OTTAWA — The director of casualty support management for the military has stepped down amid an overhaul of the system that looks after ill and injured soldiers.
The Canadian Press has obtained a copy of the internal farewell address of Col. Gerry Blais, who tells Joint Personnel Support Units (JPSU) across the country that he has decided to leave, effective immediately.
“There is a great deal of change ahead and I do not feel that I am prepared to lead the unit into this new method of operation,” Blais wrote in a message distributed Tuesday morning.
Last month, The Canadian Press reported that National Defence had embarked on an overhaul of the oft-maligned JPSU system following an internal review that found a myriad of problems.
The support units are supposed to help physically and mentally wounded soldiers heal and return to their units — or prepare for medical release.
Maj.-Gen. Derek Joyce, who has co-chaired the steering committee overseeing the issue, confirmed Blais’ departure, saying he learned of it last week and the news was communicated to staff on Tuesday.
He said he doesn’t see the farewell message — particularly the reference to change — as criticism or “anything unusual” and pointed out that Blais served for seven years as the JPSU commander and he’s done “an absolutely outstanding job taking care of our ill and injured.”
In his message, Blais says he believes the system had accomplished “great things and established a safe place for those who needed it most.”
But many have complained that the support units and their subordinate Integrated Personnel Support Centres are chronically short of staff and that soldiers who are transferred into the system feel isolated from the support network of their home combat units.
The country’s top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, says not all of the pieces of the overhaul strategy are in place but decisions will be made in the coming weeks.
In an interview conducted prior to Blais’ departure, the defence chief said his overriding objective in the review is to ensure that the wounded are cared for with dignity.
“What you need to do is make sure that the culture respects a soldier, sailor or aviator who has given it their all; they’ve done their best; they’ve been hurt and they now need support transitioning out,” Vance told The Canadian Press.
He said he is committed to putting more staff in place.
The issue of staffing at the units was the subject of a scathing report by the country’s military ombudsman a couple of years ago, but Blais — at the time — described the manning level as “adequate.”
Following the release of the October 2013 report, he said in an interview that “most of the issues have been or are definitely in the process of being resolved.”
Blais also defended a decision to ask wounded soldiers to sign a gag order, which barred them from criticizing senior officers on social media outlets or posting disparaging comments about JPSUs on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
He told a House of Commons committee in the spring of 2014 that the measure was meant for their own good.
“The form is there more for the protection of the individuals because unfortunately there are occasions where people, especially when they are suffering from mental health issues, will make comments or become involved in discussions that, later on in the full light of day, they would probably prefer that they had not been involved,” he testified.
Joyce said he believes much of the public criticism has been unfair.
The search for a replacement is underway, he added.