For a wounded Canadian soldier, the battle has just begun

Many of you have read my piece “The MARPAT Myth“, so now you know something more about the real story about the development of MARPAT camouflage.  What you probably won’t know though is that the Canadian Army officer who helped make some of the key information in that piece available was seriously wounded in Afghanistan last year.  And having fought bravely to defend his country, his comrades, and to help the people of Afghanistan, he’s now fighting red-tape and bureaucracy on behalf of all wounded Canadian soldiers.  His story was the subject of a feature in the Globe and Mail newspaper a few months ago:

Globe and Mail
November 10, 2008

ST. ALBERT, ALTA. — It was the day Major Mark Campbell’s world turned orange.

“All I saw was orange. That’s it. Everything was orange,” the 43-year-old recalls about the first chaotic moments after he knelt on a land mine during an operation in southern Afghanistan on June 2.

The explosion, which wounded three other soldiers from the Edmonton-based 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and an Afghan interpreter, left a small crater. The force of the blast sent Major Campbell flying. He landed on his back with a thud, covered in dirt, dust and blood.

When he looked down, both his legs had been blown off. He reached for a tourniquet in his flak jacket and applied it to his left stump before “excruciating” pain washed over his body.

The explosion set off an ambush by Taliban insurgents, and it would take nearly two hours for his fellow soldiers, including one who had temporarily lost his eyesight and hearing, to fight their way out and get him to a military hospital.

During the battle, Major Campbell never lost consciousness. Sergeant Martin Cote, a medic, worked on him as bullets and rocket-propelled grenades whizzed by. Sgt. Cote, who received a concussion from the bomb blast, has been credited with saving Major Campbell’s life, a life that was almost lost two more times on hospital operating tables.

Major Campbell is the most senior Canadian soldier to be seriously wounded in Afghanistan to date. At least 300 service people have been wounded since the mission began in 2002.

While Major Campbell knows he’ll never return to the front lines again, he has new battles to fight. And because of his military experience – he’s served 28 years – he’s hopeful he can become an advocate for all soldiers wounded in combat, a growing and often frustrated group in the Canadian Forces.

“A third child’

Every Remembrance Day, Major Campbell attends a parade and service in St. Albert with his wife, Donna, an army reservist, and their two children to pay tribute to his fallen comrades. Many Edmonton-based soldiers, including Major Campbell, reside in this small city north of Edmonton, close to the military base.

After this year’s ceremony there are plans for him and some of the men he served with in Afghanistan to head back to the local Royal Canadian Legion. He hasn’t seen all of them together since he was wounded, although many have visited him since returning from their tour this fall. “It’s wonderful to be around them,” Major Campbell said as he fought back tears. “It allows me to forget for a little bit that I’m disabled. The last time I was surrounded by them, I wasn’t disabled.”

Major Campbell, who was 6 foot 2, 220 lbs., before the explosion, spent months in various hospitals recovering. He was released on Sept. 30.

The transition from hospital to home and back to what he calls “the Land of Many-Legged People” has been difficult. Calling his wife his “rock,” he admits his injury is straining their 19-year marriage. “I hope in time it will bond us as a couple, but truth be told, I’m not sure yet. Because we had our two kids, and we thought we were done. And now I’m like a third child in terms of needs,” he said, as he held his wife’s hand tightly.

He said all of this is aggravated by the fact that his family is constantly fighting bureaucratic red tape and delays to get necessary equipment such as a wheelchair van and wheelchair stair glides. “I had great treatment,” he said, his frustration audible. “But they sent me home and I still didn’t have half of my kit.”

He’s had to lobby military officials to get things such as a power wheelchair because only manual wheelchairs were being offered. Major Campbell recently won a fight to have the army pay for the move to a new wheelchair-accessible house his family is building with part of the $500,000 tax-free settlement he received from the government. “I shouldn’t have to pay for my service-related disability, but I have to fight for everything.”

Major Campbell, who attends outpatient programs at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton with a view to walking again with artificial limbs, said the military should better anticipate what wounded soldiers will need to get on with their lives. Shortly after Major Campbell was hurt, his wife asked the military for a spreadsheet detailing what services and equipment he’d need, but was told a document like that didn’t exist. “You are constantly asking for things; it’s almost begging. And you shouldn’t have to. You have enough stress in your life already,” Ms. Campbell said.

Major Campbell said meeting federal government regulations, which require all public servants, including wounded soldiers, to seek multiple vendor bids for items such as stair lifts for wheelchairs, is time-consuming and frustrating. “We spend millions of dollars a day on the war in Afghanistan, yet when it comes to injured soldiers, we are still in the habit of penny-pinching and asking ‘Why? Why do you need this?”’ he said.

Because of the length of his military experience, Major Campbell knows his way around the system and isn’t afraid to ask for things, but he’s concerned younger wounded soldiers may get lost in the cracks. Not since the Korean War has the Canadian military had to deal with so many wounded soldiers.

Major Campbell has received assurances that all the system’s current shortcomings are being addressed, but he plans to remain vigilant to make sure promises are kept. He intends to stay in the Canadian Forces as long as he can remain useful. “I’m not just going to collect a paycheque and fill a uniform with the legs rolled up.”

He’s already trying to persuade military brass to allow wounded soldiers to participate in “decompression” with their peers. When military rotations end in Afghanistan, all soldiers returning to Canada spend time relaxing in Cyprus together. Major Campbell had received permission to travel to Cyprus in September to meet his former comrades and officially end the tour with them, but at the last minute the trip was cancelled. Major Campbell said he was told there were “medical concerns” that the returning soldiers might not be able to “decompress if confronted with visible reminders of the effects of war.”

A Senate committee released a report earlier this year that investigated how well wounded Canadian soldiers are being cared for. Liberal Senator Colin Kenny said the system needs to become more flexible and responsive to all wounded soldiers, including reservists. He said that in many cases government bureaucrats are simply following the rules when it comes to delivering benefits and services, and it might be time for lawmakers to step in and address the problem. “It’s not that these people aren’t efficient or caring,” he said. “But the culture seems to be one that’s more an accountant than a caregiver.”

The Globe and Mail has been documenting Major Campbell’s recovery since he returned to Canada. Edmonton-based reporter Katherine O’Neill first met him in Afghanistan when she was posted there shortly before he was wounded.

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