How Do We Handle Our Returned Men?
To the veteran rehabilitation machinery moves with maddening slowness . . . but in its own time it gets things done
ST. JAMES STREET, Montreal, lives up to its reputation for only three blocks. From Place d’Armes to Victoria Square it’s the Grand Canyon of High Finance, the Wall Street of Canada. West of Victoria Square it peters out-very fast into a dingy thoroughfare of pawnshops, flophouses and hot-dog dispensaries. On St. James Street, west of Victoria Square, is the Montreal Veterans’ Rehabilitation Centre.
It’s an old three-story building located just about at the point where the pawnshops begin. As you step in you get the faint smell of disinfectant that pervades old buildings. A large ground-floor room at your left is full of noise, confusion and people at desks. In the foreground are six rows of hard benches on which war veterans sit, waiting.
They are waiting to be directed to jobs, their first since they doffed uniform, for in this building is part of the extensive machinery set up by our Government to smooth the return of servicemen to civilian life. How is this machinery working? Do veterans go through the mill smoothly or are there enough delays and annoyances to justify the widespread feeling that our rehabilitation system may be the world’s finest on paper but what the veteran actually gets is the old run-around?
1 went to the Montreal centre to find out. When 1 asked the RCMP constable at the door where I’d find the director, he looked me up and down balefully.
“Whaddya want to see him for?” said the constable.
“Is there any reason why I shouldn’t see him?”
At this the constable began to shout. “I’ll show you 1 know my job,” he cried. “Look what it says here—” and he waved a card of instructions, which said any veteran wanting to see the director should be asked to state his name, regimental number and nature of his business.
How a combat veteran would react to this sort of rudeness isn’t hard to imagine. Even to me, whose war effort has consisted mainly of telling waitresses I don’t take sugar, it was a pretty annoying reception. 'Fo a man back from overseas, out of uniform and out of a job, it must be infuriating.
But this Montreal incident had a rapid sequel. I did get in to see the director, and listened to him explain the efforts they were making to have everybody on the staff treat every veteran not merely with courtesy but with deference. 1 told him he’d better check up on his doorman.
“I’m glad this has happened,” said the director. “I’ve been trying for weeks to get rid of that fellow.”
When I left, an hour or so later, a different RCMP man was on duty at the door, and he was greeting people with a smile.
Everybody else in the building was polite to everybody. They used a conscious, almost aggressive courtesy that bespoke departmental instruction-called every veteran “mister” no matter how young or how ill-dressed he might be, and to practically everyone in sight they said “sir.” It was a little overdone if anything, but it was effective. You could watch men’s impatience and bad temper melt under it.
Of impatience there was plenty. It’s a harrowing, temper-trying experience to go through the mill of any bureaucracy, and so long as we have Selective Service everybody has to go through this mill at least once in order to get a job. If a veteran wants to take advantage of the various privileges and benefits to which war service entitles him, he has to go through it that much oftener.
Slow but Thorough
fT'HESE men in Montreal were seeking jobs, and X their first step was to go down to a crowded basement office and register. On an easy day this takes maybe 15 minutes; on a busy day it might take an hour. Once registered they have another wait ahead of them. They go up and sit'on those benches, while their cards are sent through an office routine and their service records are located and attached to the cards.
They sit on those benches for an average of an hour, sometimes a good deal longer, while the office hums with activity and people hustle by without looking at them. It must be pretty hard on morale. Many a man, I suspect, reaches the bitter conclusion that he’s lost in a bureaucratic maze, that the routine has gone right past him.
But he can’t have it both ways. Veterans’ Affairs people have found by experience that it bothers a man less to wait for a while than to feel, once he does get through to the interviewing officer, that he’s being hurried or brushed off. Once he hears his name called from a mezzanine balcony and goes up to see the interviewer, every veteran can have all the time he wants. It slows things up, but it makes for satisfaction. The veteran tells his whole story, goes carefully over the list of available jobs, discusses any that might be suitable. Or if he’s bringing in a complaint, he sits and listens while the interviewer phones his employer and tries to straighten things out.
All the men dealing with the veteran are combat veterans themselves. Preferably they’ve had experience in this war, though as yet there aren’t enough of these to go round, but at any rate they were overseas men either this time or last time. Talking to these officers you find, as a rule, that they not only sympathize with the veteran’s point of view, they share it.
At Ottawa the Veterans’ Affairs Department is running a series of two-week
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courses in personnel counselling, for counsellors in the three services and in the rehabilitation centres. It’s an education to sit in at these classes and listen to the cross-examination the instructor gets from the young returned men who are his pupils'.
One morning he was explaining how benefits are paid for temporary incapacity. One of the young men said, “What do you do when the doctor won’t certify a man as ill, tells Selective Service he’s all right for light work?”
The instructor looked blank, and the young man explained.
“We sent a man up to get temporary incapacity benefit once,” he said. “Anybody could see with half an eye the man was sick. He had a chest condition and he was wheezing like a horse with the heaves. Terrible shape. Well, pretty soon he came back with a Selective Service form directing him to a light laboring job. Doctor had decided he wasn’t sick after all. So then the poor guy proceeded to pass out cold, right in our office.”
“What did you do?” the instructor said.
“Do? We got him into hospital right away. I was only curious to know what we were supposed to do.”
This healthy indignation, probably the best guarantee we could get of a square deal for the returned man, kept cropping up no matter what was discussed. They talked about citizens’ rehabilitation committees, a new scheme which is being established from coast to coast to give the veteran a nonGovernment agency to which he can appeal. The boys were for it in principle, but t hey were suspeious.
“What are you gong to do, have a committee of all the merchants in town decide whether to set a boy up as
a merchant? Mean to say those people would encourage somebody to come in and compete with them?”
Or another lad, from a big city, would come in with the opposite complaint:
“Out our way this citizen’s committee turned out to be a phony. They got it all dressed up with big names, but the guys didn’t do anything—you couldn’t even get in to see them, they were too busy.”
That particular committee has since been disbanded and rebuilt, with men whose names are smaller but who do the work.
One of the things about which veterans complain most bitterly is delay, and of all the delays, the one that has caused perhaps the most griping is the delay in payment of war service gratuity.
These gratuities represent a considerable sum to the veteran. For instance, a married private, with one child, who had spent a year in Canada and two years overseas is entitled to a total gratuity of $585.62. This is made up of a basic gratuity based on time in service plus a supplementary gratuity based on his pay during his time overseas.
The basic gratuity for all ranks is $7.50 for each 30 days in service, with an added 25 cents a day for each day overseas. This would give our private $452. The supplementary gratuity, which is more complex, amounts to a week’s pay and allowances for each six months overseas. In the case of the private mentioned, in two years this would be made up of $45 for pay, $37.50 for subsistence allowance, $35 for allowance to his wife, $12 for his child and $4.12 cost-of-living bonus, totalling $133.62.
To know" that you are entitled to sums on this scale and to have them held up by red tape is tantalizing. The situation is better now but for a while it was really pretty bad. And it was
uade worse by a considerable misunderstanding among the beneficiaries.
For one thing, not many men realized that no war service gratuity payments were authorized to be made before Jan. 1 of this year. Application forms were j obtainable last September. So, of those who made out the applications prompj tly, there were many who imagined j their cases “held up” for four months— actually, the law hadn’t gone into force during those months.
Then there was the question of backlog. About 100,000 men had been discharged already when the war service gratuity payments began. These 100,000 had to be handled in a lump, by a staff set up to handle a normal flow that isn’t expected ever to go higher than 1,500 discharges a day.
Moreover, regulations hadn’t been completed even when the payment of gratuities began. The Paymaster Corps hadn’t got a ruling about “debit balances”—amounts that the soldier might owe the Government at the time of discharge. These would include overpayments of pay and allowances, charge for lost equipment, accumulated penalties, and so on.
Roughly 16,000 of those cases were hung up for about a month, while the Paymaster Corps waited for the Cabinet to decide which of these debts were recoverable from war service gratuity and which were not. The Cabinet decided most of them would not be recoverable, and the 16,000 cases then went through with a whoosh.
Now all the backlog has been dealt with and the war service gratuity section can work on day-to-day flow of discharges. But even with that it isn’t easy to keep down to the 30-day period between date of discharge and date of first gratuity installment, which the law says should be achieved.
There are 10 separate operations in the computation and payment of a man’s war service gratuity. His file can and often does go through those 10 stages in a fortnight. But it can also, merely by happening to be on the bottom of the heap, run into bad luck and take as long as 43 days—and this without having been held up for anything specific. And, of course, if an error is found at any stage, or if the file has to be sent back or otherwise diverted from the normal stream, heaven alone knows how long it may take.
Service paymasters are bitter about the necessity for sending all their gratuity forms to the chief treasury officer, a Finance Department employee, for checking before payment is made. They claim their own auditors give as thorough a check as can reasonably be demanded, and that the Treasury check is just a waste of time.
“You better talk to the treasury officer about this,” one of them said bitterly. “He’ll probably tell you the Treasury check takes only four or five days.”
Sure enough, that’s exactly what the treasury officer did tell me.
He received me in the presence of three witnesses, refused to let me look at the office where the check was made, j and every time 1 asked an even mildly i embarrassing question he called up his departmental superior to ask if it would be all right to answer it. What with one thing and another it was easy ! to believe that red tape would clog this operation, and that maybe the service paymasters were right.
But some enquiries among the staff of the auditor-general, the men whose ! job it is to check the checker, cast a somewhat different light on the picture. I Even after all this checking has been done, according to the auditor-general’s j man, they can still take samples out of \ the completed files and find up to
16% of error in them. Sometimes the error is an overpayment, hut almost as often it’s an underpayment—some veteran hasn’t got all he’s entitled to.
“Don’t forget, this gratuity machinery is just a pilot plant now,” said the auditor-general’s man. “It’s handling a mere trickle. Pretty soon it’ll have to handle a flood. We have to do everything we can to get the system right and foolproof now, for every leak today will be multiplied hundreds of times when the real flow of demobilization starts.”
And this man gave it as his opinion, frankly and bluntly, that the service auditors weren’t good enough. He said the Air Force was the best, the Army in the middle and the Navy the worst, but that none of them was free enough from error to have its results passed and paid without an outside check. The Treasury finds errors in two per cent of the cases it handles—one was an underpayment of a whole year.
All this takes time. The Army alone has 250 men, from the Paymaster Corps, working two eight-hour shifts, seven days a week, to get the gratuity payments out. Another swarm work in the Army’s directorate of records, on the same job, and more in the audit office. On top of this the treasury officer has 175 men and women checking on what the Army does. Whether the taxpayer gets enough money back, in detected errors, to pay for all this machinery of checking and doublechecking is something l couldn’t find out. But anyway, that’s the way it’s done.
Don’t forget, this is a brand-new operation. All these people are working on something that’s never been done before, with no precedent to guide them. They’re doing their best, working as hard as they can, and they can’t do miracles.
There’s perhaps less excuse for the delays which still do crop up sometimes in the payment of pensions, for at least the system has been longer in operation. Here, too, the “target period” is 30 days from date of discharge to first decision on entitlement; here, too, the operation is complicated enough that it’s pretty difficult to stay inside that period.
Assessment and award of pensions is a full-time job for 13 men, Pension Commissioners, whose headquarters is Ottawa but who travel all over Canada in the course of their work. They get a copy of the Discharge Medical Board’s report on every man who has a disability recorded—the fact that he has 2i disability recorded is itself an automatic application for pension. The Medical Board report is reviewed by the Pension Commission medical examiners, then goes to the Commission itself for decision on whether the man is entitled to pension and assessment of the percentage of disability.
It looked to me as if the average case takes more like three months than one month to go through, and some take longer. One file, grabbed at random off the day’s heap, showed the man had been discharged Nov. 20, 1944; on
Jan. 3, seven weeks later, the Commission ruled that he was entitled to pension, but it took another four weeks
to Jan. 31—for it to decide the percentage of disability. And then, for some reason, nothing more happened for two and a half monthsit didn't get final signature until the middle of April.
No Permanent Harm
This seems to happen quite often. Usually the reason is that some other department gets hold of the man’s file. At the time of discharge everybody wants the soldier’s file at once— the Army wants it for gratuity calcula-
Lions, the ’Treasury to check these, the rehabilitation people want it to compute his other benefits, and the pensions people have to luive it before the final signature goes through to pay him his pension.
It shouldn’t be forgotten tluit in no c.ise does delay cause any permanent injustice or disadvantage to the veteran — it may try his patience at the time, but in the long run he loses nothing. 10 very thing is paid, when it is paid, retroactively.
And although in some cases perhaps the process could be speeded up without hurting anyone, it’s worth remembering that the taxpayer needs some protection too. Pensions from 1914-1918 didn’t reach their maximum totiil amount, $42 millions, until 1932. In this war, by April, 1945, we were already paying $13 millions 2i year to 25,322 persons, and the amount was then rising at a rate of a million a month. From everyone’s viewpoint it’s well that each pension should be determined with care.
Hitches in the provision of other, newer benefits aren’t unheard of, either. But here again, enquiry often reveals a good reason for having held things up for a bit.
Take, for instance, the rehabilitation credit—the amount, equal to his war service gratuity, which :t veteran can obtain for certain purposes like setting up a business or buying a home.
Racketeers have been waiting with their tongues hanging out for the thousands of youngsters who, inexperienced in handling money, will be coining back to get these Government credits. The veteran hardly gets into civilian clothes before somebody’s calling iiround to see him and show him some matchless opportunity which, by an odd coincidence, will take just the amount of money that he’s got coming to him from the Government.
Veterans’ Affairs officers have a discretion in whether or not to issue these credits, and they will not issue them for business propositions they think are unsound. They won’t issue them for partnerships at all—they’re suspicious of these “partners.” And they won’t issue them for purchases, of a home, for instance, until they’ve made sure the price is right.
Not long ago a young RCAF veteran 2ind his wife came in, breathless with haste, to get their credit before a priceless home “opportunity” would be snapped up on them. The down payment was only $1,800, they said— just the amount the young flier had to his credit—and could they please have the $1,800 immediately, if not sooner.
Veterans’ Affairs said no, they couldn’t; not in such a hurry as all that. 'The boy and his wife were furious. But two weeks later they came back Lo apologize and to express their gratitude the “priceless opportunity” had come down in the meantime to $600. Veterans’ Affairs, by refusing their first request, had saved them two i birds of their equity.
In another branch of Veterans’ Affairs the delay is deliberate, too, but for different reasons. This is in the administration of the Veterans’ Land Act.
Veterans’ Land Act people decided, 2is a matter of policy, that they would not give first choice, among the 7.000 farms they have already appraised for purchase, to the noncombat veterans who got out of the Army first. Anybody entitled to Land Act aid who finds a farm for himself can come and get the money he’s entitled to, to help him buy it. But the thousands of farms which the Land Act administration itself is buying, for resale to soldier settlers, are being assigned with a very
sparing hand to anyone other than a veteran of actual combat. Up to now nearly 5,000 have applied for farms and about 1,200 have received their qualification papers, but only about 100 have actually been established on farms.
In the general over-all working out of the rehabilitation machinery there are still plenty of flaws, and until very lately there had been lots more. For instance, only recently it was discovered that Veterans’ Affairs oldsters, with the good old departmental jealousy that’s the curse of the Civil Service, had been refusing to let Labor Department job placement people have any dealings with the citizens’ committees that Veterans’ Affairs were setting up. According to the good old Pensions and National Health formula, . these committees were Veterans’ Affairs property and poaching wasn’t to be tolerated.
A stop has been put to that kind of nonsense, and it’s not likely to recur.
Labor and Veterans’ Affairs are now working cheek by jowl as never before, hiring people jointly, introducing some joint responsibility, and—O wonder of Civil Service wonders—letting their field men write letters to each other, without having each letter travel up the ladder to deputy ministerial level on each side and then down again. It’s like a gale of fresh
A good deal of the credit for this goes to two Air Force men, Group Captains Fulton Chant and Byron Wood, who were lately seconded to Veterans’ Affairs and to Labor respectively to clear up the situation between the two departments. They’ve set fire to a lot of dead wood in both offices, with
such healthy results that even the armed services — traditionally distrustful of everything done by the Pensions Department—now admit a good job is being done and an even better one in prospect.
Field personnel is still a problem. There should be more first-class men in the rehabilitation centres than they’ve been able to find so far. But that, in part, is simply a result of war—up to V-E Day and beyond, Canada’s ablest men have been engaged in winning the war, not in cleaning up after it. From now on there’s good hope that this situation will change.
Civil Service Pay Meagre
But one thing the Government will have to make up its mind to do, and that’s offer decent money for the key jobs. For instance, Byron Wood has an idea for cracking that sorest of all problems—what to do with the lad who was an office boy in 1939 and who now is a colonel with an income (allowing for tax exemption) of about $10,000 and a wife and three children.
Ever since the second year of the war people have been wringing their hands about the terrible day when this young fellow comes “back to his old job.” Byron Wood thinks this is nonsense. The number of young men who have risen from private to major or above is not large, he points out. What we need, in his view, is a team of firstclass men who will go round and convince the big employers that these men who have proved their ability in the Army are worth what the Army’s been paying them—that they have talents,
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which civil life would have taken years to reveal, but which are there.
But to be effective this selling job on the employer will have to be done by men who are good salesmen—who could earn good money as salesmen if the Government didn’t hang onto them. They must be men of a calibre to get in to see the top man in each industry, and make him listen when they do get in to see him. That type of man can’t be got for the $1,800 a year that the Civil Service Commission still regards as good money.
Plenty of other things could be done, and many of them involve money too. For one thing, as soon as office space becomes a lit tle easier to find—or even sooner—it would be nice if rehabilitation centres could be made to look more like offices for the reception of the public and less like soup kitchens. Even if no other space can be found than the dingy premises now in use, it ought to be possible to provide comfortable chairs for the men to sit on, instead of the eternal benches with their bull pen effect.
But when you boil the rehabilitation j job down, the hub of it still has to be [ done by the veteran himself. Not long ago one rehabilitation officer had to deal with a young fellow who did very well in his branch of the service, rose from the ranks, was decorated for gallantry and then lionized when he got back. It went to his head a bit—by now he’s in trouble with his officers’ mess, in trouble at home, at outs with everybody.
This boy used to run an elevator before the war, and he has no education to speak of. The rehabilitation officer picked a card out of the heap and said:
“Joe, here’s your situation. You’ve got up above yourself, lad, until your commanding officer has no use for you and your own father won’t speak to you. And now you can have your discharge, if you want, it, and go back to civil life.
“I’ve got a job listed here on this card, Joe,that you’d have thought wasa good job five years ago. It’s to take charge of a bank of elevators, the job of the man who was your boss in 1939. The pay isn’t as much as your commission brings, but it’s double what you ever earned in civil life. And there’s opportunity there, Joe, because you’re known—if people see you there, willing to take such a job and work at it, you won’t be there long. You’ll have something better.”
The boy looked at his boots for a minute, and then pointed to the ribbons on his chest.
“Mister, I’ve got guts,” he said, “but I haven’t got that kind of guts.
I can’t do it.”
So far, Joe’s problem is still unsolved.