OTTAWA – The commander of the military health unit responsible for mentally and physically injured soldiers is retiring, less than six months after taking over the much-maligned unit and promising to clean it up.
The timing of Brig.-Gen. Dave Corbould’s sudden departure from the Joint Personnel Support Unit, which was announced Tuesday, has raised eyebrows and concerns about the unit’s future.
But Corbould, who said he is hanging up his uniform for family reasons after 35 years in the military, insists the unit is finally on the right track after a tumultuous first decade of existence.
“It’s much better because it’s more focused, it understands itself better and it is moving forward,” Corbould said in an interview. “And it is not reliant on any one individual. It is a team effort all around.”
Corbould took over the support unit in August, hoping to turn the page on years of complaints and criticism about how Canadian soldiers, particularly those dealing with psychological injuries, were treated.
The JPSU was established in 2008, at the height of the war in Afghanistan, and comprises 24 support centres on major bases across the country and eight satellite offices in communities with sizable military populations.
The aim 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 unit also provides assistance to the family of members who are killed.
But the unit has been plagued with problems, 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.
Some of those problems persist: 73 positions were unfilled in December, representing 17 per cent of the unit’s workforce, and an increase from the approximately 50 positions that were empty last spring.
The unit also found itself under the microscope following a shocking murder-suicide in Nova Scotia in early January, where an Afghan vet who had previously been treated at the JPSU killed his wife, daughter and mother before turning the gun on himself.
But Corbould, whose last day is Wednesday, said progress has been made in many areas over the past five months, including with greater awareness and support from senior commanders. Proposals have also been made for more resources to ensure ill and injured soldiers get more support.
“It’s not a perfect organization by any means,” he said. “But it is much more robust.”
Corbould played down the significance of his departure, saying work to improve the JPSU would continue under its new commander and with the help of the unit’s more than 400 dedicated staff.
Retired master warrant officer Barry Westholm, who served as the unit’s sergeant-major from 2009 to 2013, worried about what appears to be a revolving door of sorts at the top of the organization.
The previous commander, Col. Gerry Blais, resigned suddenly last February. He was replaced by navy Capt. Marie-France Langlois until Corbould took over in August. Now Brennan, who most recently was overseeing Canada’s mission in Iraq, is in command.
“That’s a lot of commanding officers at one of Canada’s most important units,” said Westholm.
“And you wonder why nothing gets done. This is one of the reasons why.”
Lawyer Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel who now represents many military clients, said Corbould had taken over the JPSU at a critical time, and his departure threatens to set back efforts to fix the unit.
“The problem, which we thought we would begin to address six months ago, we’re just going back to square one,” Drapeau said. “And that will not sit well with people who are dependent on this service.”