NANAIMO, B.C.—It’s the boy with the handwritten dictionary retired Capt. Trevor Greene thinks about now.
He’s sitting in his wheelchair at his dining room table in Nanaimo, B.C. Almost 15 years have passed since Greene nearly died serving with the Seaforth Highlanders of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, and began his miraculous recovery that is well known to Canadians today.
The knowledge that the country has fallen back under the control of the Taliban — whom Greene calls the evil of his generation — courses through him. To him, the fact of the Taliban’s takeover is many things at once: Undeniable. Inevitable. And deeply, achingly dire.
For the boy with the dictionary, for one.
“He came over to me with this handwritten dictionary of English and Pashto. He was quite bright — he wanted to ask me questions,” Greene says, his mouth widening into a grin. “I think of that boy. And I wonder what he’s doing now.”
The boy from that moment, captured by Star photographer Rick Madonik in 2006, would be a young adult now who, if he’s still in Afghanistan, is experiencing life under Taliban rule for the first time in living memory. As American soldiers retreated, the terrorist organization marched into the country’s capital unopposed this week.
Images from Kabul showed thousands of Afghans crowding around the airport, trying to escape. One infamous video showed people falling to their deaths from the side of a U.S. military plane that they had been clinging to.
It’s a moment Greene had been waiting for, certain that in the time he has been back in Canada, recovering but forever shaped by his deployment to Afghanistan, soldiers fought on, unlikely to reverse the trends of history and achieve stability for the long-beleaguered nation. Now that it’s happened, he’s filled with a mixture of anger, sadness and resolve.
“George Bush,” he says, “obviously didn’t learn from history.”
Greene believes that efforts to change the regime in Afghanistan were always going to be an uphill battle. The country has a long history of invasion and instability, having been invaded by the British Empire and Soviet Union, to name two recent efforts, before the Americans went in.
Still, Greene feels no sense of regret at joining the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. If anything, he says it was a moral imperative to do so.
“If we had not joined the war, I think we would have regretted it. Because it was the right thing to do,” he says. “It was my generation’s evil to fight. And I firmly believe that (if Canada had not joined the war), soldiers would have gone to the U.S. in droves.”
And neither was the effort futile, he said. A goal of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was to empower women and girls. Today he points to the success of women who are judges in Afghanistan, and politicians, and leaders. As he puts it, they’re “kicking ass,” and so are the Afghan women and girls of the family he and his wife, Debbie, sponsored to come to Nanaimo.
“That was the mission. It’s the only way to look at it for me. So that prevents me from being fairly depressed,” he says.
Greene speaks slowly, pausing to choose and pronounce each word with the precision of a person who has had to work to regain movement in his entire body. His home bustles with activity around him — Debbie, daughter Grace, son Noah and dog Ella passing through the dining area with its large windows revealing the ocean harbour. He smiles at each one of them when they enter, before getting back to talking about the war.
He says now that, whatever the Taliban’s promises about respecting human rights, he expects the regime will fall back into its oppressive patterns of the past. When he pauses to think on that, his eyes tear up and he breathes deeply.
“We had to try,” he says. “We tried. Truly we tried.”
Greene speaks with pride and more than a little joy about his deployment to Afghanistan, before his near-fatal injury.
He describes getting off a plane in Kandahar, feeling the 42 C heat all around him, and stepping off into a dusty landscape.
“I remember the feeling of this fine, fine dust — like, this is the meaning of boots on the ground,” he says.
He served on the Civil-Military Co-operation Unit, which meant he travelled from village to village, meeting and sharing tea with elders, trying to figure out ways to help them with infrastructure and empower girls through education.
It was during one of these meetings, after Greene had customarily removed his helmet as a sign of respect, that 16 year-old Abdul Karim brought down an axe through his skull.
He doesn’t remember what happened then, but others have filled him in. His platoon mate, Rob Dolson, shot Karim and prevented a second blow to Greene’s head. A nursing officer named Maria Streppa advocated for his treatment and got him flown to a hospital in Germany. There, the neurosurgeon Dr. Pete Sorini treated him. Debbie supported him through months and years of therapy, through which he has regained the ability to stand and walk.
What Greene most hopes for now is a dedicated effort to bring as many Afghans as possible to safety in Canada. He was dismayed when he saw Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau call an election last Sunday — what he sees as a distraction from a pressing humanitarian crisis, and an affront to his own service.
“I’m disgusted. And I’m horrified and really pissed off at the prime minister. On the day Afghanistan fell to the enemy, he announced an election,” Greene says. “And that just incenses me. I was raging at the TV when I saw that.”
“What he did was he dishonoured those of us who bled there.”
As Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, he hopes Canadians will reflect on those troops — the mission they set out to accomplish, and the parts of it that, despite everything, they did.
“I want people to know: We left it all on the field, didn’t hold anything back,” he says. “We are the best troops in the world.”