Military chief pledges pension details to be sorted before wounded soldiers released

The new head of military personnel says injured soldiers whose pension and financial estimates aren't completed by their release dates will remain in uniform until the paperwork is finalized.

Lt.-Gen. Chuck Lamarre announced the measure while answering questions Thursday after a ceremony marking the change of command at the Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU) in suburban Ottawa.

"We will hold them within the JPSU until all of that pension administration has been done and that when these people transition out, within 30 days, they will receive their first pension [cheque]," Lamarre said.

He wasn't clear, when asked, about how long it will be before the measure is extended to those who aren't injured, saying "the whole intent is that all members of the Canadian Armed Forces ... will be looked after in that respect, in the same way."

The measure is an important step toward making the journey between uniform and civilian life easier. Throughout the winter, CBC News reported on cases where retired soldiers, sailors and aircrew waited months for their military pensions to kick in, including a single mother who was evicted when she couldn't pay her rent.

But later Thursday, an official at National Defence was unable to say how many troops might be affected by the new policy because the department is "not currently tracking whether any releasing members need to be 'held-on' to in achieving a successful transition."

A statement prepared in response to further questions wouldn't go as far as to say wounded members will be allowed to stay on after their scheduled release.

The best clarification Maj. Alex Munoz could offer was that the military is "updating" the release process to "encourage" retiring members to obtain an estimate of their pension entitlement well in advance of their departure date.

"Additionally, we are encouraging CAF members to obtain their pension package forms from the Pension Centre prior to their release date and to return the forms in a timely manner."

Lamarre, however, was clear when asked what the military intends to do: "We will hang on to the individuals and make sure their pension has been set up and organized so they can get it."  

​Backlog of cases

The delay in getting pension cheques into the hands of retiring soldiers has been a major headache at National Defence for years. Roughly 5,000 members are released each year, with an increasing number of them departing for medical reasons.

At one point last year, there was a backlog of 13,000 cases, which the department has said it's whittling down and expects to eliminate by the end of the year.

Figures released by National Defence on Thursday show the backlog now sits at 4,081 cases.

Last summer, the administration of the system was handed over to the Department of Public Services and Procurement, which Lamarre said has been delivering payments within 30 days in 96 per cent of cases.

According to officials, that delivery timeline depends on the required paperwork being filled out and delivered to the department.

But getting the files there is a chore. Figures released by DND on Thursday show there's an additional backlog of 4,331 release files at the Director of Military Careers Administration office.

When he appeared before a Senate committee last week, the country's top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, alluded to the new release policy for injured soldiers, but indicated he was still searching for an overall solution.

"I would like to find a way to ensure — positively, no matter how complex your case is — that you don't take this uniform off until your pension cheque is ready," he said. "It's going to take some work. All things sound simple when you're a critic, but when you're actually trying to do it, things are challenging."

When questioned about the pension delays last winter, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan blamed staffing cuts at the department under the previous Conservative government for creating the backlog.

Complex cases

But the problem is more complex than that, according to internal Defence Department documents obtained by CBC News.

Some soldiers have mixed service between regular and reserve forces, which requires a more detailed pension calculation. Medical releases add another layer of complexity.

Defence sources say one solution being examined involves taking an individual a month before they retire and doing a financial analysis that will allow the member to walk out the door with a cheque in their hands.

But there is no doubt that lean staffing throughout National Defence has had an impact on ill and injured soldiers, particularly in the unit that is supposed to help shepherd them out of the service. 

The JPSU, with eight locations and 24 smaller sub-units at bases across the country, has been a routine target of complaints since it was conceived at the height of the Afghan war almost 10 years ago.

As with any organization put together quickly, "there are usually some teething pains," said Brig.-Gen. Shane Brennan, who assumed command of the JPSU on Thursday, "but we wouldn't want those teething pains to overshadow the good work that goes on in the JPSUs every day."

He acknowledged staffing has been an issue and says as many as 80 uniformed members of the regular force and a comparable number of civilians will be brought in over the next two years as the organization is overhauled and joined with a larger, professional military human resources branch. The plan for that transition is not yet complete.

"Of course, there are things that need to be improved," Brennan said. "We need to have the right people there. They need to be trained and we need to develop some expertise. I think we're on the path now to make the JPSU brand better."