A remarkable thing happened last week.
Less than 24 hours after I reported how National Defence sent letters to all 158 families of fallen Afghan soldiers, inviting them to a special commemoration ceremony – but with the caveat they would have to pay their own way to attend – the Harper government reversed course.
I cannot recall such a quick reversal under this government.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson confirmed before a parliamentary committee the families’ expenses will be covered, although details are still being finalized and will be announced soon.
Nicholson went on to blame his own department for sending a letter that was “premature” and contained “false information.”
The mother of Sgt. George Miok, who was killed in Afghanistan, said if the government does pay for her family to attend the service, “that is really appreciated.”
“We miss him. Every day. Every hour, every minute of the day,” Anna Miok said.
“I don’t want anybody to ever forget my son, because I think he did a big sacrifice for this country.”
The Mioks already had to pay $4,000 out of their own pockets to attend their 28-year-old son’s repatriation ceremony.
The existence of these letters – and the political 180 that followed – is another sting to the Conservative brand, which long proclaimed itself as the party that supports the troops and takes care of the military.
However, the continued crisis of suicides by Afghan veterans suffering PTSD, along with the slow hiring of promised mental health care workers, has raised questions if the government is properly caring for its soldiers in the aftermath of war.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair blamed the government of mixed messaging during question period last Thursday.
“Now the minister is trying to shift the blame, claiming that he’s not responsible for the note sent out by his own office,” Mulcair said. “Enough with the excuses. These families have already paid a greater price than most of us can even imagine. Will the minister of defence minister take responsibility for this latest insult and guarantee that the expenses of the families of fallen soldiers will be taken care of completely by the government?”
Nicholson’s parliamentary secretary, James Bezan, repeated the government’s talking points, that the letter was “premature, incorrect and contained false information” because the event’s details have yet to be finalized.
But many high level sources tell me last month, the Prime Minister’s Office, National Defence and Veterans’ Affairs began contacting charities in the private sector to come up with a fundraising plan to cover some of the families’ travel costs. It suggests the government knew all along that the military had no intention of picking up the tab for families of fallen soldiers.