When Martin Burck joined the military he never imagined that an improperly handled fall would lead him to lose his future career, mobility and nearly his life.
It was 1994 when the 29 year old, who grew up in Montague, fell during physical training while on a French Learning Course at CFB Valcartier in Quebec.
He was a Master Corporal in the Infantry of Canada’s Armed Forces at the time.
When he attempted to receive treatment he said he was met with doubt that his injury was serious.
“You aren’t hurt, you’re just faking it,” Mr Burck alleges he was told by peers and commanding officers.
After his French-language course, Mr Burck was sent on two different deployments, the first to help train recruits at the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec.
There, he alleges his back pain was dismissed again.
“Your back isn’t hurt, it’s just getting used to not being in a classroom all the time,” Mr Burck said he was told.
After his stint training troops, he was posted to the Princess Patricia’s Light infantry Battalion in Calgary where he finally found a medic who took him seriously.
He was assessed and sent to a sports therapist and then a doctor.
“When the doctor looked at my X-ray he turned and said, ‘Oh my, you’re pretty messed up.’”
Mr Burck’s diagnosis during this 1997 doctor visit was he had misaligned his hips during the 1994 fall.
The pain experienced over the last 3 years was his lower spine sitting unevenly, gradually damaging his three lowest vertebrae.
Prior to his injury he was on the fast-track to the Small Arms Instructor Course.
“My pathway to success had opened up greatly and I did very well and then I got hurt.”
“I was a Master Corporal who had done very well, but it didn’t matter what I had done, it was what I could do now.”
Following the doctor visit, Mr Burck was placed on medical category, meaning he wasn’t supposed to go to the field or engage in physical work.
Mr Burck alleges he was put under the command of a Major and Captain who didn’t believe he was injured and was faking to avoid upcoming field exercises.
“In actual fact, I enjoyed field exercises, that was the best part of the army in my opinion.”
Mr Burck alleges his commanding officers forced him to go on the field exercise in 2001 where he was injured further.
“I was in a vehicle that went off the road and I ended up covered with boxes of ammunition and in a worse state than when I was originally injured.”
He then applied for and was awarded a military pension and was released three years later in 2004, just shy of completing his 20th year in the CAF.
The pension for his back equals out to around $270 a month.
After his release, he took some business courses, before settling as a member of the West Edmonton Mall’s Scuba Team, finding it was less painful to work in the weightlessness of underwater.
But his back injury became worse and in 2014 periods of intense pain began to leave him bedridden for long stretches.
He described the pain as fiery shards of glass moving up and down his sciatic nerve constantly, leaving him unable to even lift his left leg or even go to the restroom in the conventional way.
He was told by the top back surgeon in Edmonton his lower vertebrae were so damaged that there was hardly anything left of them and fusing what was left would lead to even more problems down the road.
“He said the only thing left for you is oxycodone pain medication and a good psychiatrist.”
This news left Mr Burck with an intense feeling of hopelessness that nearly consumed him.
One morning in 2017, when his wife Cassandra had just gone to work he felt it was all just too much.
“I was sitting in the basement of my house, with a loaded rifle in my mouth.”
“I was on the verge of becoming a statistic and the reason I couldn’t do it was because my father was still living.”
Shortly after this incident he learned about a surgery being offered in Germany that could replace his three damaged vertebrae with artificial disks.
After a consultation, the doctors in Bogen, Germany asked him when he could fly to Europe.
Documents sent to Veterans Affairs and shown to The Graphic, show the surgery took place on June 20, 2017.
Mr Burck said with confidence that if it wasn’t for the surgery he wouldn’t be here.
Though he still lives with some pain and has the occasional bad day, he has regained mobility and found a new appreciation for the little things – even going to the bathroom.
The only problem is the surgery and related expenses cost around $100,000 and he had to sell the equity he had built in his home to pay for it.
He had hoped Veteran Affairs would help him with the costs.
“If I had seen a chiropractor right away and had been realigned, my chiropractor feels things would have been different.”
In 2021, while awaiting to see if Veteran Affairs would reimburse him for the surgery, Mr Burck and his family wrote a letter to Minister of Veterans Affairs Lawrence MacAulay asking for help.
A meeting was scheduled for summer 2021, when Mr Burck and family would be in PEI.
The family met with Mr MacAulay but Mr Burck was surprised at the minister’s lack of preperation.
“The guy couldn’t even take the time to read the letter.”
Despite the rocky start, Mr Burck said the minister pledged to do whatever he could to help.
Shortly after, his request was denied by Veterans Affairs in a letter dated May 9 2022.
An initial appeal was also denied.
In a July 28, 2022 letter Veterans Affairs said the appeal request was denied because its policy says veterans are only eligible for treatment benefits outside of Canada if they are travelling or living outside of Canada.
In a statement to The Graphic, Veterans Affairs Canada said veterans can get out of province treatments if they are pre-authorized and the service is not available where they reside.
The veteran’s family doctor or specialist must also provide medical rationale for the treatment and that rationale must be assessed by a VAC doctor.
Additionally, the request must be submitted within 18 months of the injury taking place.
In a written statement, Mr MacAulay said that he remains dedicated to supporting Veterans.
Mr MacAulay wouldn’t comment on the specifics of any case, citing The Privacy Act, but said the process in place ensures fair adjudication of each case.
If a veteran goes through the appeal process and is still not satisfied, they can apply to the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review of the decision, said Mr MacAulay.
Mr Burck, who is in the last stage of the appeal process, said going to court just isn’t an option due to costs.
Overall, he is disappointed and said the whole process has destroyed what little faith he had left in government.
Though grateful to be living and experiencing much less pain, Mr Burck is upset that he missed out on so many crucial things while dealing with his back pain – especially time with his late father.
He also wanted to be clear that he and his family just ask to be treated fairly.
“I am not asking for financial gain, sir, but simply the reimbursement for my medical costs and expenses associated with the surgery I was forced to seek out of country due to my military injuries, and the fact that it was not available here in Canada,” he stated in the letter to Mr MacAulay.
By Dylan Desroche, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Jan 11, 2023