As a young man in 2001, Kevin Berry faced a bright future, with several universities offering football scholarships. Instead, inspired by a sense of honour and duty, he chose to serve his country.
Now he suffers the wounds of war hidden inside his mind and faces a new battle with the government that sent him to Afghanistan.
No sooner had his training begun when a world-changing event occurred, setting into motion events that would leave him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Sept. 11 was my second day of basic training," he said. "We knew that Afghanistan was on the horizon."
Berry and the Third Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment landed in Kabul on Aug. 10, 2003 and went to work doing patrols of the city, giving him the sense of duty he had been looking for.
"I was exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly the job I wanted to do. I felt that I was achieving my purpose of being on this planet. I was doing good," he said.
They had a "robust tempo" of heading out into the city to maintain security and engage Taliban fighters during his six-month tour of duty. Despite never getting into a firefight, six months of close calls took its toll on Berry, as it did many soldiers. Several incidents along the way stand out for Berry as the genesis of his disorder.
"I was on point, as machine gunners usually are, and this kid popped out in front of me maybe 20 metres down the alleyway. I could see right away he had a mortar bomb in his hands, and he came running right at me, screaming," Berry said. "I cocked my weapon, brought it up, screamed 'away!' The kid stopped, terrified, wide-eyed. I'm almost sure he's going to blow up if I f-----g shoot him or if he gets any closer."
The interpreter told the boy to put the mortar down and back away. When it was determined the bomb was a dud, the boy spoke up.
"He said, 'I thought you were the good guys and I found this in my yard, digging so I wanted to give it to you.' That messed with my mind a lot," he said. "I thought I was going to die and everybody behind me was going to be badly wounded."
Berry scoffed when asked if there was help available to him at the base after the incident.
"You don't talk about stuff like that in the military culture," he said, adding that it would be treated like a joke afterward.
"My psychological briefing when I got home was 300 of us in a base at Petawawa, with some psychologist . who said, 'Do any of you experience any of these symptoms?' Do you think anybody put up their hands?"
It would have been obvious to anyone looking from the outside that Berry, and many of his fellow soldiers, were deeply injured.
"It was a horror show at night. We're all screaming, guys falling out of bed, and it was like that for weeks after we got back," he said.
"I was surprised because nothing really that bad happened compared to some of these other tours where they lost 20-plus guys. The problem is, they told us to expect five guys a week," he said.
Berry lost three friends to roadside bombs during his tour and several have committed suicide since, something he never understood until coming home.
"Until you've been down the road of PTSD, depression and addiction, you're not fit to judge," he said.
Berry chose to not sign a new contract with the military and came home a few months later in September 2004.
Once back, Berry decided he wanted a career in policing and started taking classes at Douglas College and working in bars at night. But there were signs things weren't quite right, he said. He was living in a constant, hyper-vigilant, paranoid state.
Once, while out for walk with his mom in a Burnaby park, she reached for a soccer ball left on the field, and Berry reacted in a disconcerting way,
"It wasn't even a thought. I just grabbed her, wrenched her back as hard as I can, and said, 'You don't know who put that there or what's underneath it,'" he said.
Soon after, driving down Deer Lake Parkway, Berry saw an abandoned suitcase at the side of the road and reacted by dangerously turning 90 degrees and driving away.
He also turned to heavy use of drugs and alcohol - the only things that would allow him to sleep without a reoccurring nightmare about the night he was separated from his patrol in Kabul.
"I was on my own for about 10 minutes. The Taliban, at the time, had a $25,000bounty on any captured NATO solider, dead or alive. All the people in town knew that," he said.
At the suggestion his psychology professor, Berry sought help for his disorder.
A NEW BATTLE BEGINS
By the time he was diagnosed with the disorder and applied for benefits, the federal government had quietly changed the legislation that governs soldiers' pensions. Replacing the Pension Act of 1919 with the New Veterans Charter in 2006, soldiers were then only entitled to a fraction of the financial help.
Instead of a lifetime, indexed, tax-free pension, soldiers would receive a lump-sum payment, determined by the extent to which they were injured, and the benefits were drastically less than veterans of previous wars received.
"We're talking 40 to 90 per cent less," he said. "That, to me, doesn't sting as much as the fact that the government has walked away from the lifetime obligation they have to soldiers that are wounded serving the country."
Ironically, the payments are even lower than what they would be under a civilian workers' compensation plan in any Canadian province.
The amount he collects is just north of the poverty line, and he is essentially crippled, he said.
"I can't work again. I'm not going to be able to hold a job in any of the fields I've been trained in. I'm not necessarily going to be able to have a family. I'm not going to be necessarily able to provide for a family in the way that I could have before."
Berry is now paying out of pocket to be a part-time student at Simon Fraser University, where he is majoring in history, as the Veterans Affairs Canada will not pay for anything but trade school. He feels even worse for his comrades who have come home in worse shape, with even fewer prospects.
"What are they supposed to do? Sit on their $40,000 a year and drink themselves to death? Because that's what a lot of them are doing," he said.
Despite treatment, which has helped, and getting off drugs and alcohol, Berry still has regular nightmares, panic attacks, agoraphobia, intense paranoia and he lives with the constant expectation he will die an early and violent death.
Yet he remains committed to seeing the New Veterans Charter thrown out.
Berry and several other B.C. veterans are expecting to serve the government with a class action lawsuit this week, alleging the New Veterans Charter is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
By creating essentially two classes of veterans, Berry and his comrades will argue the government has violated Section 15 of the charter, which states that every individual is "equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination."
"The New Veterans Charter is an absolute abomination. It's a betrayal of everything this country stands for, in my view," he said. "We had one system from 1919 to 2006 that served veterans from the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, Cypress, Bosnia and Afghanistan up until 2006. Why would you turn it on its head, gut it by up to 90 per cent and then tell anyone that's challenging it that they're over entitled?"
Vancouver law firm Miller Thomson has taken on their case pro bono.
Berry is also the local team leader for Canadian Veterans Advocacy, a group dedicated to raising awareness of veterans' issues and lobbying the government for change.
The one good thing to come from the suffering of Afghanistan's veterans is that PTSD is "out of the closet" in the military, and the discussion is no longer hushed up.
Berry is scheduled to give a talk about his experiences and his current fight on Tuesday, Nov. 6 at 7: 30 p.m. at St. Theresa Parish at 5146 Laurel St. in Burnaby.
His presentation will be followed by discussion and refreshments. For more information on the event, contact 604-299-2532.
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