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Support unit for ill, injured military personnel short dozens of staff

Military support unit short dozens of staff

OTTAWA — Dozens of positions at the military's oft-criticized support unit for ill and injured service members, including those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and other psychological injuries, are empty.

National Defence says it's trying to fill the vacancies at the Joint Personnel Support Unit, which was short 73 staff members — or about 17 per cent of its workforce â€” in December.

It is also implementing a variety of fixes to make sure the unit can provide the best care possible to military personnel, after years of problems and complaints.

Most of the changes were recommended in a review conducted two years ago, said National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier, and are expected to be complete by this summer.

But the staffing shortages and pace of reform have prompted anger from one former JPSU member, who resigned from the unit and the military four years ago to protest similar problems.

"If they wanted to fill the positions, they could fill them tomorrow," said retired master warrant officer Barry Westholm, who served as the JPSU sergeant-major from 2009 to 2013.

"They've got the complete Canadian Armed Forces to draw people from. So they're just sitting on their hands. I don't know why they're doing that."

The problems are even more frustrating in the context of this month's murder-suicide in Nova Scotia, Westholm said, where an Afghan veteran shot three family members before turning the gun on himself.

"We discussed the potentials of what could happen if we didn't strengthen that damn unit," Westholm said. "They refused to budge an iota to give increased staff, increased training, anything."

National Defence has confirmed retired corporal Lionel Desmond was assigned to the JPSU for a year prior to his release from the military in July 2015.

Family members say he had been struggling with PTSD for years, and sought treatment without success in the days prior to killing his wife, their 10-year-old daughter, his mother and then himself.

Neither National Defence or Veterans Affairs Canada have committed to investigating the treatment Desmond received before and after his release from the military.

In a CBC radio interview Monday in Halifax, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said more has to be done to help veterans. He called the Desmond deaths a tragedy for the family, the community and the Forces.

"That's why one of the things we've been working hard on is improving the care for veterans," he said. "We owe them a sacred obligation."

He said the government is re-opening veterans support centres and offering the provinces more money for mental health care.

"There's an awful lot more to do in making investments in PTSD treatment and a culture that is going to help first responders and Canadian Forces members and others who go through these difficult situation to deal with this," Trudeau told CBC.

"It's a huge priority for us that we're working very hard on."

While much of the focus has been on Veterans Affairs, Westholm said the JPSU's mandate also requires that it follow up with service members forced to leave the military for medical reasons.

"That is JPSU's job to do," Westholm said. "But they are so overtasked that it's almost impossible to do."

The JPSU was established in 2008, at the height of the war in Afghanistan, and has 24 support centres on major bases across the country and eight satellite offices in communities with sizable military populations.

The purpose is to help physically and mentally wounded military personnel heal and return to their units, or prepare for medical release and transition into the civilian world. The system also provides assistance to the family of members who are killed.

But the system has been plagued with problems in recent years, many of them stemming from understaffing and poor training for those who work in the unit. There have also been concerns about injured military personnel sent to the unit feeling isolated and alone, and some have taken their own lives.

Defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance ordered a review of the system last summer. The military has refused to release the final report.

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press