It’s an hour before the event is scheduled to begin. A bevy of organizers, uniformed military, first responders, and Legionnaires mix freely with students going to and from classes. It’s quite crowded and there’s a palpable feeling of unreality in the atrium of Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus. Across the room stand two TVs. Both feature the words “Iron Soldier” in stark red and black letters—sans serif, naturally, and in all caps. It’s a bold look. The name and style is reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster.
“What’s going on here?” A voice asks. I’m startled. I look up from my notes to see a student in a grey hoodie regarding me with a bemused look. I don’t answer right away. I almost don’t know what to say to him. Where would I even begin?
Perhaps the most obvious place would be on March 4th, 2006 in a small village outside of Kandahar City, Afghanistan. Captain Trevor Greene was in a meeting with the local village elders. As a CIMIC (Civilian-Military Cooperation) officer, Trevor was there to discuss Canadian reconstructive efforts. As a sign of respect towards the elders, he had removed his helmet. This gesture nearly cost him his life. A teenaged Afghan boy, under the influence of the Taliban, savagely buried a homemade axe deep into Trevor’s skull, nearly cleaving his brain in two. His escort, a platoon from A-Company of the 1st Battalion PPCLI, killed the boy and managed to drag him to safety amid the heavy fire of an ambush, and within a short time Trevor was on the operating table in Kandahar airfield with some of the best trauma surgeons in the world working feverishly to save his life. There’s a saying about the Kandahar Airfield hospital: “If you arrive alive, you will survive.” The surgeons were as good as their word that day. Trevor pulled through the night, and after stabilizing, he was sent to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre in Germany to begin an uncertain recovery.
It’s now about five minutes until the event begins. The atrium has calmed down a bit. Those students who have class have left, and those who are staying wait patiently outside the ring of chairs. Their curiosity about the “Iron Soldier” has gotten the best of them. The wail of bagpipes can be heard distantly—they must be practicing outside—and cadets rush about, furiously setting up more chairs to accommodate the larger-than-expected crowd. Most of the dignitaries wait patiently. Some play idly with their phones. The President of BC/Yukon Command of the Legion paces mechanically, lips pursed and eyes distant. He is practicing his speech in his head. No one who has a stake in this event is relaxed. It’s no surprise. A lot of effort went into it. Today is a culmination of sorts.
“Can everyone please take your seats? We’re about to begin.”
Trevor survived the attack, and was safely moved to Germany, but his chances of recovery were still heartbreakingly low. The axe had done horrific damage to his brain. He was in a coma, and it was doubtful that he would ever wake up. Doctor’s warned his fiancée, Debbie, that even if he did, he would likely be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life… As the speeches get underway at SFU, I catch a glimpse of Trevor’s empty wheelchair behind a thick black curtain at the rear of the stage, and reflect on how inspiring it can be when doctors are proven wrong.
Most of the speeches are about what you’d expect. Each speaker takes their turn at the podium and pays scrupulous attention to thanking all those in attendance while giving short descriptions of their involvement with the project. Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner speaks, then the Associate Vice-President of Research at SFU, Norbert Haunerland, then Michael Marchbank, CEO of Fraser Health, then Mark Tremblay, President of BC/Yukon Command of the Royal Canadian Legion. I can sense the crowd’s growing impatience. I feel it myself. The speeches are short, but there are a lot of them—more than I would have expected. It’s a very visible demonstration of how many different organizations have become involved in Trevor’s story. The last to speak is Dr. Ryan D’Arcy, co-chair of Innovation Boulevard and the lead neurosurgeon on Project Iron Soldier. His speech is about hope.
Trevor proved his doctors wrong. He came out of the coma, and over long months and years taught himself to smile and to speak again. Slowly, he began to rebuild his life. The attack had catastrophically damaged the part of his brain that controls motor-function, but had left his thought and cognition centers unscathed. Trevor’s recovery was nothing short of miraculous, but despite this, he was still hemmed in by limitations. Doctors made it clear that he would never walk again. Conventional wisdom, they told him, dictates that after six months a brain-injured person couldn’t expect to see further improvements to their condition. However, Dr. D’Arcy and his team hypothesized that, even six years after the fact, the brain could still be taught to re-wire itself through a process of visualization and physical movement. Trevor was the perfect candidate to put this theory to the test. Together, he and Dr. D’Arcy hatched a plan to re-make him as the “Iron Soldier.” Together, they set out to prove that a brain-injured person could actually walk again.
Finally, the moment of truth comes. A young girl behind me gives Dr. D’Arcy the thumbs up, signaling that all is ready. A hush falls over the crowd as Dr. D’Arcy steps back. The thick black curtain, which had provided the backdrop to all of the speeches, is finally pulled aside to reveal Trevor Greene who is seated on a high stool, his legs and low back hugged tightly by the mechanical appendages of an exoskeleton. Debbie – now Trevor’s wife – stands in front of him gripping a walker. A spotter behind him holds onto the exoskeleton. Without a word or ceremony, Trevor’s lower body jerks into motion. His feet hit the floor, and his lower back is driven straight to the mechanical whirr of the machine. Trevor takes hold of the walker in front of him, and, guided by his wife, does what no one ever thought he would do again: he walks.
His steps are awkward and uncanny. They are the exaggerated and machine-like movements of an automaton. Trevor himself would later describe the feeling as that of a doll having its limbs moved about by an outside force. He walks across the stage slowly, driven on by the motors of the exoskeleton. His mouth is set firmly in concentration, and his eyes stare ahead almost unblinking. Effort is clearly drawn across his face. He reaches the end of the stage, and, as he turns, a slow smile breaks through the icy façade of his concentration. He’s not smiling for the camera. That smile isn’t for us. It’s a personal, self-satisfied smile. It’s amazing to see.
After Trevor gets back into his wheelchair, he is given the opportunity to speak. It’s a short speech, but it’s easily the most powerful of the afternoon. His voice cracks with emotion as he describes the way that Royal Canadian Legion volunteers raised over 100,000 dollars to buy the exoskeleton he now sports. He tells the audience, “In a crisis, the right people come at the right time.” His life is a testament to this principle. The right trauma-surgeons were on staff to keep him alive in Kandahar nine years ago, the right neurosurgeon was there to give him hope that he might walk again, the right organization was there is raise the money needed for this modern miracle to take place, and the right partner – Debbie – was there beside him through all the long days of his painfully slow recovery.
Trevor himself was also the right person. It would have been all too easy for him to give up hope—to accept his limitations and live out the rest of his life in relative ease. Doctors advised him to do this for years, and on his darkest days I’m sure that he was tempted. But he has never given up on his pursuit of recovery. In his short walk across the stage, he proved what the will of one man can accomplish when combined with the marvels of cutting edge technology and the generosity of thousands of everyday people. In his speech, Dr. D’Arcy said that Trevor’s goal was to walk to Everest base-camp. Some may think this overly ambitious, but Trevor has made a habit of proving doubters wrong. He really is the “Iron Soldier”—not because of the exoskeleton strapped to his limbs, but because of his resolve. The iron is in his heart.
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