[Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran holds a news conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday Aug 17, 2010. Stogran, who was Canada’s first veterans ombudsman, says he tried unsuccessfully for years to get the former Conservative government to recognize that homelessness among ex-soldiers was an issue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick]
More than five years after being dumped as Canada’s first Veterans Ombudsman, Pat Stogran’s bitterness seems not to have diminished.
If anything, the retired infantry colonel’s cynicism about Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and government in general has only deepened.
It spills out on almost every page of his memoir, “Rude Awakening: The Government’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans.” The self-published book has been available online through Amazon, Indigo and other outlets since January.
Last fall’s change of regime in Ottawa has done nothing to alter Stogran’s pessimism about the modern VAC, which he says remains resistant to innovative change and tightfisted even before the former Conservative government made penny-pinching a priority.
“This government has made all kinds of promises,” Stogran said in an interview with Yahoo Canada News. “I met with the minister [Kent Hehr] and I made very clear to him that it’s a cultural problem.
“A lot of the travesty is what happens underneath the deputy minister’s watch, which she doesn’t have eyes on. I gave him the advice that it’s the culture of denial that has to change.”
Stogran sympathizes with overworked frontline workers dealing with vets’ claims but said the department’s senior bureaucrats promote a culture of “deny, deceive, defer.”
Hehr was not available to talk about his meeting with Stogran but said in an emailed statement they had a “very frank” conversation about how veterans were treated under the previous government’s now-11-year-old New Veterans Charter.
“I have been given an aggressive mandate by the prime minister to address many of these concerns and in the months since my appointment we have made significant progress,” Hehr said.
“The recent federal budget delivers six of 15 mandate items and responds to recommendations from key stakeholders, including the veterans ombudsman.”
Stogran set up ombudsman’s office but turfed after three years
Stogran, whose 30-year-military career included tours in the war-torn former Yugoslavia and and as a battalion commander in Afghanistan, was appointed to the newly created office of Veterans Ombudsman in 2007. By August 2010 he was on his way out, informed he would not be reappointed when his term expired on Nov. 11.
A few days after getting the word, Stogran held a news conference castigating the government and senior public servants for a lack of commitment to the welfare of veterans, especially those who were wounded in combat, otherwise injured or suffering mental health problems.
The event brought the cold war between Stogran and the government into the open. He’d long ago concluded VAC’s lack of co-operation with his investigations and unwillingness to share information meant the Tories were never serious about the Veterans Ombudsman as an agent of change.
“As I say in the book, I didn’t want to burn any bridges but by the time the word came down that I wasn’t renewed I was looking for the trigger point for when I would become vocal because I realized at that point it was a charade,” he said.
Stogran claims the government spun the decision to turf him by characterizing him as difficult to work with, “all vinegar, no honey,” as he says in the book. He was praised in public for setting up the ombudsman’s office while adverse off-the-record comments were planted with some reporters.
To be sure, even during his military career Stogran did not shrink from expressing his opinions about the way things were done in Bosnia and Kandahar, outspokenness that sometimes dismayed those further up the chain of command. He accepted the ombudsman’s job in part because he’d been told he’d been assessed as a “Tier Two” officer, destined for staff jobs but not coveted field commands.
Stogran conceded his personality might have played a part but insisted he was always a good soldier.
“I am very much a strong-willed person but you go back to my military career, I did pretty well following orders for 30-odd years, including my time in Afghanistan, although that’s where the realization that there’s a hidden culture out there, that’s where the rude awakening really started,” he said.
[Lt.-Col. Pat Stogran, commanding officer of the land force contingent of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry that will join Operation Apollo, is seen at Kandahar Airbase in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Monday January 28, 2002. CP PHOTO/Kevin Frayer]
After he took up his appointment, Stogran felt forced to dig in his heels again. He went in thinking his mandate empowered him not only help individual veterans but spot emerging problems within the system and suggest remedies. Time after time, Stogran writes, information was withheld by VAC and bureaucrats displayed intransigence.
“When I approached them to fix anything they basically told me to go away,” Stogran said.
The effort to spotlight the plight of homeless vets was a prime example, he said. Instead of dealing with the results of his office’s investigations, the minister admonished him for not providing names of individual homeless vets, something VAC staff should have been doing.
The same problem occurred with the New Veterans Charter, legislation which the Tories inherited from the previous Liberal government. Stogran argued replacing the lifetime disability pension with a lump-sum payment would short-change many veterans. Again, no movement.
Ministers ‘lied to my face,’ Stogran claims
The ministers who held the Veterans Affairs portfolio during his tenure “lied to my face,” by promising his office would be the “squeaky wheel” to fulfill Canada’s promise to veterans, Stogran told Yahoo.
“I was naively thinking that government might be ineffective, but not callous and intransigent,” he said. “But what I saw them doing as the ombudsman was deliberate harm to Canadians.”
As relations chilled Stogran said he saw no point in trying to be more conciliatory.
“I don’t think we’d be anywhere right now because it was a result of my last act of defiance in August 2010 that the non-traditional veterans advocacy groups started to make a stand,” he said.
Stogran’s relationship with veterans groups was also problematic at times. He kept the organizations at arm’s length, he said in the book, viewing individual veterans as his “stakeholders.”
He holds a low opinion of the Royal Canadian Legion, which he said has not been publicly outspoken enough on the plight of disabled vets. It and other groups are too vulnerable to being co-opted by the department.
“The Legion was asleep at the switch,” Stogran told Yahoo. “All of those so-called veterans groups that existed at the time, they basically applauded the New Veterans Charter.”
Stogran also clashed with Sean Bruyea, a retired air force captain who’d become an outspoken advocate for disabled vets.
In an apparent effort to discredit him, Bruyea’s confidential medical files were circulated among hundreds of public servants. The Tory government eventually settled a $400,000 lawsuit he filed.
Bruyea, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Stogran turned a blind eye to appeals for help made by a colleague on his behalf to cope with the stress of apparent VAC harassment. He testified to that effect before a parliamentary committee in May 2010, three months before Stogran was given notice his appointment would not be renewed.
“I was never actually at loggerheads with him,” Bruyea told Yahoo. “He obviously had an issue with me.
“I never had any confrontation with him up until his dismissal and he blamed me in part for his dismissal, which is a pretty far stretch. He felt there was people like me that had undermined him and his position.”
Bruyea sympathetic despite clash with Stogran
Still, Bruyea is sympathetic to the environment Stogran found himself in.
“In some ways I think he could have helped himself a lot more had he surrounded himself with more credible bureaucrats in his office,” said Bruyea. “He hired people straight out of Veterans Affairs, whose loyalty was clearly to Veterans Affairs. That was his first mistake.”
Playing nicely probably would not have gotten Stogran any further, said Bruyea because the whole idea of a truly independent ombudsman was anathema to the government.
“If Pat was going to speak his mind in any format, whether it’s conciliatory, accommodating, co-operating or as he was, quite aggressive, there was no way they were going to renew him,” he said. “They didn’t want that office to succeed.”
Kenneth Young of Canadian Veterans Advocacy said Stogran initially tried to work through channels he’d learned as a field commander and later at National Defence Headquarters.
“For the most part all of his suggestions fell by the wayside tangled in bureaucratic red tape, government rhetoric and the do-nothing culture,” Young said via email.
Stogran is withholding judgment on the new Liberal government’s commitment to redressing the harm vets say was done by the Tories. The Liberals’ first budget last month included measures to reopen closed VAC offices and hire more staff to ease the case load. But It did not fulfill a key Liberal election promise, echoed in the minister’s mandate letter, to restore lifetime disability pensions, saying more consultation was needed.
“The cheque is in the mail,” said Stogran.
Stogran cherishes his military career and said he would do it all again. But would he recommend the soldier’s life to a young person today?
“No!” he replied emphatically. “It was with a heavy heart that I said that.”
It’s a tremendous lifestyle, Stogran explained, but he has no confidence now that soldiers injured on the job or wounded in combat will get the support they need from the Armed Forces or VAC.
“I don’t know why anybody would even stay in today, knowing it just takes one parachute descent and your life as you know it is ruined.”