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  • Jordan Snobelen

Canadian veteran shares Afghanistan experience

The first explosion from an improvised explosive device (IED) blew off four wheels from the light armoured vehicle (LAV) Doug Collins was operating. The second, only three months later, sent the 40,000-pound LAV III Lorit eight feet into the air.

Rewind two years, back to 2008, and Collins is a 28-year-old fresh recruit. Despite being only six hours away from his hometown of Hespeler, the military base outside of Montreal is an entirely different world.

It’s 13 weeks of baptism by fire during the basic military qualification course, followed by another 13 weeks in New Brunswick where Collins would learn the ins and outs of armoured reconnaissance, a role that would bring him out “beyond the wire” into active combat, gathering intelligence.

After an additional year-and-a-half of workup training in Petawawa, Collins found himself exactly where he wanted to be: sitting in a darkened plane, minutes out from Kandahar Airfield.

“We’re at 40,000 feet, (then) on the ground, stopped, in 90 seconds, it was the craziest thing,” Collins recalled of his arrival in Afghanistan.

“We’re sitting in this briefing room, a map comes up on the screen and it’s nothing but red dots everywhere,” Collins said, explaining each red dot symbolized an IED discovered during the previous three months — there were 1,500 dots.

The mission was to patrol the Dand District — an area similar to the size of Cambridge — in Kandahar Province, looking to disrupt Taliban supply lines, locate bombs and bomb-making supplies and make an attempt at stabilizing the area while protecting Canadian reconstruction efforts.

“There’s a big disconnect between what people think happened and what really happened,” he said of the war. “What was being reported at home, and what I was seeing happening, were two very different things.”

Collins and his team were never part of what he calls the “hearts and minds guys.”

“Never once was I ever told, I’ll be keeping any peace, we were actually straight out told, ‘you’re on a peacemaking mission,’” Collins explained.

He says the enemy was never obvious, “from the 12-year-old kid, to the 80-year-old ... you don’t know who’s going to fight you.” It fractured his sense of trust.

Collins ran over his first IED on January 12, 2010. “Sheer luck,” he says. He was covering for another driver, in the third of four vehicles investigating a facility where bomb supplies were found.

“I put my foot on the floor and I drove right through (the explosion). All I knew is I got this yellow cloud around me, my eyes are burning, I can’t see, my head’s thumping, it’s hot. I drive through and I hear yelling over the buzz, ‘stop, stop, stop,’ and then nothing but gunfire,” he recalled.

Collins entered into the “two-time club” on his sister’s birthday, April 30, 2010, only six days before he was to begin the process of returning home.

The second IED, a “four-jug” bomb — about 80 litres of ammonium nitrate, diesel fuel and chlorine — exploded under his LAV III as he crossed a water culvert, the gear shifter striking Collins’ head so hard it cracked his Kevlar helmet.

“It rocked me, I don’t remember anything after that for about five minutes after,” he recalled.

Left with internal blast damage, a severe concussion, a cracked kneecap and a broken ankle, Collins returned to New Brunswick to teach future soldiers, before being medically released from the military as a corporal in 2015. He misses it every day.

Collins was awarded the Canadian Medal of Sacrifice and now manages the parts department at the Highway Western Star truck dealership in Guelph.

What still echoes in the back of his mind are the child victims caught up in the mess, and how little people had in the way of food, running water, education, and waste and sewage management.

“We are sheltered in Canada, seriously sheltered,” Collins said.

“You always think about it, if you don’t ...” he trails off, before continuing, “If you don’t feel bad, and you can't have that empathy, then there’s something wrong with you. I had the empathy, I still do.”

Collins admits he had a difficult time returning to civilian and family life with his wife, Erica, and his three children: son Kasey, 14, and daughters Noel, 16, and Lorinda, 22.

With few veterans remaining from the Second World War and the Korean War, the more than 40,000 Canadian Forces members who served in Afghanistan over a course of 13 years are becoming the new faces of war.

But Collins doesn’t group himself with the likes of veterans who served in historic wars before him.

“I volunteered, they didn’t really need me, it was something I wanted to do. When my uncles and my grandfathers and my great-grandfathers joined ... the world needed them, not just their country,” he said.

Collins was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2012, but it’s a diagnosis he doesn’t agree with. He was one of the lucky ones, he says, with family and friends to lean on for support.

He criticizes Veterans Affairs Canada for dropping the ball on supports back at home, leaving newer veterans in a lurch.

“I’d like to see (Veterans Affairs) go back to caring about the veteran, instead of about what the government can’t afford to give us anymore,” he said, explaining that he used to get regular phone calls checking in.

Another challenge in supporting newer veterans is getting them out to the three Legions in Cambridge.

“There’s a lot of people out there who have nowhere to go,” but Collins wonders, “How do you tell these people that the Legion is actually there for you?” At 43 years old, he finds it sad that he’s the youngest veteran at the Hespeler Legion.

Eventually Collins hopes to retire on the east coast, where he says people know how to live, and where there will be fewer snakes, a particular sort of enemy he’s deathly afraid of.

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