Part 2: A Hero’s Journey and Back from PTSD: Captain John Croucher, Platoon Leader of the PPCLI First Battalion
Officers endure 25 kilograms of body armor, a Kevlar helmet and a tactical vest gleaming with weaponry, heavy equipment on their backs, and regular army issue sunglasses and scarves pulled up over their faces to protect against the dust that seems to billow out of every crevasse; where our Canadians are deployed to the Afghan landscape, moving across the desert like sand-colored, camouflaged characters from a mainstream movie flick.
In 2006, the Canadian Armed Forces deployed approximately 2,500 Canadian Forces personnel to Afghanistan; of which 1,200 comprised the combat battle group. Platoon commander Capt. John Croucher — Captain John to his troops or simply “The Sir” was assigned to the the PPCLI First Battalion.
The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI, generally referred to as The Patricias) is one of the three Regular Force infantry regiments of the Canadian Army of the Canadian Forces. The 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (1PPCLI) is a mechanized infantry battalion and uses the LAV III (light armored vehicle) as its primary fighting vehicle, used to patrol and survey. The battalion is made of four rifle companies, one support company and one command and support company.
I met Captain John Croucher in 2007, after his deployment as part of his rehabilitation treatment. It was a day I would never forget, and his personal story is one that I continue to carry with me. His bravery, courage and strength go beyond the call of duty and his ability to endure and persevere after severe injury and occupational stress are a tribute to what the make and model of a solider should strive to be. What always struck me the most was how humble he was, how open he was about his experiences, and how his thoughts were always for his men – their health and well-being, pre and post deployment – always for his team, his platoon. He put others first; it was and has always been one of his most endearing qualities.
The Art Of War:
Most of what we know of war, what we “think” of war; is not what is all encompassing of war. For those of us who never step off the comfort of our own soil in our own backyard, our representation of combat is merely what we see in the news, in the media or in movies. We cannot fully appreciate what it truly means to go to war, what it means to lead men into battle, to be responsible for their lives and your own and more importantly, to put your life on the line for your country – for the security of your family. Yet, Captain Croucher does and during my year and half as his movement and rehabilitation coach; he confided in me several times about the war in Afghanistan, what it was like and his role as platoon leader. I had always had a yearning to serve my country and have always respected and honored the code and community of our military and law enforcement officers, hearing these stories were at times comical – boys being boys, very GI Joe, and other stories of hardship. It is no easy take being a solider. It is a discipline and a family unlike any other. One routed in… “one for all.”
Afghanistan has always been an ancient focal point of the Silk Road and a passage or human pilgrimage, since the dawn of time. Three decades of war made Afghanistan one of the world’s most dangerous countries and with this comes a dangerous place for civilians and villagers as well to reside.
Captain Croucher’s duties; not only included platoon leader, but included communications, negotiations and meetings with district governors, village headmen and local police chiefs, when and if necessary and most often these took place in village mud huts, open orchards and the occasional office. However, I have been told these “offices” are far and few between. The national drink of choice is chai or sweet hot Afghan tea, and by the sounds of it Captain Croucher drank a lot it on his deployment.
In a Globe and Mail Interview with journalist; Christie Blanchford, Captain Croucher confided; that many elders are frightened of the Taliban, many villagers do not want trouble, and allow whomever to come into their houses late at night demanding food and shelter. They really have no say in the manner. This is no way for anyone to live. Any country where the lines between law and human rights are blurred, people live in fear, they are afraid for their lives and those of their families.
“Some of them might be sympathetic to the Taliban, but most of them aren’t on anyone’s side. These people just want to be left alone.” – Captain Croucher.
Canada in Afghanistan:
Canada has always been a strong supporter of the United Nations Peacekeeping, and has participated in almost every mission since its inception. These efforts are focused on four priorities: (1) investing in the future of Afghan children and youth through development programming in education and health; (2) advancing security, the rule of law and human rights, through the provision of up to 950 CF trainers, support personnel, and approximately 45 Canadian civilian police to help train Afghan National Security Forces; (3) promoting regional diplomacy; and (4) helping deliver humanitarian assistance.
Canada’s role in 2006 (and all deployments over-seas) is not always just combat related, but includes elements of peace keeping and supporting and protecting the civilians; their needs range from a new water well to such basic supplies as blankets and food. Reporting back the needs of the village was also part of Captain Croucher’s position; this helped to bridge gaps, keep the peace and formulate Intel.
At the young age of 33, confident and in peak physical shape; Captain Croucher seemed invincible and his team respected him highly. The name “The Sir” is a testament to that honor and respect. With considerable pride, John spoke with confidence, that he had been deployed with 38 guys, and with 38 he returned to the mud-walled compound every patrol that Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry they then called their home away from home. Day in and day out they would patrol. Captain Croucher would always say patrolling is a necessary evil, and IEDs are always on their minds. Officers know the danger, yet no matter how much training one undergoes to prepare for combat, you never really can prepare enough. Always be ready, always be on guard.
May 25, 2006:
May 25th 2006 was not unlike any other patrol day; the officers went through their daily checks, headed out, but it was on this day that Captain John Croucher’s world would change. On May 25th, Captain Croucher’s LAV was hit by an IED; which this would be the third to hit Alpha’s second platoon. This strike left Captain Croucher severely injured. His recount of that day are words I find it hard to read. This excerpt is taken from an interview with The Globe and Mail’s journalist Christie Blanchford (2).
“My first push with my arms immediately told me that I was getting no help from my legs. I pushed myself out and onto the back deck of the LAV.
“I was on fire, the right side of my body from toes to mid-body was on fire. I tried patting myself out when I noticed that my right hand was burned extremely badly. I was having no luck putting myself out, and knowing that the guys were on the ground, I rolled myself off the car, falling to the ground some eight feet, where the guys noticed me and started to put out the fire.
“The pain was incredible but the crew had a stretcher beside me in no time. Within seconds I was rushed back to the safety of cover behind a G-wagon, all the way demanding to know how many guys were hurt, very concerned about these numbers and the possibilities as I watched the vehicle go up in flames. The checks confirmed that everyone else was okay, non-life-threatening injuries only. My only thoughts were for my crew. Myself, I took the worst of it, but that’s the way every commander would want it: Keep the men safe.”
Captain Croucher’s injuries included first- and second-degree burns from ankle to hip on his right leg and on his hand, as well as a broken fibula and tibia. His right ankle was literally a shattered mess, where he had to undergo eight surgeries at three different hospitals in three different countries; the first a Canadian-led base hospital at Kandahar Air Field, the second at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and finally the third in Canada at the University of Alberta, and to top it all off a shattered heel and a large puncture wound from shrapnel; where 70% of his lower limbs had significant reduced motor control and atrophy after the long stint in the hospitals.
When I started working with Captain Croucher he had difficulty walking, and performing basic movement patterns like bending at the knees into a hip hinge, or rotational patterns that required the ankle, knee and hip to work together. The neuromuscular control had to be re built from the ground up and from the inside out. Restoration of muscular strength, stability of the neighboring joints, and mobility/ degree of freedom in lower quadrant was the primary focus of our rehabilitation.
As tough as a man is, no matter how resilient they are, that sort of traumatic experience can leave a any man scarred psychologically and Captain Croucher had a long road of recovery ahead of him. The physical trauma; albeit long and arduous for Captain Croucher, was not the major obstacle. Captain Croucher knew shortly after his injury that the major barrier would be overcoming the sheer horror of the experience and mentally and emotionally processing it all.
The Nightmare of PTSD:
After a month or so from the attack, after the haze of pain killers started to wear off; Captain Croucher started to make a list of the “things to do” to get back to active duty. “The Canadian Armed Forces has screening protocol in place for post deployment, mental health screening. I knew a month or so after that I could be suffering from PTSD and I wanted to get the best treatment I could, so I could get back to active duty,” he said in a phone interview with me. “
Captain Croucher went on to say in our interview several weeks ago; “there is still a lot of stigma attached to being labeled with PTSD, and many officers do not come forward. The CAF (Canadian Armed Forces) were not ready for the amount of injuries coming back when we first deployed officers to Afghanistan, therefore we just didn’t have enough professionals to go around. After 2006, the CAF implemented better strategies, mandatory post deployment mental health screening, and consult with leaders in these fields. ”
Captain Croucher had always been a step ahead of the rest; a loyal military and family man, a great friend, and someone who always stressed being proactive and diligent in the face of adversity.During the early stages of his treatment, Captain Croucher knew Vancouver had some of the top resources for treatment so he put in for a transfer.
After Captain Croucher’s transfer to Vancouver he started his treatment with a Vancouver based clinical psychiatrist, by the name of Greg Passey; who, Captain Croucher said was instrumental in his treatment and moving forward with overcoming PTSD. Mr. Passey has spent over 22 years in the Canadian Forces as a Medical Officer in Canada, Norway, the United States, and Rwanda, specializing in PTSD, occupational stress disorders/injuries.
Captain Croucher also received support and treatment through the 39th Brigade, composed of Canadian Forces (CF) and Primary Reserve units, all of which are at the 39 CBG Headquarters located at the Jericho Garrison on West 4th Avenue. For his physical treatment and rehabilitation, I was honored to support Captain Croucher with weekly movement and yoga classes, and he continues to be a good friend and someone I admire greatly.
Now, more than ever Canadian soldiers are coming forward to make claims for psychiatric disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Captain Croucher noted that there has also been a large concern within the military on officers claiming to have PTSD and associated stress disorders for disability insurance. Since mental health is subjective and we do not yet have wide spread standardization for screening, treatment etc it can be difficult to navigate the system on your own and it can also be hard for professionals to diagnose.
Back in the Trenches:
Today, Captain Croucher is back in Edmonton with the PPCLI officer working at 1CMBG; in the light infantry battalion, they are trained in a variety of insertion methods (parachute, helicopter, vehicle, boat, and most importantly by foot) and in a variety of complex terrains (e.g. urban, mountains) that would prove difficult for mechanized forces. Most recently, Captain Croucher was deployed a little closer to home – to Calgary to help support rescue and emergency response during the latest flood.
For those who struggle with significant life challenges, who have seen and experienced beyond the normal range of trauma, those who live each day with chronic pain – there is hope. If you are a returning vet or a family member of a returning vet I would encourage you to ensure there are no mental health risk factors. This can be performed with a professional or you can take the self-test located (here), through the PTSD Association. The stigmatization and labels that come attached to “the invisible wounds” are of immense magnitude. Unfortunately we live in a society that does not acknowledge the deep wounds that cannotbe seen. But this is changing as rapidly as the numbers of people with PTSD are increasing and more people are speaking out and telling their stories. Hero’s like Captain John Croucher.
Happy Canada Day!
(1) Canadian’s In Kandahar – National Post
(2) “Absence from his men adds salt to his wounds;” by Christie Blanchford, Globe and Mail on July 14 2006 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/absence-from-his-men-adds-salt-to-his-wounds/article1106075/ Christie Blanchford: [email protected]
(3) The book “Fifteen Days” by Christie Blanchford
(4) PTSD Association – http://www.ptsdassociation.com/about-ptsd.php