For some veterans of the Afghanistan war, the fight isn’t over.

Six Canadian soldiers who served in Afghanistan are suing the federal government for benefits and say the Veterans Charter and the changes it made for veterans’ compensation violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The federal government appealed the lawsuit, saying it had no special obligations to soldiers. However, a B.C. Supreme Court judge dismissed the appeal last month and the lawsuit is going ahead.

The Veterans Charter, which came into effect in 2006, has been at the centre of much controversy since Canadian soldiers returned from Afghanistan.

The new charter replaced the lifetime disability pension for disabled soldiers with lump-sum payments.

Veterans argue the new one-time payment system offers only a percentage of what those same soldiers would’ve earned under the old charter’s pension plan.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit received a lump-sum payment of $260,000 after he lost both his legs above the knee and a ruptured eardrum, among other injuries. He also has post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive disorder.

In a report released in October, Canada’s veterans ombudsman stated this new system penalizes hundreds of wounded soldiers who don’t have pensions when they turn 65.

The report found the most urgent issues that need to be fixed with the charter relate to financial support provided to permanently incapacitated veterans who are financially vulnerable.

Veterans Affairs Canada reports 1,428 veterans of the 76,446 the department assessed are totally and permanently incapacitated. Of those, about 400 aren’t receiving benefits they are eligible for by definition under the charter, and who have very little to no Canadian Forces pensions.

The report found almost 90 per cent of the permanent impairment allowance recipients were awarded it at the lowest grade level, which was likely to total about $5,000 per month per veteran.

It was unclear why slightly over half of the totally incapacitated veterans were ineligible for the allowance.

The report calls the earnings loss benefit to support veterans transitioning from military to civilian careers insufficient, and recommends raising the lump sum payment for the disability award to $350,000 which is comparable to bring it in line with the maximum for pain and suffering caused by injury that’s awarded in Canadian courts. Non-economic compensation for pain and suffering needs to at least match what Canadian courts provide, the report states.

Merritt resident Bill Mikkelsen spent eight months on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He returned in 2010 and isn’t quite a veteran as he’s still with the reserves, but he’s aware of the problems some other soldiers who’ve returned are facing, he said.

“It’s a two-tiered system: before the Veterans Charter and after,” he said, noting his opinions are personal and don’t reflect the Canadian Forces.

Mikkelsen said the actual amount of money given to these soldiers doesn’t seem fair either.

“Canada hadn’t had a new crop of veterans since Korea. All of a sudden, we had people going to Bosnia, the Balkans, Rwanda, Somalia, Afghanistan, things like that. Now you have this mass amount of veterans who aren’t going to be treated the same as the ones who did the same type of job in the past.”

Mikkelsen said he understands the government’s position in giving soldiers lump-sum payments, but those payments don’t necessarily help those returning from serving overseas in the long run.

For those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression or physical disabilities, he said, investing the money wisely while adjusting to civilian life and pursuing a new career after the military are not likely priorities.

“Whether it’s peacekeeping, humanitarian or war fighting, they need the ability to know and to say, ‘I’ve gone and done this job, and I’m confident that I’ll be taken care of.’

“Even as a reservist, when I came back, I had to take that time to reintegrate myself with the family, to go back and search for employment, and to put myself back into a normal frame of mind where I wasn’t in a theatre of operations. That takes some time, regardless of who you are.”

Mikkelsen said he thinks the government does intend to support Canada’s veterans, but the 2006 charter is misguided and can be improved upon.

“It’s better than a lot of countries have, but I think we’ve taken a step back in the care of our veterans as a whole. There are a lot of young soldiers out there who have gone and done these things and are living with the issues and being shorted.”

He said while the financial aspect of veteran support seems to be the top concern for Ottawa, it is only a piece of the puzzle for veterans.

“I’d venture to guess 99 per cent of soldiers who do this job don’t go and do it in search of money or riches or the chance of getting a lifetime pension — that’s not what they do it for. They do it because that’s their job, for one, and two, they go to support each other.”

First Nations Veterans of Canada President Percy Joe said the charter leaves a lot to be desired.

“If you’re ordered to go into battle, you don’t question it because you assume someone’s there to look after you or your family,” Joe said. “It’s really a big disappointment that [the Crown] would order them into harm’s way and then not take care of them if they come back maimed or they can’t transition back into the civilian life.”

Although the Veterans Charter doesn’t directly affect Joe, whose service includes the Cold War, he said it’s important for veterans to band together.

“For a lot of us veterans, whether the new charter affects us or not, we’re standing in solidarity with those who need it,” he said.

As for the legal battle playing out between the six wounded soldiers and Ottawa, Joe said veterans are “just wondering why.

“We thought the war was somewhere else; it’s actually happening in Canada,” he said.

Misinformation about charter

Okanagan-Coquihalla MP Dan Albas said while he’s heard concerns about the pay structure being unfair, it’s more complicated than the lump-sum issue.

“One of the criticisms I’ve heard from people is the lump sum payment isn’t enough. Well, how do you value an arm, first of all?” he said.

Albas said the charter was passed by a minority government, but the Conservatives have since changed the offer of a lump sum to a choice between a one-time payment or having that payment meted out over a period of time.

Albas said he has worked with veterans of all ages, including those returning from recent deployment and those to whom the charter applies.

He said people with questions about the process to access benefits should call their members of Parliament, who can help guide them through various processes or explain which benefits can help them.

“What I find most difficult to deal with is I get lots of people who say anecdotally, they’ve heard of people who are not getting what they deserve. That’s really where the MP comes in. The member of Parliament can help assist to make sure they’re getting everything that’s owed under the law to them and to make sure that’s done with dignity.”

Albas listed the permanent impairment allowance and permanent impairment supplement as two areas of the charter that can help with earnings loss when a person can no longer work because of injuries sustained in service.

He said the focus is on recuperation, and the government has opened eight mental health centres and 26 special recuperation centres for veterans since 2006, and said the government is reallocating any funds cut from veteran programs into other areas of veteran services.

“We know, from people who’ve come back from Afghanistan, many of them have different needs than traditional veterans,” Albas said. “These people have served, and we want to make sure that we show respect and serve them back,” Albas said.

A parliamentary committee is slated to review the charter in this session of Parliament, which opened on Oct. 16.