Canadian army Capt. Trevor Greene is talking. Really, it’s hard to overstate how amazing that is. He’s sitting in the big easy chair in the den off the kitchen of the Nanaimo home he shares with his fiancée, Debbie Lepore, and their 3½-year-old daughter, Grace. The voice is quiet, for a big man of six foot four. The thoughts are clear and unflinching. Words are rationed; the sentences short, stripped of extraneous weight for their march across the wounded terrain of his brain. Like when he describes first meeting Debbie in 2001, at what he calls a Vancouver bar and she prefers to think of as a restaurant. They were with separate groups at separate tables. “I looked across the room,” the infantryman says, “and she captured me.” That says it all.
Lepore, smiling, arches an eyebrow at his hyperbole. “Across the room,” she says, “wasn’t it about five feet?” He shrugs. “It was her smile,” he continues, “and her laugh.” Whatever the distance, they’ve been closer ever since. Except for his deployment to Afghanistan, of course. She wasn’t there on March 4, 2006, when the platoon he was part of visited the village of Shinkay, when they sat with a circle of village elders under the trees, in the shade by the river. It was his last memory of Afghanistan. The Canadians had their helmets off as a sign of respect. Greene’s job was civilian-military co-operation, to help villages in Canada’s area of responsibility with access to clean water, medical facilities, electricity and schools.
The sad irony is, he was waging peace when 16-year-old Abdul Kareem stole up behind him, an axe hidden in his robes. He pulled it out in one fluid motion and with a cry of “Allahu akbar” (God is great) he buried the blade into the top of Greene’s head, propelled by the sort of two-handed swing you’d use to split a log for the fire. Greene’s eyes rolled back into his head; his blood, and, yes, some of his brain matter, spilled all over the Afghan ground. His brain was almost split in half, and yet he was breathing. Kareem reared back for another blow before three platoon members opened fire, killing him with a fusillade of bullets. Chaos reigned: the villagers fled, the platoon came under fire, medic Sean Marshall worked to staunch Greene’s blood loss during a 40-minute wait for a rescue copter. An incredulous radio operator at the Kandahar base asked to repeat the type of injury. “I say again,” responded platoon commander Kevin Schamuhn, “the nature of the wound is an axe to the head. Over.”
By the time Debbie caught up with him, days later, he was in an American military hospital in Germany, in a coma, with much of his skull cut away to ease the pressure of his swelling, fractured brain. The prognosis was awful: the doctors said that if he didn’t die, he would be in a coma; if not in a coma, then in a vegetative state.
They might know brains, but they don’t know Trevor, thought Lepore, who has been at his side ever since. Greene’s aim was to aid in the wartime reconstruction of Afghan villages. Lepore’s goal is to aid in the wartime reconstruction of her fiancé, and the father of their child—two near-impossible jobs.
Except here they are, almost three years later, Greene, 44, with a skull rebuilt with moulded composite plates, a full head of hair, and a brain that powers his thoughts, and his voice, and—with increasing success—his hands, arms and torso. “The recovery is like being frozen in a glacier and gradually warming up,” he says. “First my left hand and my left arm warming up. Then my right arm. Then my neck, gradually my legs until I am all thawed out.” Lepore laughs, surprised at the image. “I never heard that,” she says, “but it’s so true.” Meantime, as the defrosting continues, he’s learning Spanish, which will be his fourth language after English, French and Japanese. And he is writing a book along with Lepore, which isn’t bad for someone whose brain was sectioned with an axe. The working title is Growing My Soul: Capt. Trevor Greene’s Long Journey Home From Afghanistan.
It will be a “motivational book” about their lessons learned in overcoming adversity. He teetered on the brink of death several times only to plunge into deep depression. She was relentless, putting her career as a chartered accountant on hold for the one project that matters most. Even during his coma she’d tell him of the example he’ll set for others, “to be able to struggle through it and to share your insights.” The book, they say, is all about determination and the power of positive energy. Hearing them describe it, watching them together, you have to think there’ll be magic in it, too. You feel it, even stronger later in the day when Grace, a blond bundle of light, bounds into the house, wearing a necklace from preschool made with drinking straws and paper hearts. Medicine and motivation only take you so far. The reawakening of Capt. Greene is a miracle wrapped in a love story.
With months of recovery condensed into an hour of television, Greene seems to grow before your eyes, gaining weight, mobility and speech, with remarkable speed. In fact, it was “a marathon of baby steps,” as the film notes. Until Greene and Lepore had an advance look at the documentary a day before a Maclean’s reporter and photographer visited, there is much of those early days he simply didn’t remember. He is pleased with the results, and believes it serves the purpose he intended. “I wanted people to know what it’s like for Afghanistan veterans, what we went through,” he says. “[Canadians] thought we were peacekeeping, and it was war. I wanted them to see the effects of war.”
Ridout looks at two platoon members, Schamuhn and Sgt. Rob Dolson, who carried an unwarranted load of blame after the attack. Dolson, in particular, left the Afghan theatre early, agonizing over his failure to foresee the attack, though by all accounts he was the first to react. “I got up, took my weapon off safe, fired two rounds into him but he just stood there and stared at me. And it took another 10 more shots to drop him.”
The cameras roll near the end of Greene’s stay in Ponoka as a surgeon delivers the news that there’s little likelihood he’ll walk again, a prognosis they don’t accept. The mood lightens moments later when, in a hospital hallway, there is an emotional reunion with Marshall, the medic, who last saw Greene when he bundled him onto the chopper some two years earlier. He tells Greene: “It had a huge impact on me, and the person I am today.”
The cameras also record Greene’s plunge into depression, during the Christmas period in Ponoka last year. At one bleak point Greene stares blankly ahead, his eyes devoid of hope. “I was supposed to die,” he says.