Just after the seventh anniversary of "the incident," I write this piece to share with you the ordeal of a veteran trying to get his pension; this is my story.
On September 4, 2006, I — along with 60 other soldiers — was accidently strafed by an American A-10 Warthog during Operation Medusa. During that hazy morning, poor communication with the ground forces and those in the air, improper guidance (the airplane was told to "look for the fire" while the man on the ground was unaware that the Canadian position behind him had just lit a fire), and a trigger-happy pilot changed my life forever. While eating my breakfast, without warning I was tossed into the air like a rag doll, landing face-first on top of a rocky mountain. I lost consciousness immediately. Upon waking, to my horror, my right arm was flopping uncontrollably. "My worst nightmare is coming true," I thought to myself, "I have lost my right arm. Why else would it be flopping around like a fish out of water?" Fortunately, when I went to grab it, I realized that it was still attached to my body; I checked my other appendages, and when I discovered they were all attached, I let out a huge sigh of relief. That is when the blood began to pour onto my face.
I do not know if I had been bleeding previously while I conducted my extremity check, but I do know this: once I sighed in relief, a fountain of thick, dark, red blood began to run over my face. My initial instinct was to try and catch the blood, save it, if you will. It was only after I had both of my hands overflowing that I realized my folly and I dropped the coagulating blood onto the dusty ground. I can still see the scabbing mess and sand mixing together. I knew I was injured, and though I was unaware of how badly, the sight of all that blood told me to get help. The injury to my head was so severe that I could not lift it, let alone my body, so I dragged myself, my face on the ground scraping against the jagged rocks as I tried to seek medical assistance. When I reached Master Corporal Jeff Rainey I heard him ask people around me how one "treats a penetrating head injury?" He gingerly placed a military issued field dressing over my open wound - although I was unaware, my skull had been blown open and my brain was exposed - and offered me words of support. The good Master Corporal would soon go down from shock due to his own injuries, and my care and life were placed in the hands of Private Greg Bird. As he too offered me words of support, I came to the realization that I was going to die.
As he too offered me words of support, I came to the realization that I was going to die.
In that moment, lying on that mountain in the arms of Private Bird, I made a decision that haunts me to this day. As I lay there bleeding to death, waiting for a military medical evacuation, I gave up. The most precious gift one is given, I turned my back on. I made my peace with God, stopped caring, and began to send telepathic messages to my loved ones back in Canada. It was at this time that two of my friends from Windsor, Ont., Corporals Jerry Day and Mike Farrah, carried me on a stretcher to a casualty collection point. Corporal Day would later tell me that he could see the yellow liquid from my brain pouring out of my ears and head. Literally caked in my blood, both men kissed my face, thinking that it was the last time they would see me alive.
From the collection point, I was airlifted to Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar where I underwent a first surgery to clean up the damage the 30 mm, electrically charged, explosive, uranium-based bullet had done. Go to YouTube and search the devastation that the A-10 Warthog rains upon its victims. In just one second, 180 rounds - bullets the size of an average man's forearm - spew death and destruction, and have the capacity to cut through metal like butter. Now imagine what the A-10 can do to humans who get in its way. My injuries from the friendly fire were so severe that when my aunt spoke to the doctor about to perform surgery on me in Afghanistan and asked him my chances of pulling through, he told her my odds of survival were 50:50.
I made a decision that haunts me to this day ... I gave up.
From Kandahar I was flown to Landstuhl, Germany where I had a second surgery; a week after that I was in Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. Overall I would have 5% of my brain removed. A piece of uranium, about the size of a water bottle cap, was too deep to retrieve and is still buried in my head. If I could describe the pain of the swelling and the headaches that morphine often could not mask I would, but I fear my writing ability could never give the pain I endured the justice it deserves. To feel your heart beat in your skull, each pulse a staggering blow -- some 60 plus times per minute - is something that I would never wish upon even my worst enemies. The injury robbed me of some of the most basic functions, the daily things most of us take for granted: reading, writing, walking, and talking. My speech was slurred, I needed a walker to move ten feet, and I was terrified -- "what if they did not come back," I thought. "I am 22 years old and now I could very well be handicapped." The only positives I can take from this experience were my will to recover and my family; without these two, I do not know how I could have improved.
Thankfully, through rigorous occupational and physical therapies, I was able to regain these basic life skills; however, there are lingering effects. My short-term memory is all but gone, thus my long-term memory is severely lacking. Conversations are had twice, appointments are forgotten, names are never remembered, bills are not paid, days are lost, and plans are made on top of other plans. I do not remember to take out food to thaw, I leave laundry in the washing machine for days, and reading articles for school is a nightmare. I need to write down lists and put appointments in my phone -- if an event is not marked down then forget about me being there. In May, I met 12 new people at one time and it was only after over a week of constant contact that I was able to remember all of their names.
(Photo: HuffPost Canada)
But that is not all of the negative side effects my injury has caused me. I also fatigue when I mentally exert myself, with high levels of concentration akin to running a marathon. If I have to focus for longer than two hours, I need eight to recover. When I get tired I am miserable and useless, the fatigue forcing me to lie down. When I push myself too far, I shut down and cannot focus. I was going to start this letter last night after working for eight hours, but was too tired to even begin. The fatigue really handicaps my ability to push myself, and if I do not take those necessary breaks I become angry and irritable -- friends and family don't want to be around me, they do not understand what it is like to be so tired that falling asleep is the only way for me to be normal again. No amount of coffee, Red Bull, or other pick me ups will help. When I push myself too far I know I have to stop and rest. Reading for hours with no break is like climbing a mountain for me. Climbing a mountain would not be a problem, but reading a book about climbing mountains is another story.
My temper is another point of contention, and was sparked with "the incident" in 2006. The frustration of my injury was hard to cope with and thus I took it out on those around me. I have alienated family, lost relationships, and made enemies out of friends. Learning to cope and seeking help has led to a recent diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Having both a head injury and PTSD has been a trial in itself, but coming to terms with it was a journey that I had to take, one that I am glad I do not have to go through again. The two play off each other in a symbiotic relationship: I fatigue, therefore I am angry, and once I am too tired to fight the PTSD, it comes out.
For a soldier, the battle does not end once you leave the warzone.
For a soldier, the battle does not end once you leave the warzone. I will be fighting the effects of my injuries from "the incident" for the rest of my life, and that is why I am writing this piece. Over the past seven years I have been fighting another battle, one for a pension that befits the injury and the effects that the terrible day in Afghanistan left me with. I have sought the help of my MP, doctors, the media, the military ombudsmen, and Veterans Affairs, but they have all left me no further ahead than when I started, and with the startling conclusion that 5% of a soldier's brain is worth a mere $22,000.
After my injury, the paperwork was endless, and I was warned by fellow veterans to stay on top of it, because "you don't want to fall between the cracks in this system." At the time, however, I was more worried about recovering -- walking and talking -- than paperwork surrounding my pension. But as I began to recover and seek the financial compensation I believed I was due, I realized that I was nearing the edge of a crater. In Windsor, Ont., a border town that might as well be a thousand miles outside of Canada, soldiers are forgotten. The desolate outpost that is Windsor Veterans Affairs has been deemed obsolete, and thanks to budget cuts all the veterans that depend on its services will be forced to travel over an hour and a half away to London by 2014. In 2006, I submitted four claims of CF 98s (military forms that soldiers fill out when injured) to Windsor Veterans Affairs for injuries sustained that fateful day. In addition to the head injury and the PTSD, I was also shot in the back and buttocks.
Bruce poses for a portrait outside of his home after arriving in Windsor, Ont. in 2014. (Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
From here they said they wanted to wait until I was "fully recovered" or deemed militarily fit for duty before making a decision on how much to compensate me. Although I had taken the necessary steps and submitted the proper paperwork, the process would have to begin once again when I was medically fit. The more time that went by, the further down the cracks I fell. I then had an appointment to get assessed by a doctor, where he did little better than a physical and saw me for all of five minutes. The months dragged on, and eventually Veterans Affairs came to the decision that I have spent years refuting.
Before I go any further I feel that an explanation about the compensation, appeal, and assessment process is due. According to the "meat chart" of the Canadian Forces, there are pre-determined monetary amounts that the military will pay for the loss of a body part -- an arm or a leg will earn the highest amount, an award of $250,000. Unfortunately for me, the brain -- arguably the most vital organ in the human body -- is not on this "meat chart" and therefore, is not worth anything. Further, Canadian soldiers can request unlimited reassessments of their injuries, but can appeal a decision only once. This information was not made available to me until just recently and I was going to use my only appeal without being told that it would make more sense to get a reassessment. This is one of many examples of the ineptitude of Veteran Affairs Canada.
The pension system is undeniably flawed. In 2002 the Liberal government realized that they could save millions of dollars by doing away with monthly compensation payments and instead giving lump-sum payments to veterans of more recent engagements. However, each injury is assessed at a percentage of the maximum allowable reimbursement: $250,000. My injury remains listed at 10 percent. For some reason, I received $22,000, rather than $25,000, which is 10 percent of $250,000. I don't understand the math Veterans Affairs uses.
To say I was angered by the decision of Veterans Affairs is an understatement. Betrayed, hurt, and horrified are even better ways to describe my reaction.
Since the changes made by the Liberal government, the new Conservative government have pointed out that the current pension system is a Liberal mandate for which they are not responsible. However, they have yet to do anything to change this system and have only muddied the waters further by refusing to reform the clearly flawed Veterans organization. Veterans Affairs is headquartered out of the way in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and is in complete shambles. When I got my original settlement in 2008 I was given a cheque -- no explanation, no break down, just a cheque. $22,000 was all I got; a slap to the face, 10 percent of the money to retire on. In comparison, there are clerks in the military -- those who sit behind a desk doing paperwork -- who received 13 percent of the $250,000 for the carpal tunnel syndrome in their wrists.
To say I was angered by the decision of Veterans Affairs is an understatement. Betrayed, hurt, and horrified are even better ways to describe my reaction. I had done everything the Canadian Forces had asked of me. I constantly defended the honour of the Forces while at home, and fought fiercely overseas. And yet, when it came time to repay me for my personal service, I received nothing. I immediately rejected the offer from Veterans Affairs and awaited a reply about what I had to do from there. But as I waited, I continued to fall further down the cracks; my story was no longer newsworthy, and I was forgotten just like all the soldiers had warned me I might be. In 2010 I decided to contact the military ombudsman who told me that there was nothing he could do, and that I should contact Veterans Affairs.
I did not think I could feel any lower, and finally it seemed fate would step in.
I did just that and again I said that I wanted to appeal my decision. They said that I could choose from a list of military-approved legal representation, but my lawyer would not be covered because they did not want to pay the gas mileage for him to travel to and from London. Furthermore, they said that they would contact me with the date and time for my appeal, but nothing happened. When I called back, Veterans Affairs produced more excuses, saying they had no idea I had wanted an appeal, or that my file was being held because I had not signed a release; in essence, I felt I was getting the run around. It was incompetence on a level of criminal negligence. My aunt says it best: "As a small business owner, if I ran my company like the military I would be in jail."
From here I contacted my Federal MP, the Honorable Jeff Watson, who, like everyone before him, admitted he knew little or nothing about the quagmire that is Veterans Affairs. He was of little use and the only thing that I took out of the meeting I had with him was that a Canadian soldier only gets to appeal his decision once but a refugee coming into Canada has multiple appeals to delay deportation. He also welcomed the idea of me going to the press, and so I approached the Windsor Star and asked them for help to share my story. Unfortunately, I was unhappy with the Star's story and felt that its portrayal of me made my situation worse.
I did not think I could feel any lower, and finally it seemed fate would step in. My diagnosis with PTSD brought me to my case-manager Colleen, who put me in contact with Randy, a former Veterans Affairs employee who the Windsor Legion hired to help soldiers get their claims. Finally after six years of going in circles it felt like I was getting somewhere. I was being noticed and I was no longer falling between the cracks. I was then informed that before I appealed I was to ask for a reassessment because I could ask for as many of those as I wanted; I was told I should look at using my only appeal as a last ditch effort. This piece of information had not been made available to me in any way by Veterans Affairs. Throughout this journey they have said that they understand and are trying to help me, but as the seventh anniversary has passed, it does not feel like I am any further ahead than I was when the process began.
(Photo: HuffPost Canada)
After my reassessment I felt better about my chances of being fairly assessed, but in February of 2013 I was informed that my reassessment came back with no change. I could not believe it -- after years of trying to tell doctors, neurologists, Veterans Affairs officials, and anyone who would listen of the fatigue, short-term memory loss, and PTSD that plagues me, this was the result.
I was devastated. But it was only on August 12, 2013, that I reached my final level of exasperation. I received a phone call from a woman working on my case asking me about what I was appealing. She explained that Veterans Affairs had classified my injury under Table 20.58 for soldiers suffering from headaches -- not penetrating head injuries, but headaches. A soldier afflicted with chronic migraines is in the same category as I am. The woman informed me that I am at the second highest level (a nine) and that she could move my pension up one level (to a thirteen) -- which is the highest it can go -- and would increase my pension by another 5 percent. Apparently to Veterans Affairs, getting shot in the head in Afghanistan is the same as working in an office and suffering from headaches, a detail they have kept from me over the past seven years. When I explained what I had been through to her, as I have done in this piece -- the missing 5 percent of my brain, the surgeries, the lost faculties, the pain and suffering, the memory loss, and the fatigue -- she informed me that she would do some research, because there is currently no standard monetary compensation for soldiers with brain injuries.
Canada, I fought for you and you let me down.
I am now at my wits' end and this is what I want: no more Conservative gestures, no more moral outrages from the public that last less than a week, and an end to watching 90-year-old men who fought in Dieppe, Normandy, and Korea suffering through over 60 years of grief. My medals are in a sandwich bag at the bottom of my underwear drawer, and I now tell all prospective military recruits to explore all other options. The big green machine will eat you alive. I write this piece from the Mariana Trench because I have fallen as far between the cracks as one can possibly go. And I am not an isolated case; there are hundreds of soldiers like me. I want my brains in a jar and you can keep the comical pension you offer. I want to remember again, I want to write a little over give pages and not need a nap. I want dramatic changes to the Veterans Affairs office.
There have been shining lights amongst all the bad. My family, friends, Colleen, and Randy have all been there for me and for that I say: I give up. I am waving the white flag, beaten, battered, and heartbroken.
Canada, I fought for you and you let me down. There is nothing more I can do, and now I need to put my focus on the people I love. Lesson learned...hopefully I remember it.
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