- Can you share a little bit about your experience in the Canadian military (what regiment you were with, how you got involved, where you served, anything else you are comfortable sharing – for example, I think you’re writing a book about your experiences?).
I was part of the Battle Group in Afghanistan during Operation Athena from 2009-2010. I’d been a reservist with The Royal Westminster Regiment in New Westminster but was hired by 1 PPCLI Regular Forces in Edmonton. There were a few of us reservists attached to the Battle Group. My role overseas was as a rifleman and to carry a bomb jammer to block remote-controlled explosive devices. This sometimes put me in dangerous situations.
I’d volunteered to serve after 9/11, but only after Canada opted not to go to Iraq. I believed in the Afghanistan mission because I was already aware of the Taliban’s actions towards women, children, and other civilians — such as public executions as entertainment — but I did not feel the same about Iraq.
Kandahar Province in Afghanistan in 2009 is a difficult place to describe. The Taliban were trying to win it back. Most of the people were friendly to us, but there was also an insurgency. We would be sniped at or people would bury bombs on the paths or roads during the night. The villagers who were nice to us would sometimes be murdered for helping us. The landscape looked like something out of a Star Wars movie – the desert and mud huts. There were signs of decades of war all around us. The constant smell of burning garbage and the splashes of colour when the opium poppies were in bloom. The poverty was unimaginable. Most people liked our presence because the other options involved corruption, abuse of power, or more fighting.
I lost a friend overseas. There were other deaths of Canadians, Afghan allies, Americans, and even civilians. One night, six of us came under friendly machine gun fire* from an elevated position while we were in an open field. Our Sgt. had gotten us lost and turned on his light-screen GPS without moving us to cover. I still can’t understand how we walked away unscathed. We had an incompetent leader who made a lot of poor decisions so he and I didn’t get along so well. Upper leadership never did much about it so I began to distrust them too. A lot of administrative leadership let us down too, especially from my home regiment, some who I later learned felt jealous I was attached to the Battle Group and slandered me. By the time my tour was over, I had a hard time with military leadership of any level. Authority figures in uniform can still be a problem for me.
I returned to Canada and was diagnosed almost immediately with cancer. This was eventually attributed to the bomb jammer I carried, as other soldiers had gotten sick as well. I’m sometimes not sure if it was, as people chose sides to strongly debate whether or not it caused cancer and whether or not I was the military’s problem. I found out at one point they were supposed to help me based on my contract either way, but VA did eventually say the cancer was related to the device, which I don’t believe they would do unless it was proven as they’re sort of known to dispute everything.
I went through chemotherapy and suffered, and continue to suffer, from a lot of side effects including nerve damage and problems with fatigue and nausea. While I was really sick, around the time I was 150 lbs., I was diagnosed with PTSD. I had no financial support and was isolated away from my family. My girlfriend left when I was at my sickest. I was slandered by several people using my mental health as a tool against me because of the stigma. Things were really bad for a long time and I had to use my soldier mindset to make it through. I was medically released from the army in 2014 and told I could go to school for two years. That’s how I ended up at VIU.
I’m still here and Veteran’s Affairs has helped me at times, which has often come from out of nowhere and is definitely appreciated, but I’m still bitter about paying rent on a credit card and borrowing money when it looked like I wasn’t going to make it. As a reservist, I had fallen between the cracks in the system. I didn’t qualify for any social aid as technically I was employed and the military would not give me documentation stating I had no income. They gave me a payout when I was released so I decided to put myself through school beyond the two years paid for. These one-time payouts instead of a monthly pension are risky. A lot of guys buy trucks and blow it on drinking and bad decisions. I decided to get better educated and find a way to work around my challenges. Recently, VA found out I was still in school and decided to help me finish and even paid me for back time for when I was paying my own way. I’m very grateful for that, but I’d been proud I was doing it on my own too. I’ve only been able to go part time so it’s taken a while, but I’ll graduate with my degree this year.
I tell myself that everything happens for a reason. Being in the writing program, I ended up getting a book published, which was a BC and Amazon Bestseller. Plus VIU’s Crew department has given me two awards for my writing. One of my long-term goals is to write about my tour and return with cancer, and how hard it’s been to reintegrate into society. In general, I think a lot of people in the Nanaimo area are misinformed about the military and are even angry because they have false ideas about a lot of things. What we did over there is referred to as “community policing” under any other context in the world. I would like to share this with people, but I also think my story might be inspirational for others who might have gone through hard times.
People take so many things for granted, but when I notice it in others I like to use it as a reminder for me to be grateful. Clean air and water, they’re the best right?
- What does Remembrance Day mean to you?
Remembrance Day is a difficult day. On the one hand, I think about the soldiers we lost in Afghanistan. There have been a lot of suicides now as well. A lot people have given their lives both overseas and at home. Many of these deaths were preventable. And by “given their lives” I don’t just mean those who ended up in a coffin. The disabled too. Also, families are sometimes the ones who have had it the hardest. They might be the ones who’ve paid the most.
I also think about the courage of our interpreters and wonder how many made it out and how many the Taliban caught up with and killed for helping us. I think about the Afghan soldiers and police and other NATO allies who gave their lives as well.
It’s hard not to think about bureaucracy on Remembrance Day. Poor leadership and members of government not keeping their word or withholding funds from people who needed it. Being a veteran is a lot like being in a permanently abusive relationship. One day you’re being treated like garbage and the next you’re treated like gold. It almost always comes down to politics and money. No matter how much a caseworker or doctor might care, if the government is spending money on other things then it doesn’t matter. It might seem like I’m off topic here but I’m not. I think a lot about bureaucracy on Remembrance Day.
Some people say that Remembrance Day is only for honouring the dead. I see it as a time to honour sacrifices, including the wounded, but even the act of service itself.
I think it’s important that I acknowledge there are veterans from other missions, and police and navy and others. But it’s hard not to think about our tour and our mission. I’m a lot more self-centered on Remembrance Day than I wish I were. Afghanistan isn’t the only thing I should be thinking about but it’s hard not to. Especially when I hear the bagpipes.
- Is there anything you wish was done differently on Remembrance Day?
I have a problem with a lot of things about Remembrance Day. Many of us are pretty low key about our tours or service, but there are people who want to bask in glory who never really did what they’re implying they have. Most of the Legion’s members have never even served nowadays, but they give out their own medals I guess. There are a lot of medals passed around between officers as well. So, a lot of times, you see people with medals strutting around and the only person who has ever been in the dangerous role you think of, or dealt with the dying wounded (medics are unsung heroes) is being pushed to the side because they’ve only ever received a service medal. It’s been this way with previous wars too. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I wish the whole ceremony and day was treated differently. The Canadian military is an antiquated caste system based on Feudalism. Those who are sent to fight are traditionally those who are the most expendable. Most countries use this system based on tradition, but it doesn’t translate well into ceremony or reality in this day and age.
There’s also a lot of stolen valour in Nanaimo. Because I’m low key, people usually go too far with their story before they realize I know they’re lying. I know people who have served in the Special Forces don’t go around talking about it. But on Remembrance Day these guys are everywhere. They usually have some military background but not what they’re claiming. I tell my friends that if it sounds like something from out of a movie then it’s definitely made up. I think these guys are largely to blame for the misconceptions about the military here.
The other thing is the drinking. All of the suicides I’m aware of involved alcohol. Military pride a lot of times is connected to health and fitness so it doesn’t fit well with those who are soldier minded or on a path of healing. It’s another out-dated concept to go out drinking. It probably made sense when there were large numbers of veterans from other conflicts needing to bond and let off some steam or whatever, but I don’t see it as a positive tradition anymore. Guys don’t always represent themselves well either.
- How do you typically spend Remembrance Day?
I have a lot of respect for everyone who honours Remembrance Day. All of the people at the sides of the road wearing poppies and braving the cold, they have soldier-like spirits to me. Anyone who marches too, no matter how critical I might otherwise be. But it’s a hard day for me for some of the reasons I’ve mentioned.
If I go to a ceremony, I’ll generally blend in with the crowd. I usually pin my service medal onto my regular jacket, which might look strange, but I was told once that I owe it to those who didn’t come home to wear theirs. Sometimes, my medal will be invisible in my pocket, with my hand wrapped around it. Some years I just stay home. It’s hard to describe how much anxiety I can get and how my mind spins. My danger sense is through the roof being in a crowd and stepping back into my soldier mindset. Plus, I’m thinking about specific incidents or people, which can be a difficult thing to do in public. I have problems standing because of my knee and deal with fatigue sometimes too. I’m a bit of a mess. So, I might be at a ceremony and I might not be. I’ve gone with a buddy to look at all the poppies left behind after the ceremony too. He served as well. It was the best year.
It matters to me that people remember. People used to write supportive things on Facebook and add my name and then say something about PTSD or something stupid even before I recognized I was having problems. I ask people not to recognize veterans this way. Don’t assume you know what it’s like. Any of it. People’s ideas are so out of whack sometimes that it blows my mind. It is the most alien thing a person can do on this planet to put on that uniform and put yourself in that kind of danger willingly against another armed opponent. Even peacekeeping missions. People don’t presume to know what it’s like to do almost anything half as common, yet when it comes to military service, they can take a lot of liberties based almost entirely on TV and the Internet.
On Remembrance Day, when we recognize our fallen and wounded, we collectively agree that we should only put people’s lives on the line after careful consideration. And people do need to care, because if they don’t then neither will the politicians.
These answers were given to VIU News, who intended to publish them this Saturday, the day before Remembrance Day. I’ve been told they are no longer planning to share this due to the suicide on campus. Not because it’s directly related, but because VIU News has been dealing with that situation instead of preparing material for Remembrance Day. As I put a lot of time into this, I decided to share it here. The beautiful poppy I’m wearing was a gift from fellow VIU student and friend Shelby Brown, who knew I was doing this interview. Thank you for honouring me this way 🙂
I’ve made an edit since I published this marked with an asterisk(*). I had said “heavy friendly machine gun fire.” I removed the word “heavy” because it might not be interpreted accurately. Our Sgt. turned on his GPS light, we were shot at by a rifle. Two of us returned fire. A machine gun then opened up and there were several bursts. As soon as this happened we knew where we were so were waiting without cover to be hit while people were trying to talk to the Afghan Army position through radio translators. So, it wasn’t D-Day machinegun fire or anything, so I removed the word for accuracy. I later learned the Sgt. put the blame on me because I was the reservist and one of the people who returned fire. My section went to upper leadership (which I didn’t learn about until later) and told them what had really happened. Respect for 1PPCLI, Charlie Company.
As a final note, I’ve mentioned veterans and stolen valour above so I think I should make it clear that I’m reluctant to confront anyone directly at this time. There’s an artillery officer that hangs around disabled veterans with verified false stories and two suspicious medals. He wears Airborne Regiment clothing, fake dog tags, and regiment identifiers on his truck. They might not be able to recognize that their presence is being used to endorse his story. I’ve also been in the room when a reservist from the regiment here was called out by fellow Nanaimo veteran Ken Lee for telling false stories about his service. There were two of them involved. I’ve also heard from other veterans of another more public figure, well known in the community making claims that weren’t true. There are others too. Most of these guys talk about “confirmed kills” and other Hollywood craziness. There was also a Nanaimo resident who published and publically read an anti-infantry piece insinuating he was a veteran when he is not. Being bullied — while terrible — does not justify blanket statements of hate towards any group of people one knows nothing about, especially when the opposite is being implied.