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Sunday, June 17, 2012

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Long journey home for a soldier-journalist


MARCH FORTH, by Trevor and Debbie Greene. Harper and Collins, 2012, 272 pp., $29.00 (hardcover)

On March 4, 2006, a Canadian patrol led by Capt. Kevin Schamuhn was on security operations in the Gumbad Valley, in the Shah Wali Koi District, an area known to be a hotbed of Taliban activity. The patrol was a joint operation of Canadian and Afghan National Army men and vehicles.

Trevor Greene, then 41, was attached to the One Platoon Group as a civil-military cooperation officer. CIMIC officers were to gather intelligence on the feelings, opinions and needs of the local Afghan people, especially in the areas of education, health and infrastructure.

The patrol entered the small village of Shinkay, and gathered with the village elders in the shade of trees by a river. The Canadians and village elders sat cross-legged in a circle and were first served tea.

This custom of exchanging opinions is an ancient one in the Islamic world and is called shura. Under the dictates of Pashtunwali the traditional code of Afghan honor, a host is obliged to offer hospitality and protection for guests.

Trusting in this code, Trevor respectfully laid down his rifle, and took off his helmet. He finished his glass of hot tea, took out his notebook and pen, and had just asked what the village most needed.

As he was waiting for the interpreter to finish, a young man, who was with the gathering of children and younger males who were milling around behind the circle of elders and soldiers took out a crude ax and buried it deep into Trevor's skull. He was raising the ax to strike again when the soldiers shot him dead.

This cowardly attack was the signal for Taliban fighters to open fire on the visitors with their AK-47 automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. A fierce exchange of gunfire took place, the Taliban were driven off, and a Black Hawk helicopter came to medi-vac Trevor to Kandahar airfield

Miraculously, despite this terrible blow Trevor was still alive. Within 36 hours of the attack he was flown to a military hospital in Germany. After emergency operations there he was flown home to Vancouver, Canada.

Trevor Greene was the ideal candidate for the task of a CIMIC officer. Although older than the other men, he was fit, courageous, and fiercely loyal. He had already led a remarkable life. He came to Japan as a journalist and traveled all over, learning Japanese and making friends everywhere. Very tall (193 cm) and charming, he was called "Tree" by his Japanese friends.

Always a champion of the underdog, Trevor went to live in the Sanya district of Tokyo, infamous in olden times for being a gloomy, boggy execution ground, and in modern times for a population of some 10,000 desperate homeless men who are preyed on by yakuza job-brokers.

Trevor lived with those often sick and alcoholic men. With compassion, insight and humor, he wrote a book, "Bridge of Tears," that should have won a major Japanese literary prize. (I urged Trevor to submit the book and was one of the judges. I underestimated the Japanese trend to push aside anything seemingly unpleasant about Japan, especially if exposed by a foreigner. No Japanese publisher at the time would touch it.)

After Japan he returned to Canada, joined the navy, and sailed across the Pacific in a double-masted navy ketch. Through his many adventures, he describes "needing a more human mission where I could actually interact with the people I was defending."

It was the shock of watching on television the March 11, 2001, attack on New York that motivated him to volunteer for service in Afghanistan. By this time he had met the love of his life, Debbie. His daughter Grace was born on Jan. 13, 2005. Trevor deployed to Afghanistan in January 2006.

"March Forth" is written by two people, but especially toward the latter half of the book, as Trevor gradually emerges from a coma, still unable to do anything for himself, it speaks with one voice.

Debbie picks up Trevor's story after the attack and describes in sometimes horrific but always moving detail of the struggle they had to bring him back.

Doctors at first insisted that even if he came out of the coma he would be a vegetable. Debbie and Trevor were determined that he would walk again.

What a wonderful story of love, faith, devotion and courage!

As I read how Trevor gradually recovered, his brain actually mending, I had to put the book down now and then to reach for the tissues, but at times I was able to laugh too.

When studying journalism at the University of King's College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Trevor learnt to "pay attention to little details that would color our writing and make our readers feel like they were there." It works.

After a four-year struggle, Trevor stood on his own two feet, and before a crowd of cheering, jubilant family and friends, declared his marriage vows to Debbie. He is once again the same old Tree; confident, passionate, funny, and determined to make a difference. The soldier-journalist has become a true hero.



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