Transitioning from Soldier to Civilian

It is an inarguable fact that members of our armed forces deserve a professional, worry-free transition into civilian life when their military careers come to an end. It’s deeply troubling that too many of the men and women who have faithfully served this country are instead experiencing stress, frustration and ­uncertainty as they ­prepare for the next phase of their lives.

Currently, transition into civilian life is fraught with delays, confusion and unnecessary duplication, and members of the armed forces are often forced to leave the military before their basic financial benefits and other necessities are in place.

Members of Canada’s Senate Sub­committee on Veterans Affairs recognized this ongoing lack of professionalism and were moved to investigate and recommend ways to make an imperfect system work as it should.

The report, which includes 13 constructive recommendations, was released in June under the title From Soldier to Civilian: Professionalizing the Transition.

Senator Jaffer (left) and Senator Dagenais,
announced the release of the transitioning report from the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs.

As statistics clearly show, this transition phase is no trivial matter, and the following is an overview of the subcommittee’s process and recommendations.

In Canada, there are close to 700,000 veterans and more than 100,000 serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), not counting their family members. Each year, some 9,000 to 10,000 CAF members are released; approximately 1,600 of them for medical reasons. Crucially, one third of those leaving the military have difficulty making the transition to civilian life – often due to mental or physical injury.

As National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Ombudsman Gary Walbourne told us: “[These are] stories of financial hardship, emotional stress and senseless frustration. We have members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have served this country for decades, with multiple deployments and citations under their belts, who face the threat of eviction or are evicted from their homes and face financial ruin while awaiting their severance pay, first pension cheque or benefits adjudication.”

This is clearly an unacceptable situation. In our report, we deliberately use the words “collaboration” and “cooperation,” especially in relation to the CAF, the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada. Here’s why:

Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent told the subcommittee that at least 15 players from multiple organizations are involved in transitioning members from the military. Each has its own accountability framework, mandate and processes.

The inevitable result is a duplication of effort, confusion, and inconsistency across these various groups and across the country. A lack of collaboration and cooperation – even if it is unintended – is the root of the problem.

Curiously, witnesses who appeared before our subcommittee – including the Chief of Defence Staff, three veterans groups and the current and past Veterans Affairs ministers – all agreed that the transition system isn’t functioning as it should.

“We know we need to change the current system,” then-veterans affairs minister Kent Hehr told the committee at a 2017 meeting. “We need to do something transformative, to do more than just slap on another piece of policy tape each time the system springs a leak. It’s time to rebuild.”

The Way Forward
So what do we need to do? Witnesses made the following key points:

  • Provide services and benefits to members and veterans in a timely manner.
  • Make the transition process more ­navigable.
  • Facilitate access to benefits and services from Veterans Affairs Canada, sometimes years after the release.
  • Streamline Veterans Affairs Canada’s medical determination process.
  • Improve access to mental health ­supports.
  • Provide members and veterans with the necessary supports so they can determine their new purpose in life
  • and successfully achieve it.
  • Improve collaboration between Veterans Affairs Canada and other ­levels of government and agencies in order to improve services to veterans.

Key Recommendations
Our entire report and recommendations are available online through the Senate’s website but we especially want to highlight three recommendations that members of the subcommittee consider pivotal.

We are urging the federal government to implement them immediately:

  • The Canadian Armed Forces should ensure that no member is released until all benefits and services from all sources, including the Canadian Forces pension and Veterans Affairs benefits and services, are in place.
  • That the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada collaborate to ensure that, before a member is released, the individual has a complete file ready, which includes their service record and history of medical treatment and which will be easy to access by Veterans Affairs should the veteran need to access the department’s services at a later time.
  • The administrative complexity involved in transitioning to civilian life should not be borne by the soldiers themselves.

Senator Mobina Jaffer (left) answers media questions about the Transitioning report.

There is clear logic to all three recommendations. Holding CAF members within the military family until their benefits and access to services are in place is just common sense. Aside from those who are ill and injured, it is also worth noting that many transitioning members who joined the military in their teens have never known life, as an adult, in the civilian world. That alone makes the prospect of release incredibly daunting.
As a logical extension of this, the committee believes that CAF and VAC should ensure that all relevant personal records are updated and shared so that the needs of the transitioning soldier can be promptly addressed. And it should go without saying that DND and VAC should bear the burden of sorting out how to deliver services efficiently.

Gary Walbourne, the veterans ombudsman, said a recent survey identified broken lines of communication between different offices, as well as problems handling and transmitting relevant information.

This is all the more shocking in contrast with the generally smooth process by which men and women are welcomed into the forces.
When a person joins the military, he or she encounters a professional recruitment system where each step is designed to smoothly integrate the new member into whichever branch of the military they have chosen. The process of their departure, however, remains an afterthought.

Our report recommendations provide the federal government with serious options that would achieve an equally professional system for members when they release from the military. Although much of our focus is on transitioning individual serving members and veterans, there is an important added dimension to this entire issue: national security.

Attracting enough recruits is critical properly fulfill any mandate set out by the government. More than one witness at our hearings pointed out that achieving a successful transition process is clearly in the national interest. Potential recruits see and hear news coverage, and absorb social media where these negative issues and lack of support are discussed. Who will want to serve in the armed forces – with all its inherent risks – if they decide the military doesn’t value the service of its members, especially those unfortunate enough to have their careers cut short by illness or injury?

The government and the military recognize that there is a problem. We know they want to solve it, and we believe that our report gives the federal government practical solutions to fix what needs fixing. We have a problem here, and it’s time to solve it – once and for all. 
Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais is chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, Senator Mobina Jaffer is its deputy chair.