As Remembrance Day approaches, our veterans are fighting yet another political battle on Canadian soil.
On the other side is the federal government, which tossed the first volley in October 2011 with the announcement that the Veterans Affairs budget would be cut by $226 million. Over the past two years, the details and implications of the cuts have emerged to reveal a cost-saving strategy comprising hundreds of job losses and the closure of nine district Veterans Affairs offices.
Veterans and the Union of Veterans Affairs Employees are firing back salvos in the form of protests that the office closures will erode the level of service available to veterans. Veterans say they will be forced to travel for hours in order to receive the same one-on-one, in-person assistance they have now. They worry employees at Service Canada offices, which are being offered up as a ‘more convenient’ alternative, won’t have adequate training for and familiarity with the types of issues veterans are dealing with, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The federal government argues the office closures reflect the changing demographics of veterans across the country. Veterans Affairs officials say they’re creating easier, more efficient ways for veterans to get the information they need about benefits and services, such as a toll-free number, website links to online resources and downloadable apps.
Yes, that’s right, downloadable apps, such as a recently announced app for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The PTSD Coach Canada mobile app is supposed to help veterans screen for PTSD and track their symptoms, and give them tools for managing their stress levels.
The Conservative government has done a first-rate job of bringing Veterans Affairs into the 21st century world of mobile devices and social media. Visit the Veterans Affairs website and you will find a highly graphic, Windows 8-esque interface with options to “watch us on YouTube” and “Follow us on Twitter,” or download eTools from the app store, “for your convenience.”
These eTools, the website tells us, “have been designed to help Veterans and their families find information quickly and easily.”
Sure, if you’re a techno-savvy 20-something whose daily communications consist primarily of text messages and tweets. But is it reasonable to expect an octogenarian veteran with probably less-than-perfect eyesight to manipulate the touch screen on a smartphone to find the latest treatment options? Will an Afghanistan veteran suffering from PTSD make it through the automated press-one-for-this, press-two-for-that hierarchy of a toll-free number without hanging up in frustration before reaching an actual person?
Well, if it’s good enough for the feds, it should be good enough for the vets, right? After all, it’s not as if the policy makers are asking veterans to do anything they themselves don’t have to do. The federal politicians and senior bureaucrats carry smartphones, tablets and notebooks around like extra limbs. They may have started out not knowing a Blackberry from a blackberry, but in order to do their jobs they’ve had to learn how to tweet and text, navigate the Internet and climb social media ladders. If they can do it, surely the veterans can.
But, fair is fair. If the federal government expects veterans to learn the technical tools of its trade, it’s only right that the policy makers should learn the hands-on skills of national defence and peacekeeping.
Start by sending them all to basic training. They can get up at 5 a.m., do push-ups and sit-ups, run six kilometres, march in full combat gear, complete a physically grueLling obstacle course, learn to fire a weapon accurately and cook a meal in the field on a camp stove.
Next, they can spend a week on the frigid North Atlantic aboard a navy corvette, scanning the dark waters at night for wolfpacks of U-boats, firing depth charges and dodging torpedoes. Once they reach land, they can change into infantry gear, crawl across the ground under enemy fire and take out a German machine gun nest with a hand grenade. Then they’ll move on to Kapyong Valley in Korea where, overrun by enemy troops, they’ll order an artillery strike on their own location and take cover to try to avoid the fire.
After that, they can fly CF 18 Hornets and attempt to accurately drop bombs on identified military targets in the Persian Gulf without harming any civilians. Once that job is completed, it’s off to Afghanistan to manoeuvre a G-Wagon tactical transport vehicle around improvised explosive devices across the rough desert terrain.
When the bureaucrats have successfully accomplished those tasks, then by all means, hand the veterans business cards for the nearest smartphone dealers and shut the doors.
There are situations when replacing people with technology is simply inacceptable; this is one of them.
Veterans were willing to give their lives for their country and the freedom of other nations; the least we can do is give them the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting with a human being.
The PTSD Coach Canada mobile app – “always there when you need it.” But the federal government, apparently, isn’t.
Lana MacEachern is a former reporter turned library technician from Caribou River who still keeps her hand in the writing world with free