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Former soldiers camp out in Ottawa to demand respect, better services

Two former Canadian soldiers have set up camp beneath the veterans memorial buildings in downtown Ottawa, hoping to draw attention to their frustration with the federal government’s treatment of veterans.

Trevor Sanderson and Dick Groot arrived in Ottawa Friday after driving from Winnipeg.

Since then, they’ve spent their days and nights in the tents they’ve erected at the corner of Wellington and Lyon streets, near the East and West Memorial Buildings.

Braving the cold temperatures and blowing snow, they plan to camp out until Thursday, when a larger protest calling for improvements to veterans services is scheduled to take place on Parliament Hill.

Sanderson said he hopes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will hear and respond to the group’s grievances.

“We’re not asking for a lot,” he said. “We’re only asking to feel normal again.”

‘Broken’ system

Sanderson said he has lived with PTSD for close to 25 years, tracing it back to a training exercise from his time with Princess Patricia’s Light Canadian Infantry at CFB Calgary.

“My normal for me — waking up every day — is my body hurting … never knowing whether or not I’m going to have an anxiety attack … not being able to enjoy being with family and friends,” he said.

Trevor Sanderson, a former soldier with the Canadian Armed Forces, drove to Ottawa from Winnipeg to demand better services for veterans.(Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Like Sanderson, Groot said he also has PTSD, first triggered by a training exercise during his service as a reservist in Saskatoon.

“We want to go back to being human,” he said.

Groot describes his experience with the veteran benefits system as frightful, remembering feeling totally abandoned by the country he set out to serve.

“When I did go to the system, everything went crazy,” he said, describing wait times and a crippling lack of treatment options.

“It failed utterly.”

‘More than we are able to give’

Sanderson and Groot both said they were angered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments during a town hall meeting in Edmonton earlier this month.

“Why are we still fighting certain veteran groups in court? Because they’re asking for more than we are able to give right now,” Trudeau said, answering a question from a veteran, who said he lost his leg to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

Former reservist Dick Groot says he’s still dealing with the PTSD he developed 30 years ago during a training exercise in Saskatoon.(Marc-André Cossette/BC)

Colin Saunders, a veteran of the Bosnian War, said the prime minister’s comments only inflamed dissent among the country’s current and former soldiers, frustrated by what he describes as a “broken system.”

In response, Saunders organized Thursday’s rally on Parliament Hill, hoping to spur the government to reconsider its recent changes to veterans benefits.

Compensation system overhauled

In December, the Liberal government launched an overhaul of the system that compensates wounded ex-soldiers, pouring an extra $3.6 billion into veterans benefits.

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan said that not everyone will receive the same level of compensation, adding the government is also committed to providing improved rehabilitative services to get able veterans back to work.

But those investments are cold comfort to Saunders, who says the new system does not treat all soldiers equally.

“The reality is — veterans aren’t seeing that money,” he said.

Sanderson and Groot say they have little faith in the Liberal government’s recent overhaul of the veteran compensation system.(Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Instead, Saunders said, the new compensation regime prioritizes critically injured veterans, leaving soldiers with less serious injuries with fewer resources and options.

“It’s one thing to say that we’re providing more services to our veterans, but they’re making it really hard for veterans to get that care,” Saunders said.

“If our government can’t take care of our veterans, where does that leave us?”

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