OTTAWA – The bottom appears to have fallen out of the country’s military reserves.
The latest government figures, contained in federal departmental performance reports for the last budget year, show a shortfall of 5,293 part-time soldiers, sailors and aircrew.
The numbers also show the military’s medical branch has 367 unfilled positions — both uniformed and civilian. The department noted there’s a national shortage of health-care professionals and military system is backstopped by its contract with the private company Calian.
National Defence says 35 of these vacancies are in the mental-health section, which was the subject of an intense recruiting campaign following a string of suicides by combat veterans in late 2013 and early 2014.
Gary Walbourne, the military ombudsman, sounded exasperated upon hearing the figures, saying his office repeatedly pushed the previous Conservative government on the issue of health care for both full-time and part-time members.
“This comes down to desire. If you have the desire to fix the problem, you’ll fix it,” Walbourne said in an interview.
“We don’t need any more studies or any more reports. Enough is enough. It comes to a leadership issue and someone has to decide that this is going to get fixed.”
The country’s top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, has made caring for the troops one of his signature efforts. The records did note that military health-care system easily met its performance targets for wait times and treatment.
The departmental report, tabled as Parliament returned this week, also raises the flag about the army’s non-combat vehicles, which have a serviceability rate of just 60 per cent — something National Defence insists does not affect its ability to operate and defend the country. Spokeswoman Maj. Giselle Holland said efforts are underway to improve the serviceability rate through upgrading and enhancement, among other things.
Last summer, the former Harper government issued a tender for logistics trucks — a program a decade in the making that had become a political and fiscal football. Originally proposed as an “urgent” procurement in 2006, the Conservatives tried and failed twice to buy replacements for 1980s vintage vehicles used to haul troops, equipment and artillery.
It is the decline in reservists, however, that is among the most startling aspects of the report, which shows the army has taken the biggest hit. The air force has remained relatively stable; there was a slight drop in navy ranks.
Defence officials blame the diminished reservist ranks — 21,707, all told — on a higher-than-expected departure rate and challenges in meeting recruiting quotas.
Retired colonel John Selkirk of the group Reserves 2000, which lobbies on behalf of part-time soldiers, says the problem has been building for years and reflects a slashing of the training budget by the Conservatives, a change in how reservist trades are selected and a dysfunctional recruiting system that leans towards signing up full-time members.
“Is it any wonder the militia is under strength? Not at all,” Selkirk said.
Many reservists are young people who use their service as part-time income for school and the absence of large summer training exercises has meant they’ve had to go elsewhere to find work, he said.
Poor treatment of reservists, particularly when it comes to health care, has been repeatedly pointed out by Walbourne. National Defence has been reluctant to track the health of part-timers; they have a tough time getting access to military doctors and typically must wait more than a year for severance and pension payments.
“The compensation and benefits package wrapped around reservists is convoluted, complex and archaic,” Walbourne said.
Evan Koronewski, a spokesman for National Defence, said the chief of defence staff is working to strengthen the reserves by improving recruiting and retention and that advertising will raise awareness of career opportunities in the military.