About the Author

John Conrad

John Conrad has served thirty-three years in the Canadian Armed Forces. A bestselling author and colonel in the Canadian Army reserve, he works today as a civilian executive with the Province of Alberta. He has authored a number of books and articles on Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, including What the Thunder Said, a Military Book of the Month club selection in 2009. Conrad currently resides in Sherwood Park, Alberta.

Books by this Author
Among the Walking Wounded
Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

It upsets me that I do not even know their names. Canadian soldiers. No matter what form the dream takes, I can never recall who they were. I often wonder about that. Shouldn’t I at least know who they were? I wonder too where they are today. Do they think about that far-away afternoon west of Kandahar as often as I do? A suicide attack has killed some of us and brought our column to a halt. Do they see our stricken convoy in the same near-perfect focus — a collection of discrete images rather than a fluid memory?
One of the nameless troops was a young woman, a medic. I can conjure her up perfectly and recall how slight she was inside the body armour and webbing. How her Kevlar helmet defied tightening and remained tilted at a sharp angle. She could not have been more than twenty years old, too young and too innocent to be involved with the bloody work that closed us in. This young soldier went about her task with efficiency, delicately exploring the wounds of our comrade then checking for a pulse as lightly as if she were selecting an egg from a nesting box. The movement of her hands was deliberate yet infused with compassion. She gave a slight shake of her head, causing her helmet to wobble gently. Corporal Gomez was dead. This triage pantomime was out of step with the swirling chaos of choking dust and gunpowder around us.
“Let’s lift him out,” she instructed.
Spoken words came to us, as if down a long corridor; directions for the rest of us gathered clumsily around our dead. Again her instructions were firm and succinct — but never cold. Instead, there was a deep humanity in her language. I have the out-of-place notion that this is how angels behave. This is how all mankind should behave. There were two other soldiers with us. They were not medical corps; they resist full recollection, and most of the details of their faces are lost.
The pair wades into my thoughts as effortlessly as they did that day in July 2006. Eyes as round as pie plates, groping for instructions in the moment. Purpose-bent they forever remain. We are all hanging on every word the angel-medic gives us.
Shadows, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) soldiers.
A second explosion erupted. Another suicide bomber. The second bomber was on foot. Ball bearings and metal bits from his mid-section ripped through the air, killing several innocent bystanders. Seconds turned into hours. The air was heavy. All the Canadians up and down the column hit the deck. There was blood on the highway, on the sides of white pickups, and on our brown Cadpat uniforms. There was blood in the air. A whole new stack of images runs its course in my mind.

In Kandahar, with one startling exception, I never had dreams — certainly none that I could reclaim after waking. Since my return to Canada in the fall of 2006, I dream all the time. My mind is alive with them. I have an enhanced capacity for the most vivid of nightmares. The human brain has a safety setting, a surge switch that will shield it from certain matters when you are engaged in them. The workings of the brain will insulate you so you can carry on, but it will never let you completely forget. That is the deal: you get to keep moving and complete tactical tasks; however, you cannot ever un-see what you have seen.
For many of our soldiers, wars never really end. I am visited frequently in my dreams by the angel medic and this convoy ambush. A number of times over the years I have stolen glimpses of my angel medic at events, always on the margins. I have seen her in the edges of a thousand dreams; sometimes only the entwined serpent of her cap badge is recognizable. Sometimes it is her eyes, calm but arresting. Was that her on the periphery of Trooper Darryl Caswell’s funeral service? Could that have been the angel medic leaving the Operational Stress Injury Clinic (OSIC) just ahead of me? She remains deeply imprinted on my subconscious.
During the worst years of my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I would find morning arrived and I would be exhausted with a few fragments of sleep. I would go about the workday in a quasi-daze. What energy I had was devoted to looking outwardly normal while my mind worked to process the endless slides of memory and the questions they inspired. What corner of Canada did these soldiers of mine return to after their tours? Will I see them again? When I have breathed my last breath, will the medic reappear from backstage and place those deliberate, compassionate fingers on my pulse and declare the race finally run? How are they doing today? Are their days and dreams like mine?
It bothers me that despite all of this frantic recollection I cannot recall the names of these soldiers. And yet this is quite typical for those who suffer with PTSD. The details get away from you. The internal landscape of the ailment is like a vast desert. The flat expanse of sand is dotted with numerous little oases of vivid, living-colour memories; these are divided, however, by wide tracts of memory loss, and by increased levels of paranoia and insecurity.
PTSD for soldiers has existed since the dawn of conflict and has had many faces prior to earning its current label in the early 1980s. According to a report available from Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), PTSD is defined as  a psychological response to the experience of intense traumatic events, particularly those that threaten life. It can affect people of any age, culture or gender. Although we have started to hear a lot more about it in recent years, the condition has been known to exist at least since the times of ancient Greece and has been called by many different names. In the American Civil War it was referred to as “soldier’s heart,” in the First World War it was called “shell shock” and in the Second World War it was known as “war neurosis.” Many soldiers were labelled as having “combat fatigue” when experiencing symptoms associated with PTSD during combat. In the Vietnam War this became known as a “combat stress reaction.” Some of these people continued on to develop what became known in 1980 as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
There is an understated — and to my mind an unavoidable — cost for the treatment and support of thousands of veterans of Canada’s wars and their families that needs to be better understood; it is crucial that we make informed choices when we send our men and women into harm’s way. We also need to bear the cost of their wounds upon return. In the current situation, where the men and women of our military are sent to advance our foreign policy objectives, all of us need to know the true impacts of the decision. There is an old expression that the navy belongs to the king but the army belongs to the people. Today, Canadians do indeed own the entirety of the Canadian Armed Forces, including the field army, and they have every right to know about the full psychological cost of the army’s use. The voting public ultimately decides how their military will be used. In a similar vein, the public has a say in the treatment of the veteran. And they have every right to know how shabbily a veteran can be treated by the current cabal at Veterans Affairs Canada. The Canadian government, through successive administrations, has placed little emphasis on the well-being of veterans. We should hold our government to account. The army — successes, failures, warts and all — is of the people. It belongs to all Canadians.
For the longest time after Kandahar, I could not accept that I was unwell. Part of it was embarrassment and part of it was denial. I was finally diagnosed with PTSD in 2011, five years after my tour in Afghanistan ended. I was pushed into a military clinic by a combination of my wife’s frustration and a friend I found in the Reserves. Early on, I could not see the wound, and then, once I caught a glimpse of it, I would not readily accept it. I was concerned about the stigma and about being branded as a malingerer, especially as a senior logistics officer.
I had many thoughts of ending my own life but I never fully subscribed to them. Something inside told me that I could still get my act together, that there was another way. Initially, I thought running away from the Regular Force was the only tonic required. As I kept running and becoming more unstable, however, I had to admit to myself that proximity to the full-time army was not the problem. The problem was me. I was unwell. I could not control my emotions, whether it was spontaneous crying or an unquenchable rage. A deep edgeless depression was upon me constantly. I found solace in alcohol. I noticed that hard-liquor bottles that had followed us on numerous postings across Canada over the years had started to empty at an alarming new rate. I would quickly replace them with others so my wife would not notice. It was much easier to self-medicate and adopt the view: I can live this down.

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