Out Of Chaos Emerges Order
—THE DISCIPLINE OF SOLDIERS IN COMBAT. THERE IS FEAR BEFORE COMBAT AND FEAR AFTER; IT’S DURING WHEN TRAINING SETS IN.
by Chris Dias. photo by Christos Sagiorgis
There are public records available of what occurred. It was called Operation Zahara—the Battle for Panjwaii. To Shain Dusenbury and others, it was the white school—an innocent label (referring to its color) now burned into the retinas of the survivors. Military reporters spin the yarn for drama—a double-stacked anti-tank mine propelling the axle of a light armor vehicle (LAV) into its driver. A rocket propelled grenade impacting between three soldiers. A LAV pushing hard come hell or high water in a desperate attempt to extract casualties. Three bodies, some virtually unrecognizable, being loaded into the back of the vehicle.
It’s moments like these Shain reenacts all too often. Under normal circumstances, that would be referred to as repetition compulsion—an element of post-traumatic stress—where an unpleasant memory is caught in a loop, repeating as if occurring for real. Only this time, the recreation of painful events is done by choice. Shain acts as a paraprofessional for the Veterans Transition Network, a program he successfully passed through, where veterans receive therapy after returning from combat. The most effective element of this therapy is the potentially counterintuitive practice of reenactment therapy. With the help of counsellors and paraprofessionals like Shain, individuals recreate the trigger of stress in an attempt to break the cycle. Participants adopt numerous rules in the actual event, not just their own, in order to gain perspective from different angles. Shain has recreated numerous events for other veterans.
Shain Dusenbury joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1996 at the age of 21, but would not leave the country for another three years. The interim was a mix of infantry training and vehicle operation courses, mainly focused on the AVGP Grizzly—a modest six-wheeled fighting vehicle commonly armed with a .50 caliber machine gun. Shain was no different than any of the other members of his battalion—he was just the one trusted with the keys to the truck. In 1999, he served a tour in Kosovo, during the peak of that conflict. Alas, the foreshadowing of potential conflict never occurred, and after a period of peacekeeping, surrounded by coalition forces, Shain returned to Canada. His contract up, Shain left the military, and adopted quickly to civilian life, a chapter closed with an uncertain future ahead.
He had been out of the army for barely a year when September 11th occurred. While nations recovered and civilians began changing the channel away from daily news cycles, Shain reenlisted. No retraining. No bureaucracy. They wanted him. There was a war on terror looming, Canada was committing boots to the field, and Shain wore them well. He rejected another three-year contract and signed up for a 20-year contract. Not long after, he hopped on a plane…to Dubai.
Even Shain admits it felt more like a vacation. On his return to Canada, he entered recce (or reconnaissance) and was promoted to corporal. Then in 2006, the call came. Shain Dusenbury was going to Afghanistan. It was clear from the inset this tour was not going be like the others. It was the first official ground combat mission Canada had undertaken since the Korean war. Upon landing, Shain was immediately suited in his flak vest; the Kandahar base (or KAF) he was assigned to had been hit with rockets the day prior. This was not Dubai.
It’s important to point out that the rules of engagement for Canadian forces were different than that of other armed forces. For one, Canadian military had authority to engage potential hostilities without the requirement of actually being fired upon. That being said, no civilian casualties ever occurred by the hands of Canadian armed forces during their stay in Afghanistan. The men and women of the KAF were on guard every moment. Evening rocket attacks occurred with such regularity, some residents dismissed them as little more than an inconvenience. Such intrusions barely strained Shain’s nerves, and he settled into this seven-month tour.
Three weeks later, two rocket-propelled grenades passed between two vehicles in Shain’s convoy, and his was the first to return fire. Improvised explosive devices had failed to disable any vehicles, and the convoy escaped without casualty. That night, there was another rocket attack. Everyone took it a bit more seriously…a bit, not too much though.
Several months later, Shain and other members of his unit were on a reconnaissance mission attempting to locate a bridge pass into hostile territory where heavier LAV-3s would follow when his unit came under fire from small arms and RPGs. Shain was driving an ECM vehicle—one that generates interference to disrupt wireless detonators, when an explosion resounded behind them. The commander, already on edge from having been shot in the back the day before (survived by the wonder of modern armor), found himself and another soldier pinned against a building. Shain drove his vehicle alongside to protect the unit from two fronts of enemy fire while the men withdrew. Shain Dusenbury was mentioned in dispatches for his efforts that day—recognition from a superior officer. Shain casually downplays the acknowledgement, following the tested justification, “anyone would have done the same in that moment.”
And then there was, August 3rd, 2006
The white school.
The first time Canadians were engaged in combat in Afghanistan.
Shain’s unit was providing assistance to Charlie company. He remembered the heat. More than 60 degree Celsius, so hot, soldiers were having difficulty even raising their weapons. Shain immediately recognized an unexploded IED near his location, but when they called for the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Demolition) vehicle, it was disabled by another planted explosive. Then the casualties began to mount—in the LAV that drove over the anti-tank mine, when a one-in-a-million RPG round landed amongst a group of soldiers, and even more just from the heat. Four Canadian soldiers had lost their lives, a dozen more were incapable of fighting.
It finally came down to a driver of a LAV who pushed into the school to provide cover to Shain and others. Grenades were tossed, rooms were cleared, and bodies were loaded into the vehicle. Canadian forces then attempted to withdraw, all the while taking and returning fire. A suicide bomber attempted to strike back, but prematurely detonated in a civilian region nearby, killing over twenty people.
Shain survived. His tour over, he returned to Canada, becoming an instructor for both reconnaissance and “driver wheel”. He entered the junior leadership course, became the top candidate, and was eventually promoted to master corporal. But Shain had also began to drink. Three years had passed since Panjwaii, and memories were as fresh as if occurring yesterday. He admitted, despite not being suicidal, he had no value in his own life. Not long after, Shain began traditional treatment for post-traumatic stress. Unfortunately, PTSD affects people differently, and while some resist aggressively to therapy, Shain was closed in. He eventually found himself at the Sunshine Coast Health Center, a private addiction treatment facility that works with trauma counseling. From there, he discovered Marvin Westwood and the Veteran Transition Program.
It was here Shain found real progress in the form of reenactment therapy, recreating events around the white school, often assuming roles as other members of his unit. Every moment of the battle is paused, analyzed, and repeated. Only by understanding each perspective can the cycle of trauma finally break, as it was with Shain. He became such a devotee of the program, he later joined it as a paraprofessional, helping others with their reenactments.
By the time I finished writing this article, Shain had finished his fourth program as a paraprofessional, with a fifth planned for the new year. The practice of reenactment therapy is finally being accepted nationally, with evidence of its success spreading province to province. Alberta and Nova Scotia have similar programs running, and with funding, Shain and others are even finally being paid for their work. The program has also expanded to welcome members of other service professions including police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel.
One month after Operation Zahara, the white school would be hit again as part of Operation Medusa, a battle that would cost more lives though eventually resulting in success for the Canadian military. Shain was honorably discharged in 2011. He has never stopped serving. He still walks onto battlefields with other soldiers trained in war. His duty has never changed—reduce allied casualties. Stand for the men next to you. And that’s it.
That’s all there is.
If you wish to learn more about the Veterans Transition Network, you can check out their website at vtncanada.org or contact Shain directly at Duze_666@hotmail.com.