KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The first Canadian soldier to return to active duty in Afghanistan as an amputee says coming back has closed a loop for him and shown the insurgents’ weapon of choice can be overcome.
Designed to do more than maim, kill and damage, the improvised explosive device is supposed to instill terror, said Capt. Simon Mailloux.
“By coming back here, I think I’ve defeated the IED that blew me up — I’ve overcome that fear,” Mailloux said.
“I came back on two feet — one in plastic, one in skin and bone— but still came back. It feels like we overcame at least this IED.”
Two months back in the war zone, Mailloux, 26, exudes a confidence and happiness that might have seemed unimaginable little more than two years ago.
The commander in charge of a platoon of soldiers was in an armoured vehicle that day in November 2007.
The operation was to establish a police checkpoint in western Zhari district, a harsh area largely in the hands of the Taliban insurgency.
The vehicle he was in hit an IED.
“It’s very, very sudden. It always happens when you don’t think about it,” he said.
“It’s not like in the movies where everything is in flames. It’s just a big blast of pressure and heat.”
Mailloux was in the sentry position at the back of the vehicle, his upper body poking through the hatch. He had just swapped positions with a colleague, something that likely saved his life.
“I got ejected. Had I been somewhere else in the LAV, I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”
Two comrades and an interpreter were killed. Two other soldiers were wounded.
He found himself lying on the ground, his brain desperately trying to “catch up on things” and “put the pieces together.”
Training and reflexes kicked in, he said. Find your weapon. Find your mates. Where is the enemy?
Gradually, a semblance of reality began to emerge.
“I’m really not well. My head hurts, my leg hurts. I’m bleeding,” were thoughts that went through his mind.
As they stretchered him to a helicopter for the flight to the trauma hospital, he told his colleagues he would be back in two weeks.
“You never quite realize …”
Even in hospital in Germany, when doctors told him several times that his leg was gone, his brain couldn’t compute.
Only after four or five days did the grim news finally sink in.
“You think about the future right away. What’s next? Nobody thinks about being an amputee.”
For the first while, dark thoughts flooded his mind. The supportive expressions of sympathy grated.
“The amputation became my life. I made a choice: the amputation wasn’t going to be me.”
From that moment on, he threw himself into the pain, sweat and frustration of rehabilitation.
It was a gruelling regimen of learning to dress himself, to walk and then to run, and finally passing the basic military fitness test that allowed him to return to being both a whole person and an active soldier.
“It’s rediscovering your life,” said Mailloux, who’s from Quebec City.
The culmination of that rediscovery was touching down again in Kandahar Airfield.
“It became really emotional because I was closing the loop,” he said.
“You put your foot down, and it’s like, ’Here we go again — another tour’.”
It was, he said, something he needed to do.
His abrupt departure had left unfinished business. He had told Afghan villagers he would help them. He had left his unit in a time of need.
“I was kind of torn apart by things I had not done but I said I would do. For me, (coming back) was something that needed to be done.”
Mailloux now strides about on a regular, if heavy-duty, artificial leg. His gait is barely off normal. A small scar below his eye is the only obvious “souvenir” of the horrific blast.
He is part of a team at headquarters at the Kandahar base that plans future operations in Afghanistan. It’s an office job, but fits well into the career path of an officer.
Still, there is some regret that he can no longer lead a platoon onto the battlefield, something he called the best feeling in the world.
“I have to redefine my boundaries,” he said.
In doing so, he has perhaps redefined the boundaries of those around him as well.