Politics

The war that won't end: Civilian who served in Afghanistan still fighting for PTSD benefits

Many Canadian soldiers came back from Afghanistan exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. So did some of the civilian contractors who served with the Canadians - but unlike the soldiers, the civilians still haven't convinced Ottawa to provide them with treatment.

'We were ready to die for the country ... Why is there a difference?' - translator Mohammad Amin

Mohammad Amin with the Canadian mission in Afghanistan in 2006. 'If you want to use civilians in a war zone, you've got to be able to help them.' (CBC News/Contributed)

The telephone call that changed Mohammad Amin's life came in the summer of 2005, while he was working as a supervisor at a manufacturing plant in Toronto.

An Afghan immigrant, he'd lived a quiet, peaceful life and was looking to get married and settle down.

But Amin also had skills and expertise that were in short supply in the Canadian military as it prepared for what was then expected to be a year-long deployment in Kandahar, his hometown. He spoke the local languages — Dari and Pashto — and knew the finer points of what many in the West still see as an inscrutable culture.

The army major on the other end of the call asked Amin to serve his new country as a "language and cultural adviser" to the mission. He agreed, seeing it as a way to give back to both his new home and the country of his birth.

The year-long deployment turned into a five-year combat mission for the Canadian Armed Forces. Like a lot of other Canadians who took part in that mission, Amin brought the war home with him in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But unlike most of the Canadians he served with under fire, Amin went to Afghanistan as a civilian contractor — not a soldier. And when he reached out to the federal government for help with his condition, he was told he wasn't eligible because he had not applied for civilian benefits within three months of the end of his contract.

Mohammad Amin in Panjwaii with an unidentified Afghan child. (CBC News/Contributed)

"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."

Within months of signing up — and with little training in handling combat zone stress — Amin found himself back in Afghanistan serving alongside Canada's elite special forces as they conducted highly secret operations against the rising Taliban insurgency — classified missions he's forbidden to discuss even today.

"I was pretty much involved in everything," Amin said. "If someone in the military was going outside of the wire once a day, I was going inside and outside of the wire once or twice a day."

Civilians shared the risks, not the benefits

Amin deployed seven times over the span of the mission. He earned rave reviews from his various commanders and a military General Service Medal for his work in translating and gathering intelligence outside the wire in one of the most dangerous places in the world.

(Amin conducted a number of high-risk missions that are classified and, because of security concerns, CBC News has agreed to not publish his full name.)

While he'd been offered a spot with the Canadian military training mission in Kabul, by 2011 Amin had decided he'd had enough. But coming home only meant trading one struggle for another — this time with the government that sent him to Kandahar in the first place.

He's experienced all the classic PTSD symptoms — nightmares, insomnia, crushing depression, flashbacks, panic attacks, bouts of uncontrollable weeping. He initially sought help for his condition by calling the Veterans Affairs helpline in 2012.

Canadian soldiers diagnosed with PTSD linked to their service can qualify for subsidized treatment, income supports and a job placement service. But civilian contractors aren't in line for any of those benefits. A spokesperson for Veterans Affairs, Josh Bueckert, said the department "does not provide benefits for civilian contractors hired" by the military.

'Loyal Canadians who served in a war zone'

Amin tried the Veterans Affairs help line, but his case was shuffled back to National Defence, where senior officials could only recommend he seek help through the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. After almost two years of waiting, he has yet to receive a decision from the board.

"We're talking about ... loyal Canadians who served in a war zone," he said. "You can't send them to [the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.] It should be the responsibility of the federal government."

Amin said he felt discarded and disrespected. Adding insult to injury, his Military Service Medal was mailed to him after Canada's combat mission ended.

He said he knows of at least two other cultural advisers who also are suffering from mental health issues stemming from their service in Afghanistan, but are still too fragile from the experience to speak out publicly.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also served in Afghanistan (Amin said he met the future minister during his service, but does not know him personally). Sajjan was made aware of Amin's plight in 2017. His lawyers wrote to the minister twice.

They asked the federal government to set up a special program to offer treatment to this group of cultural advisers, to change the federal regulations so that they are considered "veterans" for the purposes of PTSD benefits, or to make ex-gratia payments to former cultural advisers on an individual level.

On Nov. 29, 2017, Sajjan wrote back to say he was "truly sorry" for Amin and that he had directed the department "to look into the case and find any and all possible solutions," which could include assigning a peer support co-ordinator.

A spokesperson for National Defence, Dan Le Bouthillier, said Canada hired up to 70 cultural advisers to serve with Canadian soldiers during the mission. He said federal officials are working with the WSIB and Health Canada to address the plight of people like Amin.

"The department is currently conducting internal verifications and exploring available options to assist civilians who supported CAF international operations," he said in an email.

Amin said he's not looking for money from the federal government. He only wants treatment and some support so he can return to work — something has not been able to do on a regular basis since 2012.

"The government owes many of us a lot," he said.

"The one thing they owe me is, I need a man to stand up and say, 'This is my responsibility and I can take care of it.' So far, I haven't found anybody.

"Everybody we go to, everybody I have reached [out] to, it seems like they're passing me from office to office, from place to place, person to person. And is there anybody responsible? I don't know."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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