How a Canadian Soldier Escaped Death in Afghanistan

By March of this year, 162 Canadians—158 soldiers and four civilians—had lost their lives in the 10 years of the Afghanistan campaign. But it’s the plight of the wounded, who must adapt to often unimaginably difficult lives, that brings home the truth of the extraordinary sacrifice soldiers make. The lives not just of the injured men and women, but also of their loved ones, are forever altered by war’s cruel lottery: an IED by the side of the road, a sniper’s bullet that finds its target, or, for Capt. Trevor Greene, an axe wielded by a deranged young Afghan militant.

The son of an RCMP officer, Greene grew up in Ontario and Nova Scotia. He graduated from King’s College, Halifax, and travelled to Japan, where he taught English and tried his hand at journalism before becoming “bored and frustrated.” He also grew more conscious of the “military thread” in his family that reached back to his grandfather’s participation in the First World War. He applied to Edinburgh and Oxford Universities, but also to the Canadian Forces, was accepted, and returned home in 1995 to enlist.

“I had a grandiose, if immature, compulsion to become a foreign correspondent,” Greene told me. “After graduation, I felt the need to travel and to hone whatever were my nascent skills. I found myself in Japan with little idea of how to actually set about becoming a foreign correspondent. I knew I had the foreign bit down, but beyond letters home I was at a loss as to the greater process, and after seven years of searching I felt the need to serve something bigger than myself. This is where my family’s tradition of service came to the fore. I have always been acutely cognizant of the advantages and blessings of being Canadian, especially during my time at university when my worldview was expanded exponentially. I felt a debt to those who sacrificed so much to forge such a peaceful, prosperous nation. I saw my military service as a way to repay that debt.”

An author (his book, Bad Date: The Lost Girls of Vancouver’s Low Track, was published in 2001), Greene was stationed in Vancouver with the Seaforth Highlanders when, in January 2006, he was deployed to Afghanistan as a civil military cooperation officer (CIMIC) with a platoon of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The devastating injury he suffered two months into his deployment occurred at a shura, a meeting with tribal elders that he was conducting in Shinkay village, in what he knew to be the most dangerous region in Kandahar province.

The Afghan’s axe cleaved the back of Greene’s unprotected head. (He had taken off his helmet and put it aside as a deferential gesture.) The blow “flipped the bone inside out” and left him with a 12-centimetre fracture. Greene, instantly unconscious, his notepad spattered with blood, was thrust to the ground before his assailant attempted to remove the axe for a second blow. The Afghani was shot dead before he could do so by Rob Dolson, another soldier in the group.

The attack was the cue for an ambush, and a firefight ensued before Greene could be flown out. The medic, Shaun Marshall, held Greene’s head together until the grievously wounded officer could be put on a stretcher and evacuated from the battlefield to the base in Kandahar, his heavily bandaged head tilted backwards at a grotesque angle. A nurse, Maria Streppa, argued with the Medevac team, who saw no realistic prospect for the injured soldier, for his swift expedition to hospital in Frankfurt.

At the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Greene was maintained in a coma while pieces of his skull were removed (because of severe intracranial pressure) and his body fought perilous infections. One tube fed oxygen down his trachea; another piped nutrients to his stomach. Pumps forced blood to circulate in the legs his traumatized brain could no longer manage. Ten days later, he was returned by air ambulance to Vancouver.

There is no overstating either the gravity of Greene’s injury or the astonishing fact of his recovery, a five-year, ongoing journey back to health that has surely been, by any normal reckoning, miraculous. His physical and spiritual endurance owe their success to medical sciences (everything from the insertion of porous polyethylene plates into his skull to the use of medicinal honey to disinfect wounds, a technique traced back to Ancient Egypt), and to counselling and alternative healing, and to the nearly messianic love of his remarkable wife Debbie Lepore and their child Grace.

The first months were terrifying and erratic with blood clots, the possible removal of a lung (that did not happen), a failed surgery to repair the back of his skull, fitful breathing, several trips to the ICU, the paralysis of his legs, and a pharmacopia of medication. It was a year before there were any truly encouraging signs that the surgeries and therapies were having palpable effects. Tortuous depression and post-traumatic stress disorder ensued.

When they met, Debbie told me, “We both felt like we had known each other for a long time, and we fell into an easy relationship instantly. He was the type of person I had idealized as my partner: intelligent, principled, honest, humorous, masculine, compassionate, with good family values and, to be honest, a little crazy—though in a good sense, rather than in a reckless way. As for Trevor, I think what he saw in me was a sense of peace and stability that was missing from his life.”

Greene’s odyssey is chronicled in the couple’s jointly written memoir, March Forth; Greene’s pain and thoughtfulness and Debbie’s vital combination of inspired resolve and steadfast refusal to abandon hope are expressed in alternating chapters. Especially striking is the temper and clarity of Greene’s analyses. Here is a man who, rendered suicidally depressed and abusive by PTSD, is now able to look back upon his experience with extraordinary level-headedness.

“We didn’t have the benefit of a hand-over briefing about the key players or situations on the ground in which we’d be required to make tactical decisions,” recalled Greene. “Knowing this, we wrote and swapped research papers on all things Afghan. One of mine was on pzashtunwali, a millennia-old contract that holds Pashtuns to an immutable moral code of conduct commanding that hospitality, forgiveness, and justice be extended to strangers and even enemies. When, on March 4, 2006, I laid my weapon down and removed my helmet, I had faith that this set of customs would protect me from attack.” This preconception was, he said laconically, “rudely dashed.”

Greene writes of going to war “with a superbly trained army equipped with sophisticated weaponry”-only to be almost killed by a teenager wielding a Stone Age weapon. His acceptance of this irony reflects the compassionate values Debbie first saw in him a decade ago. The couple has established the Greene Family Education Initiative, “to train women in conflict zones as teachers and so to empower future generations.”

“I knew my enemy was the parochial, feudalistic, misogynist mindset of the village elders,” explained Greene. “They would roar with knee-slapping mirth when I asked whether, if I built them a school, they would allow girls to attend.”
Running the foundation falls into Greene’s idea of what it means for anyone, civilian or soldier, active or retired, to be a warrior. “The warrior culture is alive and well throughout all levels of Canadian society,” he said. “It expresses itself in the conventional ways, like the armed forces and police, where the fine line between aggression and self-control is tested every day and makes the difference between life and death, control and chaos.

“But in everyday life there are ‘warriors’ as well. After I was wounded, my best friend, Barb Stegemann, chose to carry on my mission by empowering Afghan farmers to farm legal crops—such as orange blossoms and roses, to make perfume for the lucrative North American market—rather than opium poppies, the cultivation of which, by the way, is forbidden by the Koran. Barb is a warrior because she’s saving lives by empowering the farmers who are denying the Taliban a poppy crop as surely as if she were a combat soldier defending a position or a CIMIC officer providing access to clean water.”

Greene believes “There has to be a diplomatic, not military, solution to the mess in Afghanistan,” and remembers Glyn Berry, the Canadian diplomat who was working as part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar when he was killed in January 2006, in this mould.

“Glyn was a Canadian diplomatic warrior who forsook a comfy posting in New York to help work for a solution in Afghanistan,” wrote Greene, “and ultimately he was shattered by the same sort of roadside bomb on the country’s dusty roads that is destroying corporals and privates.”

The reconstruction teams in Afghanistan were designed to combine military, developmental, and diplomatic elements in an effort to win the hearts and minds of Afghan civilians and ally them with the soldiers of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in their fight against the Taliban insurgency. It was an organizational model developed by the United States military with an inherently Canadian disposition.

“In my opinion,” wrote Greene, “the traits that characterize the Canadian Forces are the tight-knit family dynamics of units; the inclusion, as far as possible, of spouses and kids in most aspects of regimental life; pride in passing along hard-won skills and a belief in hard training, optimism, unselfishness along with a strong instinct for professional development.”

In the letter that the Canadian Forces has every soldier compose before their deployment, in anticipation of the dreadful possibility, Trevor wrote Debbie, “Please do not view my death as a sacrifice. I took a soldier’s chance and I lost. But I understand that I died defending you and Grace as surely as if I had died defending you both from an intruder in our own home.”

He’s adamant, both in that letter and in March Forth, about the desire to secure oppressed peoples against “the hatred of these fanatics” that motivated him to enroll. But he’s also more disposed than many soldiers have been, in their combat role of the last decade, to recognize the country’s legacy of peacekeeping in the particular character of the Canadian military.

“Peacekeeping has given us several things,” said Greene. “It has allowed us to comfortably feel that we have done our best to help poor souls unfortunate enough to have been caught between enemies, rather than our behaving like well-heeled burghers stepping carefully around dirty children squabbling. But it has also given our armed forces a raison d’être in a largely peaceful world. I haven’t seen the ‘lessons learned’ digest yet, so I don’t know how the Afghan War experiences will translate to the peacekeeping model. But humbly, I’d say that our new CIMIC authority has given our peacekeeping capability a huge boost.”

Greene had been part of the first CIMIC detachment to engage in combat operations in Kandahar province. What, at the start of his deployment, did he think about the killing demanded of the Canadian soldier in his warrior role?

“I was part of Task Force Orion,” said Greene. “We conducted Operation Archer, the first combat operation in Kandahar in 2006—note the hunting references—and Lieut-Col Grossman gave a talk to our battle group shortly before we deployed. But this may be a question better answered by combat troops like Rob Dolson, the soldier who was on my left when the axe swung down.

“Most Canadian Forces weapons training, similar to police training, is keyed to immediate reaction without thinking, and I remember coming away from Lieut-Col Grossman’s talk with the hope that I would never be in a situation where I had to kill an insurgent at close range. But Rob had drilled intensively—as had many of the combat troops—in a quick-reaction technique called Gunfighter, and instinctively he fired the first round into my attacker as he struggled to pull the axe out of my head.”

Greene still thinks about the road that lies ahead for Afghanistan. “My platoon operated out of a patrol base on the top of a mesa on the periphery of the massive Red Sands desert, one that looks like its name. I recall looking out on that bleakness and having an epiphany about how a people who could survive on that blasted heath could never be subjugated.

“Despite the recent massacre of Afghan civilians by an American soldier, I see our training mission succeeding and the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police realizing they are the country’s best hope for the future. And I see the Taliban—who have to be hurting—negotiating a ceasefire with the government.”

And what does he see for himself? “I’ll be helping raise my newborn son and seven-year-old daughter,” he said. “I’ll be writing a provocative blog and running our foundation-that, and finally going for walks hand in hand
with my lovely, strong, incredible warrior wife.”