The Forgotten: Afghan-Canadian combat advisers seek help and recognition
They risked their lives for their adopted country - now, they say Canada has turned its back on them
They carried out some of the most dirty and dangerous assignments during Canada's war in Afghanistan — gathering intelligence on the Taliban, warning of attacks and eavesdropping on insurgent communications.
They were language and cultural advisers — Canadian citizens who were recent Afghan immigrants — directly recruited by the Department of National Defence. Without them, the army could not have fought this nasty guerilla war.
They were civilians, not soldiers, and many of them returned injured and broken.
Instead of being cared for by the government that sent them to war, those who asked for help were relegated to the uncertainty and long waits of provincial workplace safety and insurance boards.
Others came home to find the jobs they had left were no longer available. Some were called "traitors" by fellow Afghans living in Canada.
Their care was an afterthought for DND, as a recent military ombudsman's investigation demonstrated.
Before the beginning of major combat operations, the department considered implementing a policy in 2005 to limit the duration and scope of civilian deployments.
It dropped the idea until 2007 when a temporary directive was drafted.
A 'moral obligation'
But the ombudsman found that the order was not implemented until November 2011 — four months after Canadian troops had withdrawn from fighting the Taliban.
The defence department said Friday in a statement that, under federal legislation, all injured federal employees, regardless of whether they served in war zones, are sent to provincial workplace safety boards.
Whether that aspect of the law is commendable is up for debate.
"While the moral obligation to care for and support military members is prominent in contemporary Canadian consciousness, there is less consideration evident of similar obligations for civilian employees who can suffer injuries or illnesses similar to those suffered by [Canadian Armed Forces] members, as a result of their contributions to the same international operations," said ombudsman Gregory Lick in a letter to the deputy minister of defence, Jody Thomas.
He recommended the department reach out to all 65 former language and cultural advisers to "ascertain their welfare" and help those suffering from post-traumatic stress and other injuries.
Lt. Stéphany Lura, a spokeswoman for the defence department, said officials are "currently in communication with WSIB Ontario senior officials in order to determine how, for the individuals who require support and care, they can be compensated in accordance with the Ontario legislation and regulation."
In fact, the department did not formalize a policy on the handling of civilians in war zones until March 2018 — three years after Canada left Afghanistan for good.
Lura defended the nearly 13 years it took to address the issue by saying the "revised policy was subject to an extensive consultation."
'Have we failed them? Yes, we have.'
In a recent interview with CBC News, Lick said he was not certain why the department did not act to ensure proper treatment for the Afghan advisers — some of whom saw more combat than Canadian soldiers.
"Have we failed them? Yes, we have," he said. The defence department, he added, "understands its moral obligation. The question is, what are the solutions?"
Right now, Ottawa's solution seems to be asking provincial workers' compensation boards to help them, as they would with any other injured federal employee.
In a letter to Lick, Thomas said the department was working with two separate military commands and provincial workers' compensation boards "to provide information and resources to those needing support" as a result of the advisers' war service.
The exchange of letters came last June, the day after CBC News published the story of former cultural adviser Mohammad Amin, who deployed seven times over the five-year combat mission and earned the General Service Medal for his service alongside Canada's elite special forces soldiers.
When he reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — nightmares, insomnia, panic attacks, bouts of uncontrollable weeping — the department sent him to the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, where his file languished for over two years.
"We were ready to die for the country, all of us. And when we come back, why is there a difference?" Amin told CBC News. "If you want to use civilians in a war zone, you've got to be able to help them."
These civilian advisers were prized by the Canadian military because they spoke the local languages — Dari and Pashto — and understood the nuances of Afghan culture.
Many of them were pressed into service eavesdropping on Taliban communications. Some, including Amin, were sent outside the fortified bases to gather intelligence in the local communities.
(Amin conducted a number of high-risk missions that remain classified. Because of security concerns, CBC News has agreed to not publish his full name.)
They were all civilian contractors and, as such, were not entitled to the benefits and services enjoyed by soldiers — or even the benefits given to permanent federal civil servants who deployed to Afghanistan.
Each of them had only three months to report and apply for benefits upon the completion of their contracts.
Since Muhammad Amin's story was first published, CBC News has uncovered the cases of five other cultural advisers. For them, the pride they feel on Remembrance Day is undermined by the knowledge that their service to Canada has been forgotten by the institutions they served — and is barely known by the wider public.
Bashir Jamalzadah's worst day in southern Afghanistan was June 22, 2006.
As the language and cultural adviser to Col. Ian Hope, the first battle group commander for Canada's renewed Kandahar deployment (the first mission was in 2002), he went everywhere.
On that day in June, he was coming back from a remote, hard-fought patch of nowhere called Sangin, in Helmand, a province adjacent to Kandahar.
The convoy carrying Hope's command team was hit first by a roadside bomb and later by a suicide car bomber — who detonated an explosion that wounded a soldier in Jamalzadah's armoured vehicle who was standing sentry in an open hatch.
"The whole vehicle was full of blood," Jamalzadah said.
The convoy fled, stopping long enough to airlift the soldier to hospital before racing back to Kandahar Airfield.
A teacher in a former life, Jamalzadah was 55 when he went to war as a contract employee of the Department of National Defence. After his return to the airfield, he sat in the stillness of his tent, emotionally numbed by the horror.
The whole vehicle was full of blood.- Bashir Jamalzadah
"I was just thinking about the ugliness of war and how the people who suffer from war and are affected by these situations," he said.
Jamalzadah went on to serve a second battle group commander, Col. Omar Lavoie, during the seminal battle of Canada's Afghan war, Operation Medusa.
"During this time we were in contact with the enemy almost every day," he said.
He deployed six times to Kandahar. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He didn't seek help from the federal government — mostly because he'd heard about the department's indifferent treatment of his fellow civilian advisers.
"Do you know what bothers me?" Jamalzadah said. "The Department of National Defence never even gave me a telephone call to see how I was doing.
"Being left alone after working for years for the military — that's not right. You take somebody to a war zone and then bring him back and then tell him to go and do whatever he wants, live by himself and fight the problems he might face."
In the years since his return, he has been emotionally distant from his family. What hurts even more is that he has been ostracized from the local Afghan community.
"There are many in [Afghan community] who basically believe we betrayed our original country and we helped the invaders," Jamalzadah said. "They avoided even talking to me."
He gets through his days by reminding himself the Taliban were the "real invaders because they represented Pakistan."
Many of Sher Amad's early days as a cultural adviser were spent staring into the faces of suspected Taliban fighters.
He started his service in 2008 by recruiting and screening local interpreters in Kandahar City for the burgeoning mission, but soon graduated to helping intelligence officers interrogate prisoners at the detention facility at Kandahar Airfield.
"I'm sitting in front of them, right? Looking in their eyes," Amad said. "I spoke to them in my own language, Pashto."
Grilling suspected insurgents turned out to be a tame introduction to the brutal shadow war of southern Afghanistan.
Three years later, Amad was hunkered down at a besieged special forces outpost in Mushan, a wild, Taliban-infested corner of Kandahar province.
The Canadians had withdrawn but Amad was left behind with a small team of U.S. special forces. He was told he would be pulled out when the Americans brought in their own cultural adviser to replace him.
Then the Taliban — whipped into a frenzy by news of the Canadians' departure — launched two suicide bombers at the base. Amad said three of the elite U.S. soldiers died during his time there and his friend — a bomb disposal expert who "used to watch TV with me every day" — lost both legs.
I was fighting with my wife. I could not talk with her. I could not love my kids. I could not hold them- Sher Amad
Amad's job was to be the Americans' eyes and ears 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as the Taliban launched multiple attacks on the base. He worked from early in the morning until midnight, sleeping "for only three hours" a night. That went on for weeks.
Amad asked to be relieved but was told repeatedly that they were short of advisers and that it was too dangerous to send a helicopter. "So I took it upon me, because the guys' lives were more important than my health," he said.
After a month, a convoy came and Amad was replaced. At Kandahar Airfield he was lauded, given a medal and shipped home to Canada — a country unaware of what he had been through — and to a family for whom he was a stranger.
"I was fighting with my wife. I could not talk with her. I could not love my kids. I could not hold them," he said.
"I could not go out in to the [Afghan-Canadian] community because they would give me a look like I was a traitor."
He struggled to find work in Toronto. He went back to school but his PTSD made it impossible for him to concentrate. When he reached out to friends in the Canadian military, he was told his best option was to sign up again as a cultural adviser with the Americans still fighting in Afghanistan.
"I did one three-month stint with them, but I couldn't take it," he said. "I did one month [in theatre] and I told them, 'I can't do this, send me back home.'"
At no time during his contract with DND was Amad steered toward PTSD benefits.
He said he and his family have paid a high price for his service. An uncle who was still living in Afghanistan was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber, while other family members have moved multiple times because of threats.
"I believed in the system. I believed in justice," he said. "And when my kids asked me who am I, and what did I do, at least I can say it with pride. I am a vet. I did as much as a Canadian soldier."
Mirwais Shams knew he was singled out the day he survived the rollover of a light armoured vehicle in a filthy culvert just off a highway in the mountain-creased district of northern Kandahar province.
It was spring 2006, just before the Taliban launched its first major spring offensive against Canadian troops — the annual rampage of violence known as "the fighting season".
Four of the soldiers riding with Mirwais were injured in the accident and evacuated to Germany or Canada for treatment.
Mirwais suffered minor abrasions. The doctor who examined the newly-minted language and cultural adviser looked him over and said, "You're good to go."
Mirwais said he realized at that moment that the army could not afford to send him home with the others.
"Nobody could cover my place. There was no else," he said.
I don't want to be crippled.- Mirwais Shams
Shams was one of the last cultural advisers to be withdrawn from Kandahar after the combat mission ended in 2011. He left the country spent and nearly broken by his experiences.
Nights are the worst — when the memories come flooding back, the terror of being wounded, perhaps losing a limb.
"I don't want to be crippled," he said, sighing. "I've been through a lot."
Shams, originally a farmer from a small village near Kabul, immigrated in 2002 and became a Canadian citizen four years later, soon after being recruited by DND to join the Kandahar mission.
Aware of the difficulty and indifference faced by other advisers, he has not approached the defence department for help.
Talking about his experience to anybody outside of the military has been difficult because of the secrets he holds from the missions he took part in.
"It has been hard for me to be open with my doctors," he said. "You don't know the boundary of how much you can say. You're a civilian. You want to talk about a military case. Based upon what I have signed, I should not talk about some of the issues."
He said he wants nothing more from the federal government than treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder — and for someone to "look me in the eye."
The breakneck pace of armoured vehicles racing through the Kandahar countryside — made necessary by the need to avoid powerful roadside bombs — always gave Habib Siddiqui a roller-coaster rush.
On June 2, 2006, on one of those sprints between Kandahar Airfield and a forward operating base, Siddiqui a former doctor who immigrated to Canada in 1999, was jolted violently as the eight-wheel iron monster hit a bump.
He cracked his head and was thrust down into his seat.
"I felt this localized pain that went down my left thigh," said Siddiqui, who spent the next four days at the austere operating base.
His job was to act as a translator when commanders visited local Afghan villages to speak with elders, and to eavesdrop on Taliban radio chatter.
"Slowly, that pain increased and the medics came and they gave some medication, painkillers," he said. "And my condition got worse."
I love this country. (But) somebody is working for you and you treat them ... what should I say? Like shit.- Habib Siddiqui
Upon his return to the main coalition base, he was taken directly to the hospital. One military doctor initially dismissed his pain as muscle spasms. It would take more than three months for him to be diagnosed with a herniated disc.
The injury was the beginning of his slide into a haze of pain and poverty.
Allowed to come home on leave from his first deployment, he was warned by specialist after an MRI that he would suffer some degree of pain for the rest of his life.
DND agreed to pay out the rest of his civilian contract, ending its association with Siddiqui in late 2006.
Unable to return to his construction job (he was ineligible to work as a doctor in Canada), the married father of two was told he should apply to the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
"That's when all of the arguments started," he said.
It took five years for DND to grudgingly fill out the necessary forms for the workers' comp board; one federal official told him that the injury must have been a pre-existing condition.
The board took another six years to accept his claim due to a dispute over which level of government was responsible for paying for his treatment, federal or provincial.
"I was just crying and crying, and I still want to cry." Siddiqui said.
"I love this country. I wanted to do something and I still want to do something, but the problem is here: Somebody is working for you and you treat them ... what should I say? Like shit."
Siddiqui drained his line of credit, visited food banks and collected welfare until his provincial compensation came through.
Jamail Jushan hated the Taliban rockets. They struck the forward operating base at Ma'sum Ghar, in western Kandahar, with brutal regularity, killing and wounding capriciously.
Firefights he could handle — the infamous three-sided attacks insurgents would mount against the rocky outpost, tucked into the base of a long extinct volcano.
He said he spent nearly two years on deployment. Working directly with military intelligence, he would often go outside the wire to gather information on the Taliban from the mouths of local informants, and would eavesdrop on insurgent radio and cellphone chatter.
We were everywhere with the military. We were their five senses.- Jamail Jushan
He worked what's known in military lingo as HUMINT — human intelligence-gathering — and remains reluctant to talk about specifics for fear of compromising operations that took place over a decade ago.
"I feel proud," Jushan said. "The Canadians [who] asked me to stay for a long time said: You [aren't] scared?
I said, 'I'm scared when I go outside the wire, but, listen, if I am killed here my body will be wrapped up and in the flag of Canada and I will be buried in Canada.' And that is a huge privilege for me."
Ma'sum Ghar was where he felt the most useful. An eavesdropping station and a Canadian Leopard 2 tank, ready to fire at the first sign of trouble, always stood vigil on a high outcrop.
Jushan would trudge down the gravel road between their lonely post and the mess hall, and stuff his pockets with food to bring back to the tank crew.
He came home with the battle group in 2011, but struggled to find work. He was told by DND he should apply to the American military, which could still use his services.
Ineligible for retraining benefits enjoyed by veterans, Jushan ended up back in Afghanistan in 2013 to, in his words, "save my marriage and feed my family."
He remains proud, but disillusioned.
"We did anything that the military did in Afghanistan," he said. "We were everywhere with the military. We were their five senses. They couldn't hear. They couldn't taste."
Jushan said he is not looking for anything more than for "the Government of Canada to recognize me" and his fellow advisers.
"We are hoping to be part of the history of Canada," he said. "I ask the Government of Canada. I ask the people of Canada, they are kind people, they are generous people. Our sacrifice must be recognized."