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Brandon Veterans Affairs office will close

OTTAWA -- Veterans in the Brandon area will be looking elsewhere for help with their benefits as the federal government moves to close the Brandon Veterans Affairs office.

The office is one of eight to be shuttered by February 2014 in a cost-cutting exercise by Veterans Affairs. The only active Veterans Affairs service office in Manitoba will be in Winnipeg.

Two case managers will lose their jobs in Brandon, said Kim Coles, national executive vice-president of the Union of Veterans Employees. These are workers who meet with veterans to help them navigate the system, assist in filling out forms, inform veterans about what programs are available to them and submit claims for processing.

Veterans Affairs announced last May its decision to close the Brandon office, along with those in Kelowna, B.C., Saskatoon, Thunder Bay, Charlottetown, Corner Brook, N.L., Sydney, N.S., London, Ont., and Windsor, Ont.

Coles said just recently the union was told when it would happen and how many jobs would be going with the closures.

Jean-Christophe de le Rue, press secretary for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, said despite the closures, veterans will have more offices to go to now than before.

"Thanks to our partnership with Service Canada, veterans now have 600 points of service where they had 60 before, and home visits made by case managers as well as nurses will continue to be available whenever veterans need."

There are 17 Service Canada offices in Manitoba, including one in Brandon.

Coles said that may be fine to get forms and submit them, but Service Canada personnel won't have the specific experience to walk veterans through the process.

"The services provided will be the bare minimum," said Coles.

Veterans Affairs Canada will see its budget cut by $66.7 million a year by 2014-15. Coles said nationwide the department is losing 784 jobs, or nearly one in five existing positions.

"The employees are already having a tough time keeping up," she said.

The Brandon office isn't slated to close until next February, but if the two case workers find other positions before then, the office may have to close earlier.

Coles said for many years, Veterans Affairs has not filled empty positions, but the workload has increased because of the complex needs of the veterans making claims.

The aging veterans from the Second World War and the Korean War may be dwindling in number, but their needs are growing and becoming more complicated the older they get.

Younger veterans returning from Afghanistan also have complex needs, many of them psychological, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Pat Martin said Ottawa is "nickel and diming" veterans and to close the office closest to the largest military base in Manitoba is nonsense.

"It's a reduction in services for our veterans," he said. "There may be less living vets, but they're a lot older and their needs are more profound."

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

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