Vets Ombudsman Pat Stogran says Veterans Affairs may have improperly shared his medical files during his high-profile fight to improve vets' benefits.
Tim Naumetz – September 27, 2010
Veterans Affairs Ombudsman and former Army colonel Pat Stogran has revealed he is under treatment for operational stress injury stemming from his Army service, including combat in Afghanistan, and says he fears the Veterans Affairs Department may have improperly shared his medical files and other information during his recent high-profile fight to improve veterans' benefits.
Mr. Stogran, whose term is not being renewed when it expires on the eve of Remembrance Day in November, following his recent criticism about controversial aspects of financial support for Canadian veterans, disclosed his medical condition to The Hill Times as well as his concerns over the security of his personal files after another veteran revealed last week the department gave files on his medical treatment to two former Cabinet ministers, former Liberal veterans affairs minister Albina Guarnieri and former Conservative veterans affairs minister Greg Thompson, and several bureaucrats.
Mr. Stogran, popular with veterans for the work he has done on their behalf since his term as the country's first veterans ombudsman began on Nov. 11, 2007, became a lightning rod for veterans at odds with the bureaucracy after a news conference he held in August following the government's disclosure it would not keep him in the post for another term.
The former Army colonel, who was mentioned in dispatches for courage under fire while serving as a peacekeeper during the civil war in former Yugoslavia in 1994, has publicly criticized the faults of lump-sum payment awards for wounded Canadian troops and the difficulties veterans of the Afghanistan war and other service face obtaining medical support and financial benefits following their release and during rehabilitation.
Mr. Stogran said he first made inquiries "some time ago" after discovering there had been as many as 400 "improper inquiries" into his personal file at the Veterans Affairs Department, but he wanted to be a "team player" at the time and simply told the department it had to tighten security over personal files.
Mr. Stogran added, however, that after another high-profile veteran, Sean Bruyea, disclosed last week to The Canadian Press that he obtained documents revealing his personal information and medical files had been spread around within government and used in attempts to discredit him, he became aware he may also have been a target. Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart is investigating Mr. Bruyea's case.
"This is a revelation, on the part of Sean Bruyea, that they were operating in that way, and I've had other evidence of disingenuous behaviour by the department, so it does cause me concern," Mr. Stogran said, adding that when he first learned bureaucrats were accessing his own files he "thought they were just curious people."
"It was apparent that more people had been in my file than had any business being in my file," he said. "I believe in being a team player, I told the department that they should consider that that a lesson for the future, to tighten up security, you know, 'I'll take one for the team.' At that point in time I was being assured that everybody in the department was acting in the best interest of the veterans, that we were all on the same team, but subsequently, when I started to make some hard inquiries and ask some difficult questions vis-à-vis veterans issues, all of a sudden these doors started closing and the information was being cut off, I feel like I was duped in that circumstance. It causes me concern that some of the inquiries, or the invasions into my privacy, were more insidious in nature."
Mr. Stogran confirmed he is taking medication for operational stress injury, a form of post traumatic stress disorder, but said he believes the condition originates from his service in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he won his bravery award during a Serbian offensive. Mr. Stogran was a commander of units of U.S. and Canadian combat troops searching out Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan in 2002.
"Yes, I've been diagnosed with an operational stress injury, and I'm being medicated for it," he said. "On one hand, I do not hesitate to publicize the fact that I have been so diagnosed, but I also wish to emphasize to people that I think it goes back to my Bosnia days in '94, and you're not automatically an invalid because you've been diagnosed with this."
Mr. Stogran emphasized his disappointment with the way the Veterans Affairs Department has responded to his concerns over the past three years.
"I wasn't a conspiracy theorist before I came into this job. I had an open mind, but the way I've seen things unfold vis-à-vis the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, I can only surmise that they are being secretive so as to harbour or conceal some improper conduct, in terms of treating the veterans," he said.
Veterans who want Mr. Stogran to remain in the post are planning a protest at the offices of MPs and government buildings across Canada on Nov. 6.
Mr. Bruyea, meanwhile, told The Hill Times his problems with the Veterans Affairs Department in May 2006, the day after a new system of benefits and support for veterans, called the Veterans Charter, took effect. He had strongly criticized a lump sum payment up to $275,000 for injured veterans with lifelong disabilities. Mr. Bruyea said the available amount seems large, but only 31 veterans have received the full award and the remainder have averaged about $40,000.
"When Roméo Dallaire advocates for improvement in the way we treat our injured soldiers, does his psychiatric file, and the distortions thereof, end up on the minister's desk?" he said. "When the auditor general has something to say about the minister of finance, does her tax return show up on the minister's desk?"
NDP MP Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore, N.S.) said the experiences of Mr. Bruyea and Mr. Stogran suggest that the government may also be abusing personal information of other veterans as well as citizens who have challenged the government in other areas.
"You never know, it's quite nerve-wracking that this kind of stuff happens," he said. "Sean could just be the tip of the iceberg. This is really quite astonishing and Col. Stogran, I believe, should have everything to worry about. The question is how many other people has this happened to that we're not aware of, and maybe it's not just veterans, what about Health Canada, what about any other department?'
The government last week announced a new package of veteran benefits, including an additional monthly $1,000 payment for life if their injuries prevent them from working again and a minimum annual income of $40,000 during rehabilitation. Veterans are concerned other benefits may be reduced because of the new payments and a spokeswoman at the Veterans Affairs Department, Janice Summerby, told The Hill Times the government does not yet know if the $1,000 monthly payment will be subject to income tax.
Original article on Hill Times website