Capt (Ret) Trevor Greene (left)
and Capt Kevin Schamuhn
By Lesley Craig
Gathered in a comfortable room with rich, wood-panelled walls and sparkling chandeliers overhead, a diverse audience prepares to listen to Captain Kevin Schamuhn and Captain (Ret) Trevor Greene discuss the day in March 2006 that changed their lives forever. The audience is not prepared for the brutal honesty with which these men speak – of their experiences, their reactions and the difficulty of coming home.
“This happened three years back,” Capt Schamuhn begins, "and I spent a year and a half dealing with what I saw and experienced."
He lays the groundwork of the story, showing maps and describing his platoon’s mission in Afghanistan. They were the eyes and ears of the battle group and they travelled through the country north of Kandahar, meeting with village elders to determine how they could best help them.
When they reached the village of Shinkay, they "were pretty excited to see grass,” says Capt Schamuhn, "because we hadn’t seen any for a couple of weeks. One corporal in our platoon said it was like Shangri-La.”
As the civil-military co-operation officer, Capt Greene talked with the village elders. “My mission in Afghanistan,” he explains, "was to discuss with village elders their need for health care, education and clean water."
As he spoke with the elders, a corporal on the security perimeter snapped a picture of the meeting, impressed by the calm scene, not knowing it would soon be irrevocably shattered. Capt Schamuhn thinks of the next moments as the single most horrifying experience of his life.
“As I sipped tea with elders,” says Capt Greene, "a 16-year-old boy named Abdullah Karim shattered my skull with an axe." The axe was a rudimentary tool-turned-weapon, fashioned from a piece of scrap metal pounded into a knotted stick of wood.
“That axe penetrated two inches into my brain, severing all my motor functions,” Capt Greene continues. “Before I hit the ground, my platoon came under fire. After fighting off the ambush, they turned to me, saw my skull split open and assumed I was dead. Our platoon medic was astonished to find me still breathing.”
Forty-five minutes after the attack, Capt Greene was medevac-ed in a Blackhawk. As the thrum of the helicopter’s blades faded in the distance, silence fell on the men left behind.
In the silent room in Ottawa, three years later, looking at a picture of the clearing—verdant grass, thriving trees, a pool of life-giving water—Capt Schamuhn points to a dark spot in the green. “That’s Trevor’s blood,” he says. “There were pieces of his skull and bits of his brain on the ground.”
A few weeks later, Lieutenant Bill Turner, Capt Greene’s replacement, was killed in a gruesome IED attack. Travelling back to the platoon’s base for some much needed food and rest, his jeep passed over four anti-tank mines. “Four people were killed in that blast,” says Capt Schamuhn. “They used five body bags. It’s the arbitrary irony of the war that two men who most wanted to help were critically wounded or brutally killed.”
Capt Greene received care at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and, once stabilized, was flown home. He was admitted to Vancouver General Hospital, where doctors told his family he would never come out of the coma. Today, he is able to stand, with difficulty, and speak, with care.
Capt Schamuhn served out the remainder of his tour and, several weeks after his return to Canada, was posted to CFB Gagetown, half a country away from his platoon. “I was posted ... with people who hadn’t been to Afghanistan and didn’t understand what I had been through,” he says. “I felt very isolated.”
He talked himself in circles with his wife, who encouraged him to seek professional help. Eventually he did, reluctantly. “The women who helped us were extremely compassionate and really wanted to help, but our country hadn’t been at war for so long, they just didn’t know how,” he explains.
His break came when members of his former platoon landed in Gagetown for training. “There was a lot of Jack Daniels and a lot of stories and after that I felt a lot better,” he says. “For me, being reunited with these guys was the best kind of therapy.
"It’s a very personal battle, a very personal journey, that every soldier has to take. Not being okay is okay, and that’s the most important thing our soldiers have to understand.”