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Combat ends but battle rages on for wounded Canadian troops

Afghanistan withdrawal deadline won't end the struggle for soldiers hurt in battle -- mentally or physically.

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The nurse refused to leave. Outside, the officer sent to the scene spoke French and, as luck would have it, was a former soldier himself. Together, they convinced Berube to put the gun down and come out.

Berube pleaded guilty to a weapons charge on the understanding he would go to treatment and avoid jail time, but the charge that was presented to the judge in court carried a mandatory minimum three-year sentence.

The judge acknowledged the error, as well as the fact Berube had not agreed to serve three years in prison, and stayed the charge. The Crown is appealing that decision.

Berube entered treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder earlier this year, but Evans hasn't been able to contact him since. Efforts to reach him for this story have been fruitless.

Commodore Hans Jung, the surgeon general of the Canadian Forces, doesn't like to distinguish between the physical and mental wounds. Often, he said, they go hand in hand.

"After an injury, their lives are different -- it's as simple as that, and you have to adapt to the new norm,'' Jung said.

"Life has changed. You cannot go back. It's just not possible, so our challenge is to try to work with them as a partner, as a team, to say, 'What is your new norm and what is the best you can do with that, so you can be content and move on and spend the rest of your career and life in the most productive manner?'''

For more than a decade, Jung and his health service team have been revamping the way they work in order to better meet the needs of a new generation of war veterans -- and they believe they are well-prepared.

An extra $100 million has gone into mental health services, including multi-disciplinary and multi-organizational centres that have opened up across the country to provide "one-stop shopping'' for vets and their families.

The military has invested in cutting-edge technology for physical rehabiliation, and hired psychologists and other mental health professionals. Money has not been an issue, he said.

"I can tell you right now, based on my discussions with the departmental and military leadership, they are fully committed to providing the necessary support. I have not had an issue with that.''

Sen. Romeo Dallaire, the retired Canadian Forces general, said much has changed since he went public in 1997 with his own struggles with post-traumatic stress, following his United Nations mission during the Rwandan genocide.

About 20 per cent of returning soldiers will likely experience operational stress injury, he said. Others have certainly been changed by their experience, but not necessarily in a negative way.

The Senate is poised to resume its review of the new Veterans Charter, which altered in 2006 the system of benefits for soldiers to replace the guaranteed lifetime pensions with a sliding scale of lump-sum payments and other benefits for disabilities.

Under the new charter, disabled soldiers are eligible for a maximum payout of $285,000 -- even the most severely injured, some of whom lost multiple limbs to Taliban IEDs.

"My assessment is that in the longer term, our veterans-- who a number of them have more combat time that World War II vets, and some of it in the most complex scenarios because it's not a readily identifiable enemy and so on -- may not be getting the long-term care and support that our World War II vets got,'' said Dallaire.

As the casualties in Afghanistan mounted, soldiers began speaking out about the changes to the charter, which took effect while they were settling into a long, hard fight in the insurgent heartland of Kandahar province.

Former veteran's ombudsman Pat Stogran, a career soldier, was fired after speaking out about the Conservative government's "insurance company mentality'' toward taking care of the new crop of military veterans.

Dallaire said he agrees.

"You've committed yourself to potentially putting your life on the line, some of you have died, some of you are significantly injured,'' he said.

"That means the Canadian people, through (their) government, have a lifelong responsibility to support you and your family. That seems to have been lost in the new charter.''

Under intense public pressure, the government made changes to the new Veterans Charter this spring that provide more cash and support to the most seriously wounded veterans. They do not, however, increase the size of the lump-sum payouts; rather, they allow soldiers to spread out the payments over time.

Dallaire said the Senate is determined to come up with meaningful changes. If the Conservatives persist in putting savings ahead of soldiers, the coming years could well see former Canadian troops in the jails, in the streets, and in the morgue, he warned.

For them, the war in Afghanistan is far from over.

"The war for the veterans is going to be ongoing until they get full treatment, them and their families, and compensation,'' Dallaire said.

"They're going to be living it for years yet.''

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