By Chris Cobb, OTTAWA CITIZEN August 26, 2013 8:02 PM
OTTAWA — Canada's military ombudsman has launched a probe into the national network of support units created almost five years ago to help mentally and physically injured troops.
The probe comes less than a month after the Ottawa Citizen reported that the network of 24 support platoons have deteriorated due to overcrowding, chronic staff shortages, staff burnout and the filling of key positions with unqualified personnel, many of whom are on the eve of retirement.
Ombudsman Pierre Daigle decided to launch a review following the Citizen's coverage and a specific complaint sent to his office, spokesman Jamie Robertson told the Citizen Monday.
Investigators plan to contact all the units and if they find a pattern of systemic failure, could launch a full-fledged investigation, said Robertson.
"We will be trying to find from the people who work there what is happening on the ground," said Robertson. "We want to get good information from all levels."
Investigators typically interview less senior staff away from their units and keep their identities secret, he added.
The support units operate under the umbrella of regional Joint Personnel Support Centres and are intended to help the ill and injured troops — mostly Afghan war veterans — either reintegrate into the armed forces or be prepared for civilian life, which is most often the case.
A key requirement introduced in 2006 is that all troops, irrespective of their military job, meet the "Universality of Service" standard, which in effect means being fit enough to fight.
The Opposition NDP have said that the "Universality of Service" introduced by the Conservative government is unfairly restricting many war veterans from resuming their military careers and leaving the service with a pension.
While posted into a support unit, troops will either work on base, learn trades with local businesses or take college courses. Most receive some form of mental or physical therapy and all are supposed to report regularly to their supervisors, who in turn are required to produce regular reports on the ill and injured under their supervision.
Former senior non-commissioned officer Barry Westholm, who resigned to protest the current state of the JPSU system after more than four years overseeing the unit's vast Eastern Ontario region, told the Citizen that his constant efforts to get extra resources and fundamental changes were all rebuffed by DND senior brass.
"I couldn't collect a paycheque to be part of that anymore," he said. "We asked them to go to war and they went. They got beat up over there and now they want to get better. But we've set a trap for them. We're saying, 'Come on, it's here. But it's not."
Westholm and numerous others confirm that the some units are failing so badly that ill and injured soldiers are left to their own devices while overworked staff attempt to keep up with their work.
There have been at least two recent cases of support unit staff burning out and becoming clients of the system.
DND insists that the staffing levels at the support units are "adequate" and that the welfare of ill and injured troops is a priority.
According to DND, JPSU is currently "offering direct assistance' to about 5,500 ill and injured Forces members and 533 families of soldiers killed while on duty.
Ombudsman spokesman Robertson says the JPSU review should be complete by early fall.
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