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Corporal François Duperé was blinded in his right eye, among other injuries, when a suicide bomber struck just outside a forward base in southern Afghanistan. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Corporal François Duperé was blinded in his right eye, among other injuries, when a suicide bomber struck just outside a forward base in southern Afghanistan. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

How Canada eases the pain of soldiers who come home wounded Add to ...

On a crisp January morning in Kabul, a man with a bomb underneath his coat walked up to Jay Feyko’s open-top jeep and pulled the trigger. Shrapnel blinded the right eye of the young Canadian officer.

Eight years later, François Duperé was on foot just outside a forward base in southern Afghanistan when a suicide bomber again set off his explosive charge. The corporal nearly bled to death and was blinded in his right eye, too.

Back in early 2004, Jay Feyko was among the first Canadian soldiers wounded by Taliban attack in Afghanistan. François Duperé was among the last. Between them, 615 soldiers were wounded in combat. The two men’s cases are a study in how much has changed over the course of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

From medical expertise to pensions and a massive new infrastructure for case management, the system to treat Canadian soldiers wounded in Afghanistan has been overhauled.

Some aspects of care are clearly improved. Entire trauma and rehabilitation teams are now experienced with war wounds. The injured are accompanied by teams of caregivers and case managers. Vets get better advice on everything from recreational opportunities to psychiatric care.

Other changes, most notably the much-criticized lump disability payments that replaced a long-term monthly pension plan, will put fewer dollars into the pockets of wounded soldiers.

Major Feyko was injured when Canada was inexperienced with the cost of war, while Corporal Duperé’s wounds were inflicted when the toll was clearer.

A native of Parry Sound, Ont., Jay Feyko was a lieutenant in 2004, part of Roto 0, the first rotation of troops who set out on Canada’s long-term, post-invasion mission in Afghanistan.

He was on patrol on Jan. 27 in a residential area of Kabul when a middle-aged Afghan man ambled between two Canadian vehicles and detonated his bomb. The explosion killed Corporal Jamie Murphy instantly where he sat in the back seat of Major Feyko’s jeep. Two other Canadians and several Afghan civilians were also wounded.

“Luck was on my side that day,” Major Feyko says, noting a second mortar worn by the bomber failed to go off. “For all the shrapnel wounds, I didn’t break a bone or an artery. It could have been much worse.”

Major Feyko was home in Petawawa one week later, but he was left in uncharted territory. His medical care was fine, but he had to figure out a complicated array of services. To name one, he says it was up to him to find his own psychologist to deal with anxiety and “make sure everything was squared away.”

The military took nearly four years to decide to keep him. People with similar wounds are now routinely cleared in months to stay in the Canadian Forces.

“For a lot of things, I had to go fishing and research myself,” says Major Feyko, 38. “There wasn’t the structure there is today, nor the experience. I was figuring out the system and pretty much doing all this stuff on my own. Fortunately, it’s gotten a lot better. Unfortunately, that expertise has come at a price.”

Cpl. Duperé, who lives in a Montreal suburb, has benefited from that learning and structure.

Originally from Sept-Îles, Que., he served on Roto 10, the group that ended Canada’s combat operations in Kandahar province. On April 12, 2011, he and a small group of Canadian and U.S. soldiers were walking back to a forward base after firing off practice rounds.

His attacker slipped from the crowd at a busy market just outside the gate, and triggered the bomb. Along with the shattered eye, Cpl. Duperé had both his jugular vein and carotid artery torn open. “It was a gusher and I thought, ‘I’m in deep crap,’ ” he recalls.

Medics rushed to plug his wounds. Within minutes, he was in a Black Hawk helicopter, swooping low among mountains, to get him to the modern hospital at Kandahar Air Field.

Cpl. Duperé, 31, has constantly been surrounded by support. There was a Canadian Forces padre in Germany who gave him calling cards and tried to keep him from limping out of his German hospital to bum a desperately needed smoke. (Mission failed.)

A support officer was assigned to him from his reserve unit, the 4th Battalion of the Royal 22e Regiment, to meet him at Enfant-Jésus Hospital in Quebec City and accompany his parents.

Major Feyko will one day be part of Cpl. Duperé’s support team. The officer recently took command of a program called Soldier On that connects injured veterans with recreational activities suited to their abilities. The program has introduced paraplegics to sledge hockey and amputees to the joy of running.

Major Feyko long ago learned to live with limitations. With one good eye, depth perception can be tricky. He’s very careful pouring a glass of wine and on the hockey rink his lack of peripheral vision leads to the occasional collision. Shrapnel still stings his leg when he jogs.

Cpl. Duperé has a long way to go before his health status is clear. His jaw was reconstructed and new nerves were grafted into his shoulder, but he still has a partly paralyzed left arm, a damaged voice box, along with the blind eye. Doctors say they may yet be able to improve all three, but operations and rehab lie ahead.

Then money must be sorted out. The system for disability payments changed in 2006, meaning Major Feyko gets a monthly disability pension for his blindness, while Cpl. Duperé will get a lump sum. Critics say there is a two-class system among Afghan war vets, and a blind eye in 2011 will be worth thousands less over a lifetime than an eye lost in 2004.

Relentlessly upbeat, Cpl. Duperé brushes aside money questions. He hopes to stay in the infantry reserve and to continue in his civilian trade as an industrial electrician. Neither he nor Major Feyko says he regrets anything.

The major is certain his team helped Afghans. Cpl. Duperé shares this conviction, but adds: “We grow a lot through these experiences. We see life differently. When you're sure you’ll die, and you get a second chance, it’s very powerful.”

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