Hundreds of Canada’s veterans who suffer from severe mental illness are living without any kind of pension because they left the Canadian Forces before reaching their 10-year service mark, says the country’s outgoing military ombudsman.

Following an appearance at a Senate committee Wednesday, Pierre Daigle told CTV’s Power Play that about 1,400 of the 76,000 former soldiers served by Veterans Affairs are “known to be totally and permanently incapacitated.” Of those, about 400 don’t receive any kind of pension.

“Those are the people who are in the worst shape,” Daigle said. “Who left the Forces, who were sick and had the bad luck of not having their 10 years done of service, so they find themselves out there with no pension, nothing.”

Daigle said many soldiers who are short of the 10-year mark and are suffering from mental illness may not seek help, because they are afraid they will be left without a pension or benefits of any kind.

“I agree with everybody when they say we need to tell people who are sick to come forward. That should be the first step. Come forward and tell people you’re sick,” Daigle told Power Play.

“But after that we need to look at those barriers that might prevent people from doing it: if you come forward and you don’t have 10 years, you might not have any revenue.”

Earlier Wednesday, Daigle told a Senate committee that many veterans are being denied benefits after being medically discharged from the Canadian Forces because Veterans Affairs uses more stringent criteria.

Daigle, whose five-year terms ends in a few weeks, said soldiers have to prove to Veterans Affairs that their illness or injury is a result of their service in what he told senators is an “unfair” process.

“The standards used to release people from the Canadian Forces are less stringent than the ones in Veterans Affairs when they try to get compensation, benefits, and so on,” Daigle told Power Play.

“People have to fight when they leave the Forces to justify to Veterans (Affairs) that their sickness or their illness is service-related.”

Soldiers that are denied benefits from Veterans Affairs then face a lengthy appeal process, Daigle said.

While his file does not include Veterans Affairs, Daigle told senators that he has heard from former soldiers about the problem, one of whom described it “as the equivalent of being pushed off a cliff.”

Daigle’s office has found that 90 per cent of mentally ill soldiers assigned to defence support units, where they are supposed to receive help, are dismissed due to the universality-of-service rule. This requires that all active service members be mentally and physically fit for deployment.

The soldiers then begin an uphill battle for benefits, and may have been booted from the unit before they qualify for a pension.

Sen. Romeo Dallaire, a former general, says that rule should be re-examined.

"If industry is going to employ them, why can't we employ them and use that experience?" Dallaire asked Wednesday.

In a statement issued to on Wednesday evening, a spokesperson for Veterans Affairs says disabled veterans are eligible for “comprehensive benefits,” including compensation for earnings lost due to disability, a permanent impairment allowance and career transition services.

Nicholas Bergamini, press secretary to Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, said the government is also sponsoring new legislation, Bill C-11, which would give veterans first dibs on federal jobs.

“We appreciate the outgoing Military Ombudsman's input,” the statement read. “The strong delivery of services to Veterans is a major priority for our Government, which is why it is one of the main elements we are studying as part of the comprehensive parliamentary review of the New Veterans Charter.”

Mental illness has 'serious impact on families'

Meanwhile, the impact of a soldier suffering from an untreated mental illness extends to his or her family members, Daigle says.

In a recent report, Daigle’s office found that so-called “self-stigma,” in which soldiers are too afraid to come forward and seek help, has a negative impact on the family.

“People being sick and being alone has a serious impact on families,” Daigle told Power Play. “So I think there’s still a lot to do.”

Urgent action is needed, for example, on gathering adequate statistics for mentally ill soldiers and veterans, Daigle said.

Right now, suicide statistics, for example, only include active-service males in the regular forces. They do not include women or reservists. A recent spate of soldier suicides has veterans’ advocates calling for more resources to treat mental illness.

“What’s the scope of the problem? How many people out there are sick?” are some of the urgent questions Daigle says need answering. “So if you know who is sick and you provide them with the support and the care, you have probably better chances that they do not deteriorate.”

With files from The Canadian Press