New Brunswick

Finally, the soldier he wanted to be

Patrick Gordon of Saint John joined the army shortly after graduating from high school, and in 2006 began his first deployment to Afghanistan. Now, the veteran has found new purpose in helping feed hungry kids in his hometown.

Saint John's Patrick Gordon fought in Afghanistan. Now he fights on the hunger front

Patrick Gordon in the loading hatch of a tank in Kandahar in 2008. (Submitted by Patrick Gordon)

On Sept. 11, 2001, Patrick Gordon was 17 and a senior at Saint John High School. 

If smartphones had been ubiquitous then, they would have all blown up. Instead, Gordon remembers, a girl ran out of the school and broke the news of attacks on the U.S. to the students outside. 

"She was distraught," he said. "Everybody was flipping out. You know the way kids are. They thought the whole world was under attack."

That moment solidified Gordon's decision to become a Canadian soldier, and this is the story of how that choice affected the next 20 years of his life. 

It's about a Canadian teen who signed up for service, fought in Afghanistan, where he was shot at and bombed, and what he's doing now to rehabilitate his body and his mind. 

"A soldier's job is taking lives," said Gordon, now 37. "I had to learn to reprogram myself. And I did. I rewired who I am."

The Gordon family of Saint John. (Submitted by Patrick Gordon)

Gordon said he and two friends tried to sign up with the Canadian Armed Forces almost as soon as they graduated.

One of those friends would end up serving two tours of duty in the "War on Terror." Gordon served three. 

The mission — as Gordon understood it then —  was to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban, who had provided safe harbour to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda militants who carried out the attacks. 

But at 17, Gordon was thinking more about Arnold Schwarzenegger.

From Gordon’s senior year at Saint John High School, a photo in the 2002 yearbook. Gordon played both linebacker and running back for the Greyhounds, coached by Dave Grandy. (Submitted by Dave Grandy)

"You know, the movie Commando? He was just so ripped and I thought that's what the military was."

Gordon had no idea that 158 Canadian soldiers would die during the war in Afghanistan, Canada's longest war. 

"We just went into the recruitment office and said, 'We want to jump out of airplanes.'"

"And they said, 'Have we got the job for you!'"

Patrick Gordon in basic training at CFB Esquimalt, west of Victoria. (Submitted by Patrick Gordon)

Gordon was first deployed to Kandahar in 2006, after taking basic training in B.C., then becoming a tank gunner and driver with the Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) in Edmonton.

In September 2006, it was Gordon's job to deliver a C2 Leopard tank to Afghanistan. It rode in the back of a Boeing C-17 Globemaster while Gordon sat in the cockpit with the U.S. crew.

'We came down swooping side to side, combat-flying,' Gordon says of his arrival at the Kandahar airfield in 2006 on a plan delivering this Canadian tank. 'It was nighttime and you could see fires burning all over the ground.' (Submitted by Patrick Gordon)

At first, Gordon was enthralled by the action and complexity of the NATO operations. 

Then one of his friends was killed in action.

On Oct. 7, 2006, Trooper Mark Wilson became the 40th Canadian soldier to die on duty when his armoured vehicle struck a roadside bomb. 

Gordon still gets emotional when he speaks about it. 

"He was in his 30s when we did basic training together. We looked at him almost like a father figure.

"That's when it got real for me, extremely real. I almost quit after that."

The fighting season in '08

Instead of quitting, Gordon accepted another contract in 2008. This time he was overseas for seven months. 

Part of his squadron's job was delivering supplies to Canadians working in outposts along the Arghandab River in Kandahar.

Gordon said food, water and ammunition had to be driven in by convoys led by tanks because air drops had failed to get close to their targets.

To guard themselves against explosives buried in the sandy riverbed, Gordon's tank was equipped with front-mounted rollers. The weight of the rollers was supposed to detonate bombs before the tanks rolled over them.

Gordon’s tank, with front-mounted anti-mine rollers before it was hit by an improvised explosive device. (Submitted by Patrick Gordon)

During one trip, the crew thought the wheeled vehicles in the group would get stuck, so it was decided to back the convoy up.

Somehow, a bomb that wasn't triggered when the tank and rollers moved forward did detonate when the tank went into reverse. 

"We started to back up and then boom, it just went black," Gordon said.

"I remember waking up on the floor in the vehicle. My driver was unconscious."

Gordon suffered injuries to his neck and his back that would never fully heal.

He's still amazed he survived. 

He feels there were many times when he could have been clipped by bullets, mortars or rocket-propelled grenades. He said it got intense after April.

"We were told that the fighting season didn't start until after the poppy harvesting. And that's what happened. It was like a light switch, the fighting started, and it was crazy.

"Any time you went anywhere, you were being shot at."

In 2008, left to right: Cmdr. Sgt. Brad Smith, Cpl. Patrick Gordon (loader), Cpl. Jeremy Charlton (gunner) and Cpl. Sean Markwell (driver). (Submitted by Patrick Gordon)

No hero's welcome

Canada's involvement in Afghanistan was often controversial. Public opinion — first galvanized by the deaths of nearly 3,000 human beings who died in the suicide plane attacks in New York and Washington and the crash in Pennsylvania — changed over time.

In Canada, pollsters tracked a downward trend in support starting around 2005 and 2006 as more Canadian soldiers were sent home in caskets. 

Human rights groups were also reporting deaths of Afghan civilians killed in air strikes. 

When Gordon returned to Edmonton in 2008, he felt the collective mood had soured. 

"People were calling us baby killers."

Saint John veteran fights child hunger in the city he calls home

10 months ago
Duration 7:30
After serving three tours in Afghanistan and struggling with depression and addiction, Patrick Gordon has found a new fight.

He remembers he and his troops were advised not to wear their uniforms in public. 

"I mean, 'How was this even a thing?'" said Gordon.

Then answering himself: "It's because there were a lot of civilian casualties." 

"But I mean, at the end of the day, you're fighting a war against an un-uniformed army."

Gordon said it was hard to distinguish the Taliban from civilians. They wore the same clothes and hid among ordinary Afghan people. 

"A farmer could stand up with an AK-47, shoot, then put it down again."

He was surprised Canadians did not support soldiers who were fighting overseas to protect human rights. 

"The average person who has never left North America would not understand," Gordon said. "Over there, you can't be anything other than what they say you are. You can't be a man who is openly gay or you die. They don't even believe that women are humans."

Gordon says this photo shows Canadian infantry, expecting heavy fire, using a tank as a shield as they advance. (Submitted by Patrick Gordon)

In 2010, Gordon accepted a third and final deployment, helping to co-ordinate the movement of supplies to the forward operating base. That put him back in Kandahar for another nine months. 

The following year, Canada's combat role in Afghanistan ended and the focus shifted to training Afghanistan's army and police.

The last Canadian service members left Afghanistan in 2014.

A photo taken in Afghanistan in 2008. Gordon says he thought he was fighting in Afghanistan for freedom and human rights. (Submitted by Patrick Gordon)

"When I look back, I feel bad."

Gordon says Canada should have stayed longer to finish the job. 

Even if it took another 20 years, he said, Canada should have finished rooting out the bad guys and stabilizing the country. 

Nevertheless, he is proud of the Canadian-led provincial reconstruction teams that were dedicated to building schools and roads.

"They were doing an amazing job. I mean, the Taliban kept putting bombs in the culverts and blowing the roads up, but we'd patch them right away.

"And I think if we could have continued on that road, we would have been successful."

This is where Gordon slept in the bunker at forward operating base Masum Ghar in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. (Submitted by Patrick Gordon) (Submitted by Patrick Gordon)

While U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, even as panic ensued, Gordon said he felt bad for the Afghan people. 

"They're an amazing people," he said. "They're strong. They're proud. They've never let anybody come into their country and tell them how to do it. You look at history, not one civilization has been able to come in there and tame the Afghan people and it's not about that.

"It's about helping them help themselves."

Gordon working out in his garage gym this month while on his TV, U.S. news networks show scenes of desperation at Kabul airport generated by the U.S. withdrwal of troops. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

By the time Gordon retired from the Canadian military in 2016, he'd lost his way. 

Often, he drank himself into oblivion, he said, and he no longer recognized himself in his body. He weighed 300 pounds, about 100 pounds more than normal. 

"I really hated myself for who I had become," he said.

He also felt he was letting down the people he loved, including his wife, Elisa, whom he married in 2011 and their son who was born the next year.

"I didn't want to be all the people who failed me growing up," said Gordon. 

"So I had a choice to make, I could clean myself up, get help, go to therapy and start working on a better me or, I could wallow in the victim mentality. Like, 'Woe is me, I served in the army and I got hurt.'"

Gordon chose to try to get sober — and stay sober — but admits he failed there, too.

"It didn't happen overnight. I fell off [the wagon] multiple times."

Among his souvenirs from his time in the military, Gordon kept a bag of expired medication. ‘I was falling apart on every level and this was the answer.' (Graham Thompson/CBC)

Gordon was also determined to get back in shape, despite his injuries. 

He started training to represent Team Canada in 2019 in the U.S. Department of Defense Warrior Games that were held in Tampa Bay, Fla.

The games promote the healing and rehabilitation of injured veterans.

Gordon was selected an "ultimate champion," which meant he earned points for Team Canada by competing in eight sporting events, including swimming, shooting, shot put and archery. 

"I started doing the things that I could do and stopped concentrating on the things that I couldn't do."

Gordon says he was drinking heavily in 2016, and he keeps this photo to remind him of what his soldier’s body had become. (Submitted by Patrick Gordon)

Gordon had stayed sober at least two years by the time the pandemic hit. 

It was a vulnerable time, and he was afraid of relapsing. 

But then he got an idea after talking with a friend. This friend worked in a school in one of Saint John's most at-risk neighbourhoods. 

It closed on March 16, 2020, as did all schools in the province, as part of the government's pandemic response. Schools that year stayed closed until the following September. 

Students were expected to stay at home and learn online.

Increasingly, the people who would normally manage food programs in the schools became concerned about how many kids were going hungry.   

Gordon said his friend "opened his eyes to the poverty" in Saint John and inspired him to start his own food program, called Operation Feed Saint John. 

"I thought, how can I attack this? How can I go on the offensive? How can I look at this from a tactical standpoint? Because I'm a soldier and that's what I do.

"A lot of the programs in the city, you have to come to them. So a person at the very bottom of the income ladder has to try to afford a bus ticket or a cab to go to a food bank. But we could definitely help the kids by putting food right in front of them."

Gordon started to gain real traction with the idea this past year. 

In February, with the help of friends and random private donations, Gordon and Elisa made their first delivery of 50 bags of food to St. John the Baptist/King Edward School. 

That continued once a month, and when school let out for summer, deliveries moved to the Crescent Valley public housing neighbourhood.

Gordon on the archery line in the 2019 Warrior Games in Tampa Bay, Fla. He is now training for the Invictus Games in 2022 in The Hague. (Veterans Affairs Canada)

Sometimes, Gordon will also organize a pop-up giveaway. Earlier this month, he was handing out ice-cream sandwiches at a splash-pad park. 

In July, he filled 100 paper wine bottle bags with a box of spaghetti, a jar of pasta sauce and a freshly baked baguette, and he delivered them to the city's north end.

As word travels, Gordon hears from more people who want to help, either by giving time or making donations. Local businesses have handed over ice cream and fresh-baked bread. 

Gordon's next goal for Operation Feed Saint John is to get it registered as a charity. He said he'd be thrilled if someone could help him prepare the documentation required by the Canada Revenue Agency.

He wants to keep growing what he started. 

"I feel like I can actually do something to change the world."

He would like to encourage more veterans to get involved in what he's doing, although he respects that "many of them just want to be left alone."

"But you know, from where I am and what I've learned, community is the most important step forward to living a healthy life.

"There are so many veterans who say, 'I can't be anything else.' But there are skills that you have as a soldier and a leader that are needed in this world."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now