Much-admired military unit for Canadian veterans has fallen into disrepair with lack of resources
By Chris Cobb, Postmedia News August 10, 2013
The Canadian military created its Joint Personnel Support Unit almost five years ago to give hope and help to the flood of physically and mentally injured soldiers coming home from Afghanistan and those still damaged from previous missions. Eight regional JPSUs would oversee 24 troop support centres and dozens of smaller satellite facilities scattered across the country. The ill and injured would be assigned to support platoons.
The 24 new units, or integrated personnel support centres, would be holistic and offer well-staffed programs that would support and enable troops posted into the unit to get proper medical mental health treatment and the chance to resume their careers or, more likely, be "transitioned out" into the civilian world with sellable skills and jobs to go to.
It was all very appealing to Barry Westholm, a veteran with three decades of tough soldiering under his belt and the emotional scars to show for it.
Westholm was a member of the Canadian Airborne Regiment when it was disbanded in 1995 and had also served in Cambodia, Syria and Haiti. He was back at CFB Petawawa as a master warrant officer in 2007 when he began seeing young soldiers returning from Afghanistan.
"They had all aged from when I'd last seen them," he recalls, "and a lot of them were coming back with injuries. It wasn't uncommon for me to have them crying at my desk. There was no system to support them."
Westholm joined the JPSU system in February 2009 as the first regional sergeant major and senior non-commissioned officer of the vast eastern Ontario region that includes Petawawa, Ottawa, Kingston, Trenton and North Bay.
Under a previous system, barely one per cent of troops made it back to work in the military but JPSU and its network of support centres was initially able to push that to almost 20 per cent.
"It's been a fantastic achievement," adds Westholm, "but equally important is how we've transitioned some people for the civilian environment as opposed to the previous 'goodbye, it's been nice to know you.'
"People had a place to go where they would be treated with respect and cared for," he says. "They get training, take courses and even work part time in the civilian environment to get used to the rhythm. So they leave with a useful tool box."
FROM BAD TO WORSE
But increased demand, burnt-out and departed staff and lack of resources means that many of the support units have gone from good to bad to worse to dysfunctional, according to Westholm and several other serving and retired Canadian Forces members. Documents obtained by Postmedia News confirm their assessment.
The trend, they say, is a reflection of the federal government's lack of commitment and a persistent refusal by the upper crust of Canada's military to provide the resources and innovation necessary to cope with an overwhelming demand that only seems likely to increase as military personnel who served in Afghanistan emerge from the incubation period that typically precedes mental breakdown - and countless others who will no longer be able to hide the mental illnesses they fear will meet a prevalent stigma and end their military careers.
Frustrated at the persistent refusals from superiors for extra help, 50-year-old Westholm quit his job earlier this year and circulated his twopage resignation letter to a range of influential government and military people, hoping for a reaction that never came.
"I couldn't collect a paycheque to be part of that anymore," says Westholm, who says he jumped before he was pushed after being told that JPSU brass wasn't interested in reading any more memos begging for increased resources.
"We were overwhelmed and had senior medical staff telling us that a wave (of mental illness) was coming. So I said we have to get busy to prepare for these troops. They said 'no way.' I thought that if I cc'd enough people someone would say 'hey, what's going on?' "
RECIPE FOR DISASTER
Retired brigadier-general Joe Sharpe, a respected voice on military mental health, says Westholm's concerns are wellfounded.
"I maintain a lot of contact with soldiers across the country and I see us falling back in the trap where the public perception comes first and the soldiers come second," he says. "In the early 1990s we went through budget cuts and were abandoning soldiers right, left and centre. Senior leadership today is focused on resources, media and public perceptions. It's a recipe for disaster."
Cpl. Glen Kirkland, a severely injured Afghanistan veteran who testified at a parliamentary committee hearing in June about his struggle to get adequate coverage for his ongoing medical treatment, is officially assigned to JPSU at CFB Shilo, Manitoba - a unit he says is hopelessly failing its ill and injured.
"It's a coffee shop and a ridiculous waste of manpower," he says. "I'm considered one of their bad soldiers because when I got to JPSU, I'm like 'I can't sit here and rot, I need to do something with my life.' I went out and got a university education and got a trade.
"They should be teaching guys to get out of the system and not be patrons at a coffee shop," he adds. "They don't need sergeants and warrants, they need baristas."
The JPSU needs a different structure with more committed and qualified staff, says Kirkland, who has been building a career as a real-estate agent while awaiting his release.
"Something needs to change because guys are going there to rot," he says, "The sergeants and warrants charged with running the system have done their 30 years. They aren't necessarily suited to the job. You ask them 'do you like your job' and they'll say 'no, I don't like my job because I have to deal with whiny soldiers all day.' "The army doesn't look after its injured soldiers," he says. "If I had worked at Walmart I would have been looked after better.
FINDING A PURPOSE
Nadia Pardy, who was posted into the JPSU system at Petawawa because of physical injury when JPSU was in its infancy, says she fared well at a time when the unit was fully functioning.
"When you spend the largest part of your adult life in the forces it becomes a part of who you are," she says. "Many of us do not know how to go forward and start over when it was never in our original plans. Injured and disabled soldiers, sailors and airmen need support in finding a purpose and gainful employment outside the Canadian Armed Forces. I do not see how they can downsize the support when the number of members needing the support is steadily increasing." The JPSU decline also contravenes the federal government and DND's much-touted "Taking Care of Our Own" policy signed last year by former chief of defence staff Walt Natynczyk.
According to DND, support units across Canada are currently "offering direct assistance" through JPSU to 5,418 ill and injured members and 533 families of soldiers killed while on duty.
But the eastern Ontario region support system is in trouble - a situation flagged to Westholm in an email two years ago from a Kingston colleague.
"I am currently unable to stay ahead of the curve and am not able to complete the bulk of the tasks that are expected of me," said the colleague. "I find my involvement with our most severe cases takes a huge chunk of my time."
The situation in Kingston has deteriorated since then, says Westholm.
"There are 82 people posted to the support platoon in Kingston and only one military JPSU person there to take care of them," he says.
He has had similar appeals for help from Ottawa and Petawawa where unit brass have admitted that the current system is unworkable and ordered fast-track structural changes.
In an email written three weeks ago, Petawawa's integrated personnel support centre commander Capt. Kevin Lamorie told his staff that "due to current manning levels" the ill and injured will not be assigned to a specific commander but to whomever is available, and more administrative work will be done by the unit's client service representatives, whose primary tasks since the system's inception has been helping the injured troops. In his email, obtained by Postmedia News, Lamorie warns that the measures will be in place until at least September and thanks staff for their patience "during this extremely trying time for the IPSC."
The Petawawa sys tem, equipped to cope with 30 ill and injured, are currently dealing with almost 200, says Westholm.
'A DESPERATE SITUATION'
"In Petawawa they are in 100 per cent scramble mode trying to keep it together," says Westholm. "It's a desperate situation."
Jan Stroud, a clinical social worker who treated many Afghan veterans at CFB Petawawa before leaving last year, says the new directive is a clear signal that the situation at the base support unit is dire.
"It tells me they're not even hiding any more how serious it is," she says. "Not only are soldiers not going to get what they need but they are going to be put in a queue and it will be by gosh or by golly what's going to happen to them."
Client service representatives - formerly dealing directly with ill and injured troops at Petawawa - are becoming administration clerks, she adds.
"They are exceptional people and would go to unbelievable lengths to get soldiers what they need. They provided a safe haven for soldiers where they could talk about their problems and challenges."
"There were people who had to clean out the vehicles soldiers had died in," says Westholm. "Or the post office clerks who had to intercept the mail going to the deceased or send effects of the deceased back home. Yesterday he or she had given you a parcel to mail and you were talking to them at your wicket and today they're gone and you're holding their stuff in your hands. It would have an effect on anyone."
And those who experienced combat are often doubly afflicted.
"If you have a traumatic physical injury you could be mentally injured, too," he says. The military's director of casualty support management, Col. Gerard Blais, agreed to an interview with Postmedia News but it was cancelled three hours before it was due to take place. Blais has headed the JPSU system since its inception. In a written response issued through a public affairs spokesman, Blais described staffing at Joint Personnel Support Units as "adequate" but "challenging in the current environment" due to a government-imposed hiring freeze.
"A number of mechanisms to address the issue of staffing these positions are currently being examined," said the spokesman, who offered no specifics.
Westholm says it makes no economic sense for the government to squeeze JPSU: "If it's money you're worried about, these people leaving with jobs are not on the dole, not in the health care system and not alcoholics, drunk on the side of the road. They are making a wage and paying taxes."
The current operating budget for the support system is $19.4 million, roughly the same as last year.
WAITING ROOM TO GET OUT
"The intent is right but the execution is terrible," says a serving soldier posted into a support unit in another part of Ontario, who spoke on condition Postmedia News didn't use his name.
"I just go into a little crack and live there. We're scattered all over and never line up together. I've never had a review of any sort. I check in once or twice a week to give a wave and show I'm still alive and that's it.
There is no close monitoring. And if anybody needs close monitoring, it's the guys here.
"There is no real sense of leadership or direction," adds the soldier. "It's become a waiting room to get out of the military and isn't a great place to be. It's definitely understaffed, with one person in charge of 30 or 40 people."
A soldier working on JPSU staff at another Ontario base says a slew of his colleagues are burned out or leaving to continue to collect their pensions, which they can't do if they stay working in the military, according to new federal Treasury Board rules.
"We're losing a lot of good people and a lot of corporate knowledge," says the soldier who asked that neither his name nor base be published. "The staff is working 16-hour days, six days a week. If JPSU were 100 per cent resourced it would be excellent but right now it isn't working.
"This unit was stood up to take stigma away from the ill and injured," he adds, "but now we're almost back where we started."
Amid stories of staff burning out and developing their own health issues - including at least one who suffered an emotional collapse and became a JPSU client - Westholm wrote his two-page resignation letter.
"JPSU is the lowest priority," says Sharpe, who works closely on military mental health issues with Sen. Romeo Dallaire.
"I worry about it as a citizen and as a veteran," he says. "I worry about what some of the young guys will end up doing if you create an environment where the ill and injured feel they can't make their voices heard. And I know dozens of them.
"What we need is an environment where veterans who have a mental injury or a leg blown off by an IED have an entitlement, not a need to go begging," he added.
JPSU's decline is a failure of leadership, says Sharpe.
"The obligation is on the government - an implied covenant that if you're injured you'll be taken care of."
Westholm agrees. "We are helping the people who paid the price," he says. "We asked them to go to war and they went. They got beat up over there and now they want to get better. But now we've set a trap for them: We're saying 'come on, it's here' but it's not."
How the JPSU works
The Joint Personnel Support Unit is intended to work like this:
Mentally and physically injured and ill Canadian Forces members who can no longer function in their own units are eligible to be posted into the JPSU support platoon, usually on a medical officer's recommendation. Key to their futures as military personnel is meeting the requirements of "Universality of Service," a series of criteria that all Canadian Forces members, irrespective of their jobs in the military, must meet to show they are capable of meeting the rigours of combat duty.
Troops are posted to support platoons, an organization located within integrated personnel support centre (IPSCs). There are 24 IPSCs across Canada.
The vast majority of troops - around 80 per cent - are transitioned out of the military. Before the JPSU, this number was 95 per cent. The rest return to duty, some in their former careers, others in less-demanding trades. The support platoons are a structured military unit in which an injured person is assigned a section commander whose job it is to monitor progress, provide leadership and guidance, and adherence to the rules.
Troops are rarely, if ever, brought together as one group.
Depending on the severity of their injuries and their medical restrictions, troops will work either at a unit on a base, with local businesses or take college courses. Most are receiving some form of mental or physical medical treatment and some addiction counselling. They are required to report regularly to their supervisor. Reporting methods (phone, email, in-person) often depends on place of work, medical restrictions and record of reliability.
Those who don't report on time - a common occurrence among high-risk, mentally injured troops with addiction problems - are tracked down immediately and given necessary help. There is no limit for how long a person can stay in the JPSU system, but three years has been the average.
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