NATIONAL

FIGHTING TO SERVE

The military is still searching for a strategy for those unfit to fight

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI March 24 2008
NATIONAL

FIGHTING TO SERVE

The military is still searching for a strategy for those unfit to fight

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI March 24 2008

FIGHTING TO SERVE

NATIONAL

The military is still searching for a strategy for those unfit to fight

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI

Sgt. Michael Loewen can bend his right elbow 90 degrees, which is 90 degrees more than the doctors ever thought he would. Amputation seemed inevitable two years ago, when a suicide bomb ripped open his arm, leaving bits of skin and bone in the Afghanistan desert. But today, after countless hours of rehab, surgeries and more rehab, Loewen has mustered enough strength and mobility to pick up a

The arm is by no means back to normal. Two fingers are still without feeling, and most mundane tasks—writing, driving, twisting off a beer cap—are now reserved for his left hand. Though forever the optimist, Loewen has come to accept that his progress, remarkable as it is, has probably plateaued. “My arm is never going to be 100 per cent again,” he says. “And that’s just something I’ve adapted to.” The army is trying to adapt, too. According to the rules, Loewen should be bracing for a medical discharge. Every single person in the Forces must be healthy enough to deploy, and anyone who is injured—no matter the circumstances—must eventually meet

rifle W, more importantly, sip his Tim Hortons coffee. I can actually get the cup up to my mouth,” he laughs. “That was always one of my goals.’

the “universality of service” standards (a gruelling fitness test that includes digging a trench and running long distances). Those who fail are automatically released. Loewen knows he will never pass that test, yet his chain of command is acting as if he’s in the prime of his career. Recently promoted, the 30-year-old is now stationed at CFB Wainwright, the infantry’s main training centre. “As far as I’ve been told, I’ll be able to stay in uniform for as long as I choose.”

Other troops maimed and mangled on the battlefields of Kandahar have been promised the same thing. To their credit, officers who served on the front lines with people like

Loewen are determined to keep them around, rules be damned. The Department of National Defence—anxious to avoid a public relations nightmare—is trying hard to honour those assurances. Last year, Gen. Rick Hillier, the chief of the defence staff, issued a clear order to his subordinates: no soldier wounded in Afghanistan will be released unless the file crosses his desk first.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the soldier’s job will be spared. Despite the general’s best intentions, his department has yet to enact a formal policy that will allow disabled war vets to sidestep the rules and stay in the Forces. In fact, after months of internal debate,

[JON’T REALLY HAVE PLACES FOR AND I M NOT TRYING TO BE DEROGATORY-OFFICE WORKERS’

senior officials are still not sure if it’s even possible—legally or logistically. One thing is clear, however: if a solution is reached, it will not benefit everyone. There just aren’t enough desk jobs for all the walking wounded who want to keep serving. “It’s not realistic,” says Brig.-Gen. Linda Colwell, the director-general of military personnel. “We don’t really have places for—and I’m not trying to be derogatory—office workers.”

Known in military lingo as a 3B, medical discharges are nothing new. Every year, close to 1,000 enlisted men and women are released for health reasons ranging from sore backs to torn ligaments. “We have to be operationally effective,”

Colwell says. “Universality of service is that line in the sand.” And for years, that line has remained completely objective. It doesn’t matter how a soldier is injured. Or where.

Or why. Only one question matters: is he fit enough to fight? An army, after all, is not really an army if it’s full of people who can’t ship out.

But what if a soldier has already shipped out, only to be shipped back on a stretcher? Does that merit a special exception? Most Canadians would certainly think so, but as Hillier’s advisers have come to learn, it’s much more complicated than that. The Canadian Forces can’t pick and choose its employees on the basis of public opinion. If Loewen is allowed to stay, for example, why not a soldier injured in a car crash? Or on a training exercise? “If a guy is hurt while preparing for a tour, how is that different than the guy who takes a bullet for his country?” asks one defence official, who spoke to Maclean’s on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a tough question. If you extend that privilege to some people, then when a lawyer takes somebody else’s case before the human rights commission, we have to be in a defensible position.”

The brass is equally concerned about another scenario: if they loosen the universality benchmarks, even slightly, it could compromise the Forces’ legal authority to reject recruits who don’t physically measure up. Unlike the rest of the public sector, the military has the power to turn away disabled applicants. So how can the DND now turn around and create a special provision for

someone injured in Afghanistan when that same someone would not be allowed to enlist in the first place? “They’re being very careful,” the official says. “They’re trying to make sure this is done correctly so the department is not put in a bad position and the members are not put in a bad position.”

Numerous policy options remain on the table, including rehiring 3B’d soldiers on temporary contracts to fill trade shortages

LOOSENING THE UNIVERSALITY BENCHMARK COULD COMPROMISE THE FORCES’ LEGAL AUTHORITY

outside the infantry. Colwell also suggests that some could be transferred to leadership roles in the reserves. For now, however, the strategy remains the same: compensate the wounded, provide them with top-notch health care, then help them prepare for life in the civilian world. As long as a wounded soldier is making progress, the military can wait up to five years before labelling him unfit to serve, then another three years before actually handing over the pink slip. “We’re not rush-

ing to any conclusions,” Colwell says.

And unlike in years past, the transition from soldier to civvy now includes a long list of government programs that have taken shape in the shadow of the war in Afghanistan. Veterans Affairs, for instance, will pay tuition bills up to $20,000, while another new initiative links injured soldiers with Canadian companies anxious to hire them. 3B’d troops also receive first crack at job postings in the federal public service. “We’re not just throwing them out to sell pencils,” Colwell says. “We’re making sure they have an opportunity—a real career opportunity.” If nothing else, the military can say this much: to date, none of the 280 troops wounded in action while serving in Afghanistan has been medically discharged against his will. Those few who have left the military have done so of their own accord.

But there will come a time, a few years from now, when a soldier will not want to leave. A soldier like Jody Mitic. Last January, the 31-year-old sniper lost both his feet to a land mine in Afghanistan. After months of excruciating rehab, he has taught himself to walk again (correction: run again) with the help of two prosthetic legs that attach just below his knees. Master Cpl. Mitic has also returned to work part-time, back to his old company lines at CFB Petawawa. “It will probably be another year before I make any real career decisions,” he says. “I’m starting to think it’s not a complete impossibility that I can pass the universality of service test, but it’s going to be really, really hard, and do I really want to put myself through that pain?”

Mitic can’t say enough about the support he’s received from his battalion. Like Loewen, his bosses have promised him a job, even if he can’t pass the physical. “As far as my unit is concerned, I’m in the Royal Canadian Regiment until I decide I’m not.” Mitic understands the rules. He knows that headquarters still hasn’t rubber-stamped that promise. But he is confident they will. “I know they want to do the right thing,” he says. “You shouldn’t get rid of guys who know what they’re doing—but are missing body parts— because the military still needs that knowledge base. I can see me having to leave the sniper unit, but I can’t see myself having to leave the army.” M