Our vets need more than just a ‘thank you’

The Price of Peace Monument takes prominence in the small town square of Ortona, in central Italy. It commemorates the dedication, sacrifice and friendship of Canadian soldiers who liberated that small town as part of the Italian Campaign of the Second World War. Almost 100,000 Canadians helped liberate mainland Italy, with more than 26,000 casualties. Six-thousand would never return home, buried in war cemeteries now marking their original route.

This past year, a Canadian delegation re-traced and remembered that campaign. Local residents joined small but meaningful ceremonies, telling stories of Canadian soldiers who had come as liberators and left as friends. I was part of that delegation.

Following the Ortona ceremony, I noticed two young men in jeans, bearing backpacks with small Canadian flags, standing just outside our circle. They had been attracted by the sound of the pipes and bugle, and the sight of poppies on lapels and Canadian flags waved by school children.

Canadian soldiers, Matt Swanston and Kyle Yorston, 19 and 20 year old reservists with the Seaforth Highlanders, were on a two-week leave from active service in Afghanistan. As we talked, I took the opportunity to introduce them to an elderly Italian woman, Francesca La Sorda who, as a young girl, was liberated by Canadian soldiers. With her hugs and kisses she thanked them for continuing in that noble tradition, now in a modern, desert campaign. Matt and Kyle hoped there would be a young Afghan child who would remember them 65 years later, giving thanks for Canadian efforts in a difficult war.

Since then, with the news of every Canadian casualty in Afghanistan, I hold my breath praying Matt and Kyle are safe and will return to school and work in Vancouver, part of a long Canadian tradition of proud military service.

Their return, and that of their compatriots, will not be easy. Some will return with life-changing injuries such as the loss of limbs or other permanent physical impairments. Others will come home with invisible injuries. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affects as many as one in five Afghan veterans. All will return with the challenge of re-entry to civilian life or re-deployment to non-combat roles in the military. None will escape these challenges.

Canadians need a new conversation about our care and compassion for the men and women who put their lives on the line for the safety of Canadians and for the future of democracy in a hostile world. Since the end of the Korean War, Canada has continued to produce veterans, but many have gone unrecognized. Cypress, Bosnia and Rwanda are only three of the more prominent operations that have left their marks on Canadian Forces Personnel prior to Afghanistan.

To keep that promise means to re-consider benefits, especially the lump sum payments made to disabled veterans both for adequacy and for appropriateness. To keep that promise means to invest in both research and clinical capacity in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To keep that promise means cutting bureaucratic red tape that plagues both traditional and modern vets. To keep that promise means to come to grips with disproportionate suicide rates, homelessness and incarceration of young veterans.

The care of Canadian Veterans is part of the Price of Peace. Monuments to their courage and sacrifice are great and appropriate. But to be encouraged while in combat theatre, young men like Matt and Kyle need to be assured they will be cared for when they get home.

Robert Oliphant is the Member of Parliament for Don Valley West and the Official Opposition Critic for Veterans Affairs.