Chair, Committee Members,
Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today and comment on your study, Barriers to Transition and Measureable Outcomes of Successful Transition.
This is unfortunately not the first time I have come up to Parliament Hill to speak about the transition of servicemen and servicewomen from the Canadian Armed Forces to civilian life. I do hope that this is the last time because we really need to take action rather than further study this topic.
As a 37 year Veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, I know the challenges of transition on both a personal and professional level. I know transition from my own experience; from that of my son who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan; and from the experiences of the thousands of Veterans who I have met and worked with across Canada since being appointed Veterans Ombudsman in 2010.
I last discussed transition with this Committee on April 23, 2015 and I appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs to present on transition on March 29, 2017. On both occasions, I emphasized that the transition process from the Canadian Armed Forces needs to be as rigorous as the recruiting process into the Canadian Armed Forces. I also stated that transition needs to support releasing members and their families to begin a new life with purpose – a life tailored to their needs and individual goals, and offering the best future possible whether they go back to school, go on to another occupation, retire, or volunteer in their community. I will again mention as well that the majority of my recommendations related to transition from 2015 have not been acted upon. I am not saying that progress has not begun; what I am saying is that we are not moving forward fast enough.
There are over 10,000 releases from the Canadian Armed Forces per year with medical releases between 2013 and 2017, going from an average of 1,200 per year to 2,500. The Canadian Armed Forces is projecting 2,500 medical releases per year over the next five years. The 2016 Life After Service Studies survey conducted by Veterans Affairs Canada, reports that almost a third of Veterans (32%) report difficulty with their transition. This number has increased from the previous study, and it is evident that this needs to be fixed.
It is important to remember that not all releasing members need assistance from Veterans Affairs Canada, but for those who do, they should receive the benefits and services they need, when and where they need them.
I’ve been at this for a long time, pushing as hard as I can to modernize transition. In August 2014, I launched a joint project with the DND/CAF Ombudsman to review the entire transition process from an evidence-based perspective. Our key findings threw a spotlight on why transition is often such a confusing and frustrating experience for Veterans and their families. (Infographic – Joint Transition Project: Closing the Seam)
We produced the first complete mapping of the transition process for medically releasing Regular and Reserve Force members. It highlighted that the transition programs and services rely heavily on forms and bureaucratic processes, rather than the needs of the member and their family.
There are multiple players, from at least 15 organizations, involved in the transition process. Each has its own accountability framework, mandate and processes. That is confusing for Veterans who do not know where to turn to for support.
We found also that available services are not consistent across the country, and service partners are not co-located under one-roof resulting in “multiple stop” shopping for the transitioning member. I made this observation in 2015 and I am not sure much has changed.
The Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada each have different case management systems and multiple consent forms resulting in a process that requires a member to tell their story more than once. For example, individual consent is required for each service provider to share information. Without it, the service provider cannot engage in a substantive discussion about transition needs. This causes delays because a member may feel they have already provided consent when, in reality, several new and separate consents can be required.
Integrated Personnel Support Centres only provide support to members with a complex medical release – but only 10 % of all medical releases are deemed complex. These 10% receive the advantage of a tailored Integrated Transition Plan and individualized support. Should not all releasing members have the opportunity to access the same standard of planning, coordination and monitoring during their transition if they need it?
As well, despite several reviews and my recommendation from 2013, there remains a duplication of vocational rehabilitation, education and long-term disability programs across the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada, adding complexity and confusion to transitioning members. There are three vocational rehabilitation programs: the Service Income Security Insurance Plan, Veterans Affairs Canada’s Rehabilitation Program and the Department of National Defence’s internal Vocational Rehabilitation Program for Serving Members. Each program has different eligibility criteria, assessment requirements and benefits. There is unfortunately no mechanism to ensure the coordination of benefits or that the member is getting the best support to meet their needs.
There has been much talk of Veterans Affairs Canada engaging earlier with medically releasing members. Initial engagement now begins with the Transition Interview, generally within six months of the release date. While I believe this earlier engagement is an improvement, it is still too late to adequately support medically releasing members in the development of a new life-long plan and to ensure that benefits and services are approved prior to release. For example, if a member wants to go to university – they must decide on a program, ensure they have the pre-requisites, complete skill equivalencies and then seek admission. This is an important decision that requires thoughtful planning and decision making. That is not happening now in too many cases.
Finally, our analysis showed that the release process was designed for Regular Force members. There are only 24 Integrated Personnel Support Centres for the 263 Reserve Units across the country. This means that Reserve Force members have to rely on the support of their units to facilitate the transition process. This results in Reservists being offered varying levels of expertise and service. This is not good enough.While there are several transition services and programs available to families, they are not easily accessible or widely communicated. Most of these services are contingent on the member notifying and informing the family of their availability. We have to connect the dots and do better than that.
My Vision of Transition
I envision a transition process for all releasing Canadian Armed Forces members – Regular and Reserve, medically and non-medically released – that would have similar elements to the recruiting process:
- “Transition Centres” across the country that are accountable to one authority and offer a single point of access for all releasing members, and which ensure that all benefits are in place at release.
- A real, live person, or Navigator, assigned to all Regular and Reserve Force members, whether medically releasing or non-medically releasing, who would:
- help fill out forms and submit a single application for benefits;
- help plan the member’s release and set up required appointments;
- provide advice regarding third-party organizations that may offer support; and
- follow-up after release at pre-determined intervals to ensure evolving needs are met.
- A single program for vocational rehabilitation and long term disability that offers a professional counsellor to help determine the education, training or employment needs of the member, as well as assisting them find their new purpose in life.
- A Veterans ID Card issued to every releasing member that recognizes their service.
My vision also draws from a small, qualitative study that my team completed last year to better understand the lived experience of medically-released Veterans and what contributes to a successful transition. After all, if you want to be successful at something, as the old adage says, learn from someone who is. (Infographic – Transitioning Successfully: A Qualitative Study)
My vision is also backed up by what I hear at the many outreach activities that I hold each year across the country, where I talk face-to-face with Veterans and their families, as well as with national, regional and local Veterans’ advocates, organizations and municipal leaders.
We found that the major contributing factors to a successful transition are:
- Planning ahead;
- Being proactive and “owning” their transition; and
- Having a supportive partner.
The key challenge for transitioning Veterans was finding a new purpose post military service. I believe that this needs to be done early and with the support of a Navigator who is an expert on Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada programs and who can direct the transitioning member to the programs that will best help him or her meet their needs.
- One Veteran said: “The military was my life, my family, my everything. I joined the army at age 19. Before that, I was in high school. I was never really a civilian adult. I don’t feel that I am transitioning ‘back’ to civilian life, but becoming a civilian for the first time.”
- Another Veteran said: “The biggest part I’m struggling with is integrating into an unfamiliar society/culture where the social behaviours/norms I’ve learned from 15+yrs in the CAF aren’t applicable.”
This is different than changing a job on Civvy Street. This is a complex cultural transition to a society with different norms and rules, in many cases. That is not simple stuff.
Honourable Committee Members, it is time for less talk and more action. The research and studies are done, the reviews and reports are written and the recommendations were made years ago.
In my vision of the transition process, the releasing member and their family would begin a new life with a purpose. But to do so will take system reengineering and individual support rather than just another round of tweaking of individual programs and processes.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, we have to ensure that when a member leaves the Canadian Armed Forces, they are equipped to begin a new life with purpose, tailored to their needs. Not all will need assistance from Veterans Affairs Canada, but for those who do, they should receive the benefits and services they need, when and where they need them. This should apply to Regular Force members and Reservists, whether medically releasing or not.
This will give Veterans and their families hope for their future. Without hope, there is no forward movement.
Our Veterans have served their country well. They deserve no less.