A soldier's road home
It’s a good thing retired Cpl. John Lowe is used to training his butt off, because he’s got less than two months to prepare for his upcoming mission – a 500-km bike ride over six days.
As the only rider from B.C., Lowe and his five Canadian comrades will join more than 300 British, American and European combat veterans on a ride across France and England.
They set out from the Eiffel Tower in Paris on May 27 and wind up in London on June 2. Along the way, they’ll pass through some of the most significant battlefields of the First and Second World Wars.
The longest day will span 130 kms and he wants to be ready. Lowe, who started training in earnest last month, admits he’s not quite there yet.
The first 40 kms might have given him second thoughts: two hungry-looking Rottweilers chased him through the streets of Abbotsford. Fortunately, his bike, a whisper-light Cervelo S2, is really fast.
Lowe is looking for sponsors to help raise $4,000 – money that will cover his trip, but also go towards raising awareness and support for those who return home suffering from Operational Stress Injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He’s being sponsored by Wounded Warriors, a non-profit organization that helps Canadian Forces members and reservists who have been injured or wounded in their service, with a focus on mental health.
Lowe, 26, served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry’s 1st battalion in Afghanistan from October, 2009 to April, 2010, a six-month tour.
Despite returning to a loving family and a wide network of church colleagues and friends, Lowe was surprised to realize he suffered lasting war wounds in the form of an Operational Stress Injury and was having difficulty coping.
“I don’t think any soldier can come back and say they do not feel changed. I think, right away, people knew I was different.”
Not all injuries are physical, yet they can be just as devastating if left untreated.
He always wanted to become a soldier, growing up listening to the tales of his grandfather, a Second World War veteran and dam buster who helped destroy infrastructure in the fight against the Nazis.
As a kid in his hometown of Cloverdale, Lowe played hockey and took Judo lessons, and loved tearing around the yard in the army fatigues his parents got him for Christmas the year he was in Grade 6.
He worked at Fraser Downs Raceway as a teen, mucking stables in the barns, clearing tables in the Homestretch, and even doing security.
“I kind of did everything. It was a super tight family, and still is,” says Lowe, whose father is a maintenance manager there.
At the centre of it all was his church, Zion Lutheran. He belonged to the youth group, and, when he was old enough, volunteered as a leader.
After high school, he and a friend kicked around Europe, with Lowe taking off for a stretch to cycle out the site where his grandfather's plane had been shot down, at the Myrna Dam in Germany.
He found the exact spot, using a map someone had drawn for him.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was 14.
“I remember seeing that and just being so upset about it, and not understanding.” Later, he watched the first bombing of Iraq.
“By the time I had a choice to sign up, I knew I’d be going to Afghanistan. That was my original intention when I signed up.”
Where others might enlist to learn a trade or embark on a life-long career, Lowe always knew he wanted to be a soldier – period. “I wanted to be in the combat trade. I wanted to get out there and support my country.”
By 21, he was ready. It was the end of June, the start of summer, when he was sent for basic training at the facility in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, followed by four months learning combat in Wainwright, AB.
On Oct. 12, 2009, he arrived at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, where he was part of Task Force 309, a reconstruction team aimed at rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure.
Lowe’s company was mostly deployed as a quick reaction force, patrolling villages with local Afghan army and police forces, a role that involved mentoring and community relations.
Detecting Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, was a constant.
The deadly, homemade land mines could be hidden nearly anywhere.
“We had IEDs on our road every day,” he says. “For four months straight, we had a bomb under the first culvert we crossed.”
His company was lucky – nobody was killed, although several were injured.
“Half of that was luck and half of that was good leadership. And, we trained the hell out of ourselves before we went.”
One day, they were in a place called Pashmul – a notorious neighbourhood where “stuff happened all the time.”
An armoured vehicle had been hit by a recoilless rifle, and they were sent in to investigate, their own vehicle driving down a mud path hemmed in by a high, narrow embankment.
“We could tell right away something was weird,” he says, describing how the Afghan National Army members alongside them “were a little jumpy.”
Suddenly, they came under fire from a couple of different directions.
To Lowe, it was surreal – off to the left, a farmer and two children in a field were collecting hay into piles. When the gunfire went off, the troops, hearing the crack, crack, crack of the gunfire, hit the ground. When they got back up, the farmer and the children were still raking hay as if nothing had happened.
“We can literally see the puff of dust where the guy had just fired from,” he remembers. “It’s kind of crazy and kind of sad how life there is.”
Whether the family was a decoy, figured they weren't a target or were simply used to gunfire, he'll never know.
Another time, he was riding in the back of a light armored vehicle when he noticed a little kid running behind them. His arm, wrapped in bandages, was missing to his elbow. Blood was seeping through, yet he was playing as if nothing was wrong.
The interpreter told Lowe, bluntly, the child just had his arm blown off in a car bombing.
“If that had happened somewhere in Canada, like if it happened to one of my [youth group] kids, I wouldn’t allow him outside of the hospital. It would be months until he was healed up. It’s just very interesting how life continues on.”
Lowe says he arrived in Afghanistan thinking he was going to make a big difference, help rebuild infrastructure and free the Afghan people from the bonds of the Taliban.
“What you soon realize is it’s incredibly more complex than you ever thought it would be. You realize it’s not something that’s going to be solved overnight. And that you are a very small cog in the overall picture.”
He returned to Canada on April 18, 2010 and obtained a voluntary release from the force.
He went back to work as a youth pastor at Zion Lutheran Church. Within a span of four months, he went from a war zone to playing games with kids and leading Bible studies.
But something inside had changed. He wasn’t functioning the way he used to. He often felt very tense and very alert.
Wandering into a crowded shopping mall, surrounded by so many strangers, the anxiety would become too much for him.
Or he’d have panic attacks while driving along a certain stretch of road.
These are the small triggers that can set off a debilitating reaction in someone with an Operational Stress Injury. For some veterans, the scent of campfire smoke is enough to take them back to Afghanistan.
To cope, some guys “drink their faces off.” Others take more drastic measures. Lowe knows at least three soldiers who have taken their own lives.
It took a few phone calls, connecting with other veterans and hearing their experiences, to realize what he was experiencing was common.
The hard part was reaching out for help.
“There’s this huge stigma that the guys have, that if you’re going through something like this, or you’re dealing with something like this, it means you’re weak. You should be able to get over this by yourself. But in reality, it’s an injury. It’s something that’s happened to you. It doesn’t mean you’re any less of a soldier. It just means that it’s something you’ve got to figure out, and if you don’t own up to that at some point, it’s going to get worse.”
Lowe found that help, and now he’s encouraging others to do the same.
That’s why he’s taking part in the Big Battlefield Bike Ride.
He happened to hear about Wounded Warriors thanks to his mom, Shere, a flight attendant on WestJet. At Christmas, she met a passenger named Bill Cusson, a veteran with a service dog that’s helping him cope with PTSD.
Cusson told Shere about Wounded Warriors, and he told her about the team the group was sending to the ride, suggesting her son contact the organization’s founder, Wayne Johnston.
Lowe called him up.
“He said, Listen, John, I’ve got one spot. I’m going to give you a day or two to think about it.”
Lowe leaped at the opportunity.
He’s already excited about being part of it.
“Just being able to go back and see guys who were before me in the battlefields” will be an honour. “As warriors, as soldiers, this is our collective history. These are honourable things, and this is my part.”