May 21st, 2024

Indigenous Afghan vet shares struggle with PTSD

By Dale Woodard - Lethbridge Herald on January 7, 2022.

Serving in the Canadian military afforded Preston Crow Chief a once-in-a-lifetime experience a little over a decade ago.

The Canadian military also helped him during a dark period following that experience.

Crow Chief, from the Blood Tribe Nation, served in Afghanistan with Canada’s military from October 2009 to June 2010 and was the guest speaker at the Southern Alberta Council of Public Affairs Thursday.

Crow Chief spoke of his experience overseas, the trauma and addiction he experienced afterward and ultimately his recovery.

When he bottomed out almost six years ago, Crow Chief also spoke of how he learned he could reach out to the military for help with his problems and not be cast aside.

Crow Chief joined the Canadian Military on July 9, 2005. The program he joined through was Bold Eagle, a Basic Military Qualification course designed for First Nations entry. 

After he completed his training, Crow Chief was transferred to the 20th Independent Field Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery, serving on deployment to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 with the rank of Sergeant. 

Prior to heading over, Crow Chief was trained as a gunner, but his role quickly changed when he arrived in Afghanistan after a training session in Manitoba in February of 2009.

“When I was there, I learned how to drive and I thought I was going to be going over as gunner, but my journey ended being a driver.”

Crow Chief worked as part of the provincial reconstruction team with the Civilian Military Cooperation.

“Our whole world was to work with the local nationals in Afghanistan and help build wells and schools and basically doing business on the ground and maintaining peace,” he said.

In January of 2009, the provincial reconstruction team was collapsed and it looked like Crow Chief was headed home.

“What that meant for me as a driver was, they no longer needed drivers,” he said. “They were actually going to send me home in January. But I had been driving all over Afghanistan and had seen some cool stuff.”

But in the spirit of change he had experienced since arriving in Afghanistan, new plans were made.

“Somebody said ‘Why are we sending back the driver? We’re going to keep him,'” said Crow Chief. “So it changed just like that.”

In February of 2010 Crow Chief began his training for a vehicle many people called “the glorified military taxi or a combat tour bus.”

Whatever they called it, Crow Chief enjoyed taking the wheel.

“That was pretty cool, I had never driven a truck that big before. But the team I was working with was collapsed, so there was a period where I did my own thing working around and I didn’t know who my bosses were.”

Eventually, Crow Chief got in with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Third Battalion, a group of soldiers with airborne patches.

“I thought “Wow! I’m with the jump company,” said Crow Chief. “I worked with those guys from February (of 2010) until I came back. We travelled all over Kandahar province and into the Panjwayi and into the Dangam District. We were all over the map. We even saw the Red Desert from a kilometre away. It was a beautiful country to be in. I’ll always remember it. I learned a lot from the local nationals, too.”

But when he returned home, Crow Chief said his journey took a turn for the worse with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I think when I did my leadership training in 2014, I didn’t realize I was triggered at the time, but it brought up a lot of emotions for me,” he said. “Fast forward to 2016 and I hit the bottle pretty hard and I didn’t know what was going on with me.”

Finally, Crow Chief confessed to his leadership he wasn’t well, even if he thought it could cost him his military career.

“At this time in my life I always thought if I showed weakness the military would say ‘You’re done.’ I always remember people telling me ‘If you get PTSD, don’t say it. Your career will be over. You’re done and you’re useless.'”

But Crow Chief said he had had enough.

“My friends were dying, suicide was high and I hated reading it in the newspaper and was (thinking) it was going to happen to me. Life just wasn’t going well and I just finally fessed up. I tapped out and there was a lot of help.”

Crow Chief said the military helped him get over his alcohol abuse as he also went through a divorce and went back to school.

“They helped me finish my schooling and there was a lot of support,” he said. “I’m looking at my leadership I grew up with and was (wondering) ‘How come my leadership never told me about this stuff? I think I would have fessed up back in 2014 and not carried it so far. But I guess I chose the hard route. It’s unfortunate, my leadership probably didn’t know about these amazing services the military had to offer.”

But from 2016 to 2019 Crow Chief said the military worked with him. 

“They rehabilitated me, they sent me to counseling and paid for my counseling. They changed my work schedule around.”

They also posted Crow Chief to the cadet unit on the Blood Tribe Nation.

“My boss taught me cadets when I was in cadets, so it was kind of funny,” he said. “Here’s an army guy working with a cadet unit. I thought that was pretty sweet. It was really nice the military had that service. It really switched my work routine around. It really helped me to work with youth from my reserve and it was a really good year-and-a-half doing that.”

Still, Crow Chief thought he still may get medically discharged from the military for having a mental illness, or what they call an Operational Stress Injury (OSI).

However, in March of 2019 the military decided to keep him on with restrictions.

“It just seemed like life started getting better,” said Crow Chief. “I finally was able to wear the uniform again with pride. I had to work hard at it and my unit finally promoted me to sergeant.”

Crow Chief said when he came back, he applied the tools he had acquired from what he went through from 2016 to 2019 having the OSI and used it in everyday life.

“It was so cool. I wish I knew this stuff before I went to Afghanistan. But that’s alright. I can’t beat myself up, I was only 20 at the time when I deployed,” he said.

When he returned in the fall of 2019, Crow Chief was assigned to some brand-new gunners from the unit. 

“We went and did an exercise and all won this trophy together,” he said. “It was pretty cool. I went from really messed up to winning this trophy. It was a really high point in my career. I took a picture of it and a picture with the guys I did the training with. Anything is possible once you put your mind to it, once you can put your traumas aside and work through it. That’s the highlight I take away from being a sergeant now. It’s been a blast and I’m really grateful.”

At the end of the day, Crow Chief said he’s glad he went through the whole experience.

“There were lots of cool weapons systems I got to shoot and at the end of the day I got re-acquainted with my culture,” he said. “I learned how to pray again and how to put on smudge again. I’m really glad a lot of my elders were accessible and showed me how to do it again.”

Crow Chief graduated from the University of Lethbridge with a general management degree and now works with Blood Tribe Housing as accounts payable clerk.

He currently lives on the Blood reserve with his son.

“I finished school, so I’m putting my degree to use,” he said.

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pursuit diver

I am very happy to read such a positive story after seeing so many impacted by OSI and in many cases, still a shortage of trauma treatment counsellors for the men and women that put their lives on the line for Canada and whose families were also impacted by the effects of OSI.
I am so happy that you found peace and success and applaud your strength to pull yourself up, changing course on the road to the abyss. There have been too many of our finest who couldn’t find peace in the nightmare that finally led to suicide.
OSI is still taking lives and I hope your story gives hope too the many that are struggling, some still active duty and as you said, do not want to speak up, because they fear it will kill their career!
I wish you great success and hope the opportunity will arise that you can help some who still are fighting OSI!

Last edited 2 years ago by pursuit diver