NEWS
07/02/2011 04:24 EDT | Updated 09/01/2011 05:12 EDT

End Of Afghanistan Combat Not The End Of Battle For Soldiers

CP

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- VANCOUVER - Bombardier Matt Coles remembers thinking the bullets had missed him.

In the frenzied moments after he and his sergeant were sprayed by a volley of accidental fire as they prepared to go out on patrol in Kandahar city, Coles lay in the dust and thought maybe he hadn't been hit at all.

Then he remembers pulling his hands away from his leg to see it covered in blood. The bullet had hit him above his left knee, ricocheted off the bone, and ripped an exit through the other side of his leg. En route, it broke his femur and tore through a vein.

Beside Coles lay the sergeant, his legs and abdomen riddled with bullets, bleeding from his femoral arteries.

"Right away, you do think you're going to die — I mean, when someone gets shot in a movie they die, right? Everybody knows that," said Coles, a wise-cracking soldier from Chilliwack, B.C., whose life experiences belie his 20 years of life.

But the realization soon dawned that help was close at hand, since the two soldiers were still inside the confines of the Canadian base at Camp Nathan Smith, with medics and a field hospital close at hand.

"At first, you know — 'OK, all right, I'm not going to die, I'm just going to lose my leg,' and then you try and cope with that," Coles said. Had they not been on the base, the sergeant would likely not have survived, he added.

Coles and his sergeant — the two of them are still recovering from the "friendly fire" incident in February 2010 that nearly took their lives — were among the more than 1,800 Canadian soldiers wounded in Afghanistan as of the end of last year.

By the time the combat mission ends next month, that number will surely be higher.

Of those, 615 troops were wounded in action by improvised explosive devices, mines, rocket attacks and direct fire, as well as friendly fire related to combat action and "acute psychological trauma directly attributable to combat action that required medical intervention."

Another 1,244 suffered unspecified "non-battle injuries."

Not all wounds are easy to see.

Yan Berube joined the military straight out of high school, alongside his best friend, Ainsworth Dyer. The two young men served their first overseas tour in Bosnia, and found themselves in Afghanistan in the first wave of Canadian soldiers after Canada joined the coalition.

Dyer was one of four Canadian soldiers killed April 18, 2002, when a U.S. F-16 fighter mistakenly bombed them on a pre-dawn training exercise. Dyer, Sgt. Marc Leger, Pte. Richard Green and Pte. Nathan Smith were Canada's first casualties of the war.

Berube later returned to Afghanistan in the full throes of what the military calls operational stress injury, more commonly known as post-traumatic stress.

He had two near-death incidents during that second tour, said his lawyer Dennis Evans, who spoke to The Canadian Press on behalf of his client in hopes of raising public awareness of his plight and that of others like him.

"He was basically trying to kill himself," said Evans, who came face to face with the fallout from Berube's invisible wounds when his legal saga played out in a B.C. courtroom, garnering extensive local media coverage along the way.

Upon his return to Canada, Berube was released from the Canadian Forces and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now living in a small town on Vancouver Island, Berube abused alcohol and drugs, didn't sleep and didn't leave his house, Evans said.

Berube did seek help, and through Veterans Affairs had a nurse who came to his home five days a week and a psychiatrist he met with once a week.

He was doing well — for a while.

According to court documents, a thief broke into Berube's home and stole his military service medals. His life went careening out of control. His psychologist wrote a letter to Veterans Affairs urging immediate psychiatric help, but two days later it was already too late.

Berube, accused of threatening the man he believed responsible for stealing his medals, had a gun and wanted to die. A nurse who visited him at his home realized he was suicidal.

"There he was, he had this loaded gun, although he wasn't pointing it at her or anything like that, but he said he was going to kill himself with it or he was going to force the police to do it," Evans said.

The nurse refused to leave. Outside, the officer sent to the scene spoke French and, as luck would have it, was a former soldier himself. Together, they convinced Berube to put the gun down and come out.

Berube pleaded guilty to a weapons charge on the understanding he would go to treatment and avoid jail time, but the charge that was presented to the judge in court carried a mandatory minimum three-year sentence.

The judge acknowledged the error, as well as the fact Berube had not agreed to serve three years in prison, and stayed the charge. The Crown is appealing that decision.

Berube entered treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder earlier this year, but Evans hasn't been able to contact him since. Efforts to reach him for this story have been fruitless.

Commodore Hans Jung, the surgeon general of the Canadian Forces, doesn't like to distinguish between the physical and mental wounds. Often, he said, they go hand in hand.

"After an injury, their lives are different — it's as simple as that, and you have to adapt to the new norm," Jung said.

"Life has changed. You cannot go back. It's just not possible, so our challenge is to try to work with them as a partner, as a team, to say, 'What is your new norm and what is the best you can do with that, so you can be content and move on and spend the rest of your career and life in the most productive manner?'"

For more than a decade, Jung and his health service team have been revamping the way they work in order to better meet the needs of a new generation of war veterans — and they believe they are well-prepared.

An extra $100 million has gone into mental health services, including multi-disciplinary and multi-organizational centres that have opened up across the country to provide "one-stop shopping" for vets and their families.

The military has invested in cutting-edge technology for physical rehabiliation, and hired psychologists and other mental health professionals. Money has not been an issue, he said.

"I can tell you right now, based on my discussions with the departmental and military leadership, they are fully committed to providing the necessary support. I have not had an issue with that."

Sen. Romeo Dallaire, the retired Canadian Forces general, said much has changed since he went public in 1997 with his own struggles with post-traumatic stress, following his United Nations mission during the Rwandan genocide.

About 20 per cent of returning soldiers will likely experience operational stress injury, he said. Others have certainly been changed by their experience, but not necessarily in a negative way.

The Senate is poised to resume its review of the new Veterans Charter, which altered in 2006 the system of benefits for soldiers to replace the guaranteed lifetime pensions with a sliding scale of lump-sum payments and other benefits for disabilities.

Under the new charter, disabled soldiers are eligible for a maximum payout of $285,000 — even the most severely injured, some of whom lost multiple limbs to Taliban IEDs.

"My assessment is that in the longer term, our veterans — who a number of them have more combat time that World War II vets, and some of it in the most complex scenarios because it's not a readily identifiable enemy and so on — may not be getting the long-term care and support that our World War II vets got," said Dallaire.

As the casualties in Afghanistan mounted, soldiers began speaking out about the changes to the charter, which took effect while they were settling into a long, hard fight in the insurgent heartland of Kandahar province.

Former veteran's ombudsman Pat Stogran, a career soldier, was fired after speaking out about the Conservative government's "insurance company mentality" toward taking care of the new crop of military veterans.

Dallaire said he agrees.

"You've committed yourself to potentially putting your life on the line, some of you have died, some of you are significantly injured," he said.

"That means the Canadian people, through (their) government, have a lifelong responsibility to support you and your family. That seems to have been lost in the new charter."

Under intense public pressure, the government made changes to the new Veterans Charter this spring that provide more cash and support to the most seriously wounded veterans. They do not, however, increase the size of the lump-sum payouts; rather, they allow soldiers to spread out the payments over time.

Dallaire said the Senate is determined to come up with meaningful changes. If the Conservatives persist in putting savings ahead of soldiers, the coming years could well see former Canadian troops in the jails, in the streets, and in the morgue, he warned.

For them, the war in Afghanistan is far from over.

"The war for the veterans is going to be ongoing until they get full treatment, them and their families, and compensation," Dallaire said.

"They're going to be living it for years yet."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the changes to the Veterans Charter died on the order paper when the 2011 election was called.