William H.A. Willbond MSM, CD

FACING THE UNKNOWN

When David faced Goliath
He stood out there alone
Like Dennis facing VAC and DND
Carrying Canada’s huge millstone

He had to hire a lawyer and it was a last sad resort
Manuge vs Her Majesty is now before the court
Ruth Davenport wrote an article to help veterans spread the word
But in the media of the day, not even one word was heard?

The bud man he is looking into this case
Study investigations, they move real slow
Putting a wounded vet before the courts
And Canada’s reputation on show?

SISIP PENSION CLAWBACK ARTICLE: NOVEMBER 8, 2008
By Ruth Davenport

When military veteran Dennis Manuge stood [alone in the woods with his Labs for Remembrance Day,] he was thinking of the veterans he will soon represent in a very different kind of battle.

Manuge, suffering chronic pain disorder, major depression, and anxiety is leading a class-action lawsuit representing 6200 veterans and 100 estates against the federal government. The lawsuit, certified earlier this year, concerns the practice of clawing back a Veterans’ Affairs disability pension payment for “pain and suffering” – awarded to any member injured while in uniform – after the member is medically discharged and begins receiving long-term disability payments.

The former army vehicle technician started receiving the VAC disability pension payments in January, 2002, after a lower back fracture he suffered in 2000 while on duty was finally diagnosed – by which time he’d developed mood disorders and was abusing drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain. When he was medically discharged in 2003 and began receiving his long-term disability payments, 24 VAC disability pension payments were taken back, dollar for dollar, for the two years he was receiving long-term disability.

“This is fundamentally unfair,” says Manuge, 39. “That’s the bottom line, it’s fundamentally unfair.”

Manuge says the government’s view is that a military member shouldn’t receive both the long-term disability payments and disability pension because both are considered forms of income replacement. But he and his supporters argue the pension isn’t taxed and therefore shouldn’t be considered income replacement – only a compensation for the effects of the injury.

Manuge, now a trained mental health worker, says the impression of being abandoned by the government has been a devastating burden for him, an erstwhile happy-go-lucky corporal built like a linebacker. He, like many of his comrades, has struggled with feelings of shame and disgrace after being discharged, which were compounded by the frustration and anxiety of fighting with bureaucrats for compensation he feels he rightfully earned. He’s currently taking half a dozen medications for psychological and physical problems, struggles to get out of bed some days, and yet says that – relative to some of his colleagues – he’s fairly “high functioning.”

“What’s happened for a lot of these guys is they’ve lost all hope,” he says, referring to more than 2000 emails he’s received from other veterans on the clawback issue. “It’s not only in their lives; I mean bankruptcies, marriages, relationship problems. It’s staggering.”

Manuge isn’t the first to draw attention to the clawback practice. Since 2003, two military ombudsmen, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and various members of the opposition parties have deemed the clawback practice “fundamentally unfair” and urged various governments to end it.

“We’re saying that because you’re under a pain and suffering disability benefit, you should be entitled to both payments because you require that for pills, anxiety, whatever you go through,” says Peter Stoffer, Veterans’ Affairs critic for the NDP. “You need both forms of compensation to lead any kind of form of normal life. And for the government to allow the company to claw that money back, in our view, is simply wrong.”

In 2006, Stoffer even tabled a five-point private members’ resolution that included the ending of the clawback practice, which was passed by a vote of 154 to 111 – and was subsequently ignored.

“We did that because Mr. Harper himself said when a motion passes the House of Commons by the democratically elected majority of members of Parliament, the government has a moral obligation to honour that motion,” said Stoffer. “We said fair enough. We moved a motion that was passed by the majority and Harper said we’re not going to honour it. Just like that.”

The utter refusal to act compounds the disillusionment faced by Steve Merritt, a 47-year-old veteran battling a congenital heart disease, chronic depression – and clawbacks of more than $3200 a month. The financial burden is so severe that twice a year; he faces what he calls the “demoralizing” situation of having to turn to food banks because he can’t afford food for himself and a gift for his children’s birthdays.

“It feels as though the uniform came off and they lost interest in taking care of me,” said Merritt. “I’ve been feeling like a lost puppy going around in circles, wondering what I did so wrong.”

Merritt joined the military in 1984 and advanced rapidly in the air force as a plane technician – but in 1994, he developed depression due to a failing marriage and his first heart attack caused by a congenital condition. He was discharged after a second heart attack and now, with four more on the books, is confined to a wheelchair, still battling depression. Although he calls his time in the military the “most fantastic thing” that ever happened to him, Merritt says his experience after being discharged has been such a nightmare, he can’t in good conscience advise anyone to pursue a career in the service.

“I feel terrible about it,” he says. “During the [Remembrance Day] ceremonies, there’s a lot of people that come up to me and say thank you. But when they start asking, ‘Could you advise me on how to proceed,’ I can’t. I would feel too guilty that I would send them in the wrong direction and they would regret it.”

With public attention turning to veterans and military history for Remembrance Day, all three men say they’re hoping to increase awareness of the clawback issue and lawsuit. Manuge, who struggles with anger issues linked to his depression, has alienated some veterans with vitriolic rhetoric but says he’ll keep doing what’s needed to get people talking.

“I was going to take a black marker and colour my poppy black just as my own protest, just to get people to say, ‘Hey, what the hell are you doing?’” he said. “There’s a whole section of guys who are still alive that are forgotten and lost. They’re not remembered. No one remembers them, or us, and that’s where a lot of the anger comes from, the real deep-down hurt.”

With Parliament set to resume on Friday, Merritt says he’s planning to “get in the face” of his Conservative MP, ending a well-ingrained tradition of suffering in silence.

“In the military, we’re all trained to be dignified and quiet, even if there are things that dissatisfy us, and I’ve carried that through since my release,” he said. “When I got that notice about the class action, that’s when I decided it’s my time to be the activist and speak out, because I’ve been silent too long. I want to be able to live free of shame and with the freedom to be a proud Canadian once again.”

©Copyright November 8, 2008 by Ruth Davenport