True Grit – Why an Axe to the Head Couldn’t Stop Capt. Trevor Greene (1/5)

Nearly killed on duty in Afghanistan, Trevor Greene seemed condemned to spend the rest of his days in a coma. Unbreakable determination and his fiancee's love brought him back to life.

True Grit - Why an Axe to the Head Couldn't Stop Capt. Trevor Greene

(Photo: Lisa Petkau Photography)

When Capt. Trevor Greene arrived with his platoon in Shinkay, a remote collection of mud huts deep in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, nearly every man and boy in the village turned out to stare. Greene was there to ask residents about the state of their schools, health care and drinking water, in his role as a civil-military co-operation operator. His goal: to determine where the military’s resources would make the greatest impact. He and his team had already visited two nearby villages that day, March 4, 2006, and spirits were high as he sat with a group of Shinkay elders and villagers, his helmet removed as a sign of respect.

Suddenly, a young man stepped forward. In one rapid motion, he pulled an axe from his robes and, with the cry, “Allahu akbar!” (“God is greater”), buried it in Greene’s head. Sixteen-year-old Abdul Kareem was poised for a second blow when soldiers opened fire, killing him instantly. The villagers scattered, leaving shoes and hats in their wake. Rockets and machine-gun fire exploded around the military medic who worked furiously to keep Greene alive. Capt. Kevin Schamuhn left to radio headquarters as troops quickly brought the situation under control.

“I went back to get his update, fully expecting the medic to tell me Trevor was dead,” recalls Schamuhn. Incredibly, “his heart rate was stable and his breathing was stable, but there was a big hole in his head.”

Forty-five minutes later, a medivac helicopter carrying Greene pulled away. Shinkay fell silent. The Afghan teenager lay in a dry riverbed, his body riddled with bullets. Nearby, flecking the grass, was the blood and brain matter of the 41-year-old Canadian soldier who had come to help him.

Debbie Lepore told herself not to panic. Greene, her fiancé, lay motionless on a bed in a military hospital in Germany, his head wrapped in a white bandage. He had just had emergency brain surgery and was on full life-support, his breathing and feeding controlled entirely by machines. Lepore knew that his injury – suffered two days earlier and just two months into his first tour in Afghanistan – was serious, but she assumed he would recover. “Most of his body looked okay, and I was trying to be positive,” she remembers. “You don’t automatically accept that someone is being kept alive. It didn’t sink in.”

Reality caught up with Lepore about ten days later, when Greene was flown to the Vancouver General Hospital. She was summoned to a waiting room to discuss his prognosis with the attending physician, who explained that her husband-to-be and the father of her young daughter, Grace, would likely never emerge from his coma. The axe had been driven about two centimetres into his brain, damaging his primary motor cortex and severely affecting his primary motor functions, including his ability to speak. Even if Greene did wake up, a stunned Lepore was told, he would be trapped in a vegetative state. He will not be a vegetable, she thought. They might know brains, but they don’t know Trevor.

In their five years together before the attack, Lepore had been struck by Greene’s determination. An athlete who pushed himself to the extreme (he competed with a rugby team and rowing club), Greene was a journalist by trade and had published two books, including Bad Date in 2001, which explores the issue of prostitution in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The book captures his fierce feeling of social responsibility, the quality that ultimately led him to the Canadian Forces and his deployment to Afghanistan. Greene saw rebuilding the war-torn country as the first step towards making a difference in people’s lives there.

“Trevor’s whole story is about being a champion of the underdog,” says Sue Ridout, who produced Peace Warrior, a 2008 documentary about him.

But could a man who, by all accounts, was larger than life – stubborn, driven, addicted to insurmountable goals – overcome a situation in which he had lost a chunk of his brain? “He had a fighting spirit,” Lepore explains. “I saw that in him before, and I thought he would do the same again.”

In his role as civil-military co-operation officer, Greene attended meetings with village elders throughout Kandahar province. (Photo: Rick Madonick/

Next: Against all odds, Trevor awakes
from his coma.

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