Establishment of a national veterans commission3420 21 Nov, 2013
ESTABLISHMENT OF A NATIONAL VETERANS COMMISSION
Mr. Felix: I rise to support the motion moved in this House by the Hon. Leader of the Opposition, Brigadier (Ret’d) David A. Granger, M.S.S, in which he advocates the establishment of a commission – the National Veterans Commission – to examine the conditions and circumstances facing veterans of the defence Forces and Disciplined Services and make recommendations as to their health and welfare and for the general administration of veterans affairs.
The services referred to are: the Guyana Defence Force, the Guyana People’s Militia (GPM), the now defunct Guyana National Service (GNS), the Guyana Police Force (GPF), the Guyana Prison Service (GPS) and the Guyana Fire Service (GFS).
Experiences have shown that young people at the age of 18 are recruited into these services and give most of their youth serving this country and sacrificing their youthful enjoyment for the service of national security. They do this being recipients of poor remuneration. To ensure that their services are protected in favour of the State, illegal withdrawal from the Force is an offence under Section 39 of the Police Act. When one goes absent for more than 24 hours, he or she is deemed to have illegally withdrawn and can be charged and placed before the court, Guyana Police Force style.
In the GDF, those who are found absent without leave pay the ultimate price of being detained for 42 days, having been found guilty. I see now that the sentences can be served in civilian prison. These laws lock young men and women into service and, unlike their counterparts in the wider public service, they have no freedom to leave as they like. Nevertheless, the services are well served by young men and women who are always ready and willing to serve, but in the midst of this service they meet unfortunate circumstances like death.
Do you remember the Rupununi Uprising in 1969? Among the first to be killed in the Rupununi at Annai and Lethem were policemen. When the crime spree commenced in 2002, the first to be killed were policemen on patrol at Coldingen – we can remember that. It happened on Independence night – and the last to be killed was a policeman who was assassinated.
Notwithstanding all of this, they can serve for 25 or 30 years. Once they withdraw, there is no gratuity.
In cases of injury on duty, if that member of the service – whether police, prison or fire – is of pensionable service, he or she may be entitled to withdraw on medical grounds, after appearing before a medical board and, should permission be granted, they may be awarded a pension and gratuity. For those who have below ten years service but above two, it is likely that they would get a gratuity but no pension.
The situation with regard to the death of a member of the Force is one which in 1997 had to be reviewed by the Government. A constable was killed on duty and the ex gratia payment was so small that the Ministry of Home Affairs refused to have it paid. That led to a discussion in which the situation was improved because a scheme was arrived at between the police and Ministry of Home Affairs in which the beneficiaries of a deceased member of the Force – be it children or mother – would receive a million dollars. I think that is the case unto today. Unfortunately, however, while there is that improvement, it does not take them too far because I have seen many return within a year or two to say that the money has been exhausted.
Like the GDF, there is no scheme to prepare members of the Force to retire and so a person must return to civilian life with the job experience that is irreverent to the employment market with a small pension. They must accept menial jobs with poor pay if they are to maintain a family, pay rent or mortgage, and pay utility bills. I know there are those who would talk about the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) but it has its pains too.
The National Insurance Scheme would not pay a pension unless one has attained the age of 60 years but those who are unfortunate to be employed after 55 years, if their salary is below what they were receiving when they retired, they are paid on the last three years’ salary. If it is lower, they lose. If one is lucky to be employed and paid above, good fortune would be his or hers. That is the disadvantage veterans have in relation to NIS when they retire. Some may say that they get two or three pensions but those do not add up to one.
In terms of the medical expenses at the NIS, there is something called pre-existing condition. While in the service, if one claims for an ailment, upon retirement, that ailment would be regarded as a pre-existing condition. If a person lives a healthy life up to the time of retirement and never made a claim and at the onset of old age certain ailments beset a person, then the unfortunate situation is that the person will be faced with no benefit because in that person’s case, it was not a pre-existing condition. These are the issues which affect the lives of our veterans.
This motion points us to article 24 of the Constitution which declares that every citizen has the right to free medical attention and also to social care in the case of old age and disability. Our contention is that this declaration must be satisfied by the State. That is why this motion is brought.
We must read, also, the Be It Resolved clause, which is a natural link to the declaration, in which we are calling for a National Veterans Commission to examine conditions and circumstances facing veterans of the Guyana Defence Force and Disciplined Services and to make recommendations to ensure that their health and welfare and for the general administration of veterans affairs in Guyana.
Our experience has shown us that policemen are attacked on duty – some are killed and some are not killed. There is a case of a certain sergeant who one morning was shot from behind in Croal Street. He was not killed, but he was blinded. He is still being kept on the job. My question is: what regime of rules exists when he retires? Is he just to be paid off and then left to rot? Should the State not take care of him?
There is the female prison officer who was shot at the onset of that infamous outbreak in 2002 on 23rd February. She is bed-ridden. She is being taken care of now. Similarly, what regime of laws exists to protect her after age 55?
We still have 51-year-old Private Claudius Yearwood of the GPM. He fell when a trestle on which he was perched collapsed. He has a broken spine. He is in a wheelchair at this time and he is being accommodated in a night shelter. It is most unfortunate. Is this not a fitting case to benefit from the intervention of the State?
In view of the changing circumstances and inadequate provisions, changes must be considered to adequately address current issues to ameliorate the lives of former members of the services. The Government should, in these unfortunate circumstances, stretch forth its benevolent hand to lighten the suffering of the poorly paid former servicemen. The current thinking on this issue ensures that veterans are not to be discarded. Instead, as David Granger, our leader, points out in his book Guyana’s Military Veterans, published in 1999, at page 3:
“Veterans should be regarded as national assets, rather than as potential social liabilities.”
When they leave, they ought to be accorded that respect and care against illness and suffering which might visit them later. In the United States, Canada and also in the Caribbean – Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica – they have established veterans affairs departments which attend to the issues I have outlined that are facing veterans in Guyana.
Similarly, Guyana should have a State appointed veterans commission to address health and welfare issues of veterans. It should investigate the economic conditions of veterans who have, for decades, been slighted and neglected by the State they once served and protected faithfully.
Veterans’ educational programmes ought to be funded by Government based on performance to permit veterans to enter any local educational training programme to equip them for employment upon demitting regular service.
In terms of housing issues in the past, plots of land were made available to members of the Joint Services upon which they built their homes, for example Melanie Damishana, Vryheid's Lust, Samantha Point, Guyhoc Park and others. Today, if you pass through Melanie Damishana and Vryheid's Lust, you will see that the roads are in disrepair. Those schemes were built for veterans. They built them. They were not required to suffer the indignity of pushing one’s hand in a bag to select a house lot. I am sure that there is a much more efficient and dignified system to distribute house lots to all Guyanese, including our veterans.
After narrating the aches, pains and indignities suffered by our veterans, I am sure that enough has been poured out into the public justifying A Partnership for National Unity’s call for the establishment of a Veterans Commission that would examine the issues and more and put them into their proper perspective to allow for swift Government action. This matter should not be treated as a political issue, but one that is more associated with human dignity and human development. I now give my full support to this motion and request that the honourable House approves it.
I thank you. [Applause]
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