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Canadian veterans say they're worried wounded will be forgotten as wars fade

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

LONDON, England - Retired warrant officer Andy Godin vividly remembers the warm night he got off the plane, returning from the cauldron of shellfire and snipers that was Sarajevo.

A non-commissioned officer dragged a chair to the centre of the hangar, stood on it and told hundreds of assembled troops that if anyone had any problem with their "melon" to see the social workers who were waiting in the wings.

Nobody moved. Nobody dared move.

Fast forward nearly 20 years to 2010 to when former corporal John Lowe finished his tour in the killing fields of Kandahar.

His generation has a myriad of money and programs, but checking yourself in to one is known within the ranks as "spin dry."

Lowe came home alone, a month ahead of his buddies in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

He had elected to go into the reserves and the army was adamant about filling out his paperwork back in Canada, and so he was yanked away from the men and women who were, at that time, closer than his family.

As he slept in a near-empty Edmonton barracks, worked out on his own and shuffled paper, he noticed something was off and went to get help.

That was when the nightmare started.

The Harper government takes great pride in saying it has poured an additional $130 million into improving the system of military medical care since being elected, including an often-trumpeted $11.4 million for mental health.

When you listen to the accounts of soldiers past and present, it is still a system of stifling bureaucracy, occasional leadership indifference, but most of all prejudice.

It can be the kiss of career death for a soldier, especially in combat arms such as the infantry, to put their hands up and say they have a problem with the horrors they've witnessed.

"It's the culture; the culture is totally different," said Lowe, who at one point had envisioned going to special forces. "One of the sayings, one of our mottos is suffer in silence. That's what's honourable. That's what we're taught. If you're in pain, you buck up and keep moving."

One bit of advice he was given by a fellow soldier was "take your pills as sort yourself out" and don't take too much noise about it.

"He basically said take a pill or drink something to solve your problems."

Godin, who has battled his own demons after watching Serbs and Croats viciously toss their dead into the Miljacka River in the 1990s, was angry upon hearing Lowe's story.

"It makes me flippin' angry," he said. "We throw resources at something; we have a system set up for this and this, and this after every tour to see how (the troops) mental health is doing, but are these programs working? I don't know."

Godin pointed to the rising number of post traumatic stress claims arriving at the doorstep of Veteran Affairs, and said that the system trains soldiers very well to obey orders and kill, but doesn't teach how to deal with consequences.

He said it feels like not much has changed.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay's staff declined an interview on the subject, but instead issued a statement pointing to the investments, saying the government has taken substantial action.

"In fact, when compared to our NATO allies, the (Canadian Forces) has the greatest ratio of mental health care workers to military members," a spokeswoman said.

A group of Canadian soldiers and veterans, many of them struggling with post traumatic stress, have arrived in London after a gruelling six-day cycling ride from Paris.

They took part in an event put on by the British-based charity Help for Heroes, which gathered 300 riders from the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S., including a number of amputees who lost limbs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The entire group stopped at various battlefields in northern France, and received a huge welcome in London as they ended the ride at Horse Guards Parade.

Most of the Canadians took part under the sponsorship of the charity Wounded Warriors Canada.

Dave Penasse, a former armoured vehicle driver who served in Bosnia, says he's concerned that as the war in Afghanistan becomes a distant memory for the public, people will forget about the 2,047 who were wounded physically and mentally.

"It is sad to think about, but if a country is not a war, there's less media attention (on the military), less and less and less, and then there's none," he said. "People forget so easily what these people have been through."

His sentiment is echoed by Bryn Parry, co-founder and chief executive of Help for Heroes, who says most memorials are to the dead, but he says one should be erected to the wounded.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/the-canadian-press/130602/canadian-veterans-say-theyre-worried-wounded-will-be-forgott