Warrant Officer Roger Perreault trained 20 years for his chance at a combat tour.
The army engineer knew how to blow up walls and bulldoze new roads – important work in a war zone where doors are booby-trapped and old roads are lined with hidden bombs.
Perreault took those critical skills and a good-luck charm aboard a bus full of soldiers departing CFB Petawawa on Aug. 1, 2006. His mission: to build a route for the Canadian infantry in Panjwai district, Afghanistan.
Roger recovered after doctors found that his spinal cord was nicked during surgery, causing a leak of cord fluid. He struggles with nerve pain; he takes blood thinners to help prevent clots in his legs. In February he underwent hip surgery to repair bone damage from the blast. He has a desk job on base. Perhaps the worst of his problems is post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There’s a lot of things involved in it,” Perreault says. “Guilt. One of my best friends (Stachnik) died. That’s what I’m having a hard time with. He lived right down the road from me. Just driving by there friggin’ bothers me. It hurts.”
Interrupted sleep. Nightmares. Flashbacks. Sleep deprived, Perreault has had trouble remembering things told to him just two minutes earlier. For a year he denied he was suffering from the disorder. “It’s kind of something that you’re not really proud of.”
But his hair-trigger anger made the disorder impossible to ignore.
On a summer evening in 2007, Perreault went to pick up his daughters from dance class and parked in the furniture store’s lot next to the studio. He says the store owner came out and told him to move if he wasn’t there to buy furniture.
“I got out of the vehicle. In my mind I was going to kill the guy. That was my mission: to beat the f— out of him. I was boiling.” Perreault kept advancing, barking at the man, until Fran shouted him down.
“It’s not normal. It’s stress. When we’re over there, under contact with the Taliban every second or third day, the enemy shooting at you, it’s like constant go, go, go. The solution there is to shoot. You get back here, you don’t know how to deal with it.
“We come back and we’re just a bag of nails. It’s like, why am I yelling at my kids all the time?
“To me, that’s sinful,” Perreault says, his eyes welling up again, “when your kids can’t even approach you because they’re afraid of you.”
About 16 kilometres southeast of Petawawa, the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families in Pembroke has seen its military family caseload jump from 12 in 2005 to 85 today, with another 20 on the waiting list.
The Perreaults are among those 85. Fifteen-year-old Marissa gets counselling there, and she says her brothers, Mathew, 11, and Derek, 9, sometimes go to group therapy.
“It’s really hard to live with someone who has (post-traumatic stress disorder),” says the teenager. The night Fran called with the news Roger was failing in the hospital, Marissa got so drunk a friend’s mother had to take her to the hospital. She stayed there until morning.
Marissa says that for a short time after her father returned from Afghanistan, she cut herself.
“It was like a razor blade off a (pencil) sharpener. I did it on my wrists and then my sister noticed and told my parents, so then I started doing it on my legs. I haven’t done any of that in a long time.”
She hopes her counsellor can help her build a better relationship with her father.
“I understand what he did was really good and stuff, but some days I just wish he never went there.”
Perreault lives on a steady diet of pills – a blood thinner, an antidepressant, an anti-psychotic, Lyrica for nerve pain and slow-release morphine – and on anger.
“The only reason why I’m speaking about some of it now is because my career is over,” Perreault says.
“I don’t regret going there. It was my job to go there.
“I trained my whole career to go do something like that. The sad thing of it is the aftermath.”