The recent closure of many Veterans Affairs offices has had financial and psychological impacts not only on veterans, but also on their widows and children.
Veterans may have gone through the horrors of war, but their war widows – often largely forgotten in the public eye – are also a casualty. These women assumed the role of caregiver, counselor, and therapist, and were often effectively single parents.
At an early stage in their marriage, these war widows did what they could to keep their families together. Now many live alone, their families shattered and scattered, with dwindling resources and few options.
This is the story of one war widow, Mrs. S. – who for fear of retaliation, of completely losing what little benefits she has left, and to protect her family – has requested anonymity in the telling of her story.
Mrs. S is the widow of a Second World War veteran. Her life has not been easy; her husband suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of the war, and had some personality disorders that were expounded by the realities of conflict.
The trauma of what her husband went through played itself out in the daily lives of Mrs. S and her children. As a result, the family unit became so dysfunctional that her children now reside in other provinces and countries, living their lives far away from the distress of where they grew up.
After living with a man who was abusive and mentally fragile, and who would threaten to commit suicide on a regular basis, Mrs. S and her children also suffer from PTSD. Although her husband received some counselling and services, Mrs. S and the children – like the families of many other veterans – were never offered support.
Who can help?
Mrs. S’s family is just one of many served, albeit often ineffectively, by Veterans Affairs (VA).
On January 31, nine VA offices across the country were closed and many of the services once provided were unloaded onto Service Canada employees. In closing the offices, the federal government announced it will be moving many of the services offered to online. As well, it promised to have a fully trained Veterans Affairs Canada staffer posted at Service Canada locations closest to the closing veterans’ offices.
In reaction to the closures, the following statement was released by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the union representing both Veterans Affairs and Service Canada:
“These (VA) offices provide valuable support and services to traditional and younger veterans – including those with serious physical and mental health issues, who depend on us for face-to-face frontline help.”
In the last two years the number of traditional veterans served by Veterans Affairs has decreased from 63,000 to 49,000. But the number of Regular Force veterans served by Veterans Affairs has increased from 68,000 to 76,000. And that number will continue to rise.
In 2013, the average age of the 594,300 Canadian Forces veterans was 56. None of these numbers include family members, survivors and the RCMP, who are also served by Veterans Affairs.
There seems to be little argument over the growing need to provide services for veterans. The debate is over how those services are delivered. While the federal government is intent on using Service Canada for this, veterans and their families disagree with that move.
Mrs. S. says that the transfer of services to Service Canada will have a big impact on her.
Historically, Mrs. S received an annual phone call from Veterans Affairs to see if she needed anything. Now she has to call people who don’t know her history, who don’t know her husband’s history, and who are not always aware of what services she is eligible for.
“I became so angry and upset when I heard the news about the reduced services and now that I don’t hear or see as well, it is even more frustrating to try and reach someone by phone to get an explanation,” Mrs. S says.
PSAC says Service Canada employees lack the specialized skills necessary to adequately help veterans and their families. The union’s website states:
“Service Canada reps can only answer general questions and supply and receive forms. They don’t have the expertise or the time to sit down with veterans to help them fill out their applications for benefits and services, or check to ensure that forms are properly completed. One mistake can result in the denial of benefits to a veteran.”
Service Canada staff also cannot access veterans’ files and therefore wouldn’t be able to properly give advice or guidance related to individual cases.
Veterans Affairs workers did access those files and often built long-term relationships with clients, so were much more able to understand and respond to needs. This is especially important for veterans with complex physical and mental health conditions, according to the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
Service Canada employees may want to do more for veterans, but it’s unrealistic to think they will have the same degree of expertise as VA personnel. Veterans groups are afraid they’ll just be directed to a computer or a toll-free number for help.
Veterans interviewed by PSAC have reported some problems with the phone line and internet support, especially for those who are older or living with PTSD and other mental health challenges.
“The Government of Canada has made it very difficult for me and for the young people who are dealing with suicides, PTSD and other types of trauma. They will never get over that if more obstacles and hardships keep adding up,” Mrs. S. says.
Seeking support elsewhere
Due to a lack of support from Veterans Affairs, Mrs. S looked for help elsewhere. She found it, at the age of 55, through A&O: Support Services for Older Adults (formerly Age & Opportunity).
At A&O, Mrs. S was able to connect with a social worker who helped her deal with her PTSD and the abuse she suffered, and also helped her access additional support.
“A&O provides three pillars of service for older adults that include safety and security, social engagement and counselling services,” explains Amanda Macrae, A&O’s CEO. “A&O strives to meet the demands of clients suffering through many traumas and life-altering events.”
This past year, A&O’s Elder Abuse Prevention Services supported over 1,300 individuals and families experiencing elder abuse. They also assisted over 32,000 older adults across Manitoba through 17 different programs.
Due to reduced funding, wait lists now exist for many of A&O’s free counselling services.
“A&O has seen an increased demand for these services along with the growing older adult population but with very little funding to match the demand,” Macrae says.
The bottom line
The closure of the VA offices are not the only challenge facing veterans and their families. Mrs. S has also seen a reduction in the funds allotted to war widows and veterans. Details of this are contained in a December 2013 government notice she received in the mail, informing her that these changes would be in effect as of 2014.
Prior to the office closures, Mrs. S received a designated VIP service package that amounted to $3,000 per year. As a retired accountant, she made the most of this money, using it for snow clearing, lawn care and house cleaning services.
Mrs. S was shocked when she recently learned Veterans Affairs was reducing these payments to $1,700 annually. The cut means she cannot afford to have the large snow piles removed from her yard. The windrows were put there by city snowplows and make it difficult for her to leave her property.
When she called the city’s 311 service, Mrs. S was told the only way the city would remove the snow is if she provided a doctor’s note stating she has a disability. She fears if there was a fire or if she needed an ambulance, she would not be able to get out because her front walk is blocked.
Mrs. S says she knows of other war widows facing similar situations, and she believes it’s time for someone to speak out on their behalf.
A call to the federal government
We live in an era when mental health issues are openly discussed and the associated stigma is slowly eroding due to the efforts of awareness campaigns.
As veterans age they require more care and services. Younger veterans, such as those returning from Afghanistan, tend to have more complex needs including serious mental health conditions.
Each time a news story covers another suicide of a veteran, it opens the floodgates to many emotions for the war widows and the surviving children who persevere on their own. Each time they hear news reports about the closures of the VA offices or of the reduction in services, they relive some of the traumas of their own lives.
The federal government asked Canadians to go to war for the good of the country, and to help other nations obtain some semblance of peace. Mrs. S says, she wishes the government would return the favor and ensure services for veterans and their families were reinstated and improved, not dismantled and degraded.