the sacred trust between Canada and the veterans.”
“They’ve created situations that have led to the suicides of a number of my friends. I have nothing pleasant to say to them. So I’m out here trying to get the message out.”