By RON CORBETT
He led the first Canadian troops into Afghanistan and sparked controversy as the inaugural veterans ombudsman. As the mission winds down and vets rally for care, Pat Stogran offers a few choice words
Picture a windstorm in Kandahar, if you’ve ever had the pleasure, or the chaos of a helicopter pad — lots of action and noise, and you have to keep up and pay attention — and you have Stogran on full send.
Stogran is on full send right now. We are eating breakfast in a ByWard Market diner, and he is talking about the work he is doing for Wounded Warriors, a charity that helps disabled veterans. He has been hooked up with them for a few years now and says that they’re the ones who are really helping veterans — it’s not the government. To that end, he’s starting up a website. He already has a name for it — Rebel Guerrilla — although damned if somebody doesn’t already have that name registered, so he may need to throw the word “dog” (after his beloved chocolate Labrador, Apollo) or “the” in there somewhere.
“Rebel-Dog-Guerrilla, or Dog-Rebel-Guerrilla?” he asks in jest. “What do you think sounds better?’”
In the end, he goes with The Rebel Guerrilla.
Stogran: The Rebel Guerrilla — it is certainly surprising, but not the first unexpected revelation I’ve had this morning. I remember interviewing him when he was leading soldiers in Afghanistan and almost a caricature of a ramrod-straight, spit-and-polish military officer. Yet this same man sitting across from me now tells me he is singing Woody Guthrie songs at open-mic nights around town and writing a book he hopes will initiate revolutionary thinking about our attitudes toward the government.
His change is rather remarkable and seems to represent much of the debate about Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. As the mission winds down, the serious job of assessment begins. What did we accomplish? What did we change?
Stogran will be part of that conversation because of a unique perspective on two fronts: he was commanding officer of the first Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, and he was Canada’s first veterans ombudsman. He may well be unique in another regard. Certainly it is hard to believe anyone was changed more because of our war in Afghanistan than Colonel Pat Stogran.
When all is said and done, Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan lasted 4,565 days — more time than Canada spent in both world wars.
No one thought such a thing possible in 2001, when 43-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Stogran was the new commander of the Third Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3PPCLI), which, at the time, was Canada’s rapid deployment force. Most military observers greeted his appointment as destiny unfolding.
“In many ways, Pat is the perfect light infantry commander,” says Taylor, who first met Stogran in Bosnia. “He loves physical training, loves being a soldier. He is an officer who easily gets the respect of his troops.”
It’s not hard to imagine why. Stogran once said he learned everything he needed to know about life from growing up in northern Quebec and from watching The Devil’s Brigade (1968). From that movie, he developed a fascination with martial arts (he is a third-degree black belt). From northern Quebec came a love of the outdoors and extreme, over-the-top competition. The second oldest of four brothers — his father was a mining executive who eventually moved the family to British Columbia — Stogran thought regular snowball fights were boring, so he organized games of skins versus shirts. Fishing trips became endurance tests. Overnight camping was a survival game.
After high school, he went to Royal Roads Military College in Victoria, figuring four years of military service would be a fair trade for an engineering degree. But those plans blew up when he fell in love with the soldier’s life. “I loved everything about the military,” remembers Stogran. “Being outdoors, testing yourself physically and mentally, the camaraderie you find in an army company or platoon. There was nothing about being a soldier I didn’t love.”
He steadily rose through the ranks, his martial arts skills and natural leadership abilities turning heads at the Department of National Defence. There were a few bumps along the way (he had a public disagreement in 1994 with United Nations commander Sir Michael Rose over the military strategy in Bosnia), but for the most part, his career was a continuously ascending path. His appointment as commander of the 3PPCLI — an Edmonton-based light-infantry battalion with a heavy coterie of no-guts-no-glory paratroopers — was the next logical step.
“It had been a tough few years for the unit before Pat arrived,” remembers Colonel (ret) Steve Borland, Stogran’s second-in-command at 3PPCLI. “A lot of our guys were ex-paratroopers. They had seen their regiment disbanded. They were wondering if there was a place for them in the modern army. Then in comes Pat, who not only thinks there is a place for light infantry, he is damned passionate about how badly we’re needed. The tip of the spear and all that. Pat absolutely believes that stuff.”
However, it is for these reasons that Stogran was conflicted about Afghanistan right from the start. On one hand, he believed there wouldn’t be a clean end, given that Afghanistan was part of a new assymetrical world conflict. And he was a father, with a wife and two young children back in Edmonton. What father would ever wish for global conflict?
But he was also a light infantry soldier who had trained 20 years for a fight that never came. Until, possibly, now.
Pat Stogran is on full send again, talking about Afghanistan and how the Canadian government “blew it” when it adopted a “Vietnam-era, seek-and-destroy” strategy instead of the more traditional peacekeeping policy the Canadian military had practised for nearly 50 years between Korea and Afghanistan.
“We lost the hearts and minds of the local population,” he says, tamping down his voice so that he won’t attract attention in the diner. “We kept boasting about opening a Tim Hortons in Afghanistan? Well, we opened it inside the wire,” he says. “If you want to boast about something, then set up a Tim Hortons outside the wire.”
Stogran says Afghanistan was a missed opportunity right from the start. Indeed, anyone who was in 3PPCLI in January 2002 has stories to tell of what it was like to arrive in Kandahar. For example, how they had to land at night in a Hercules transport plane doing evasive manoeuvres, their stomachs turning as the wheels touched down. After that came a midnight walk through a bombed-out airport, the husks of tanks and armoured personnel carriers leading the way. Then weeks of windstorms. Don’t even ask about the latrines.
“To say Kandahar was primitive is to be kind,” says Borland. “There was just nothing there. We had to build the Canadian base from scratch — no running water, no command post. Just nothing.”
Moreover, Canadians rarely found a fight. Stogran and his soldiers deployed on three battalion-level combat missions in Afghanistan — including one looking for Osama Bin Laden or his remains — but Canadian soldiers found few Taliban forces to engage.
In an irony bitter to this day, the only Canadian lives lost during the deployment came when an American fighter pilot on a night training mission mistakenly dropped a guided missile that killed four soldiers.
Those deaths shocked the nation — and forever changed Stogran.
When Stogran returned from Afghanistan in the summer of 2002, he visited the families of the four soldiers killed under his command. The trip took him from the Maritime homes of Privates Richard Green and Nathan Smith, to the Toronto church of Corporal Ainsworth Dyer, to the small town of Lancaster, Ontario, 50 kilometres south of Ottawa, where Sergeant Marc Leger had been raised.
When Claire Leger met Stogran that summer, the death of her son was still fresh. Together, they visited the nearby cemetery, where they stood in silence in front of Marc’s grave, the word Afghanistan etched in large letters. A regimental insignia accompanied the end and start dates of a young person’s life.
“You could see he was taking it rather hard,” remembers Leger. “He didn’t have to be here — we certainly weren’t expecting it — and it was hard to see him putting himself through it. You wanted to tell him he didn’t need to be here. But he saw it as his duty — that was pretty clear. He was going to be here no matter what we said. I don’t think we could have kept him away.”
After returning from Afghanistan in 2002, Stogran was promoted to colonel and commanded a joint operations group in Kingston. He enjoyed the work, but when someone showed him an advertisement for the newly created position of veterans ombudsman, he was intrigued.
On October 15, 2007 — near the beginning, people would recall later, of Canada’s bloodiest three years in Afghanistan — Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Pat Stogran had been appointed Canada’s first veterans ombudsman.
A match had been lit. A powder keg was not far away.
Before 2006, only seven Canadian soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan. You tend to forget that, the mission often remembered as something uniform and enormous.
It was only after Canadian troops deployed to Kandahar for a second time in 2006 — a move that coincided with an insurgent offensive in the province — that ramp ceremonies became a mainstay of headline news. In addition to the dead, thousands of injured soldiers also started coming home.
Stogran asked to go out and meet these people, a request that left people at Veterans Affairs puzzled. Why in the world did he want to do such a thing? His job was to manage his office, not leave it. But Stogran kept pushing. When government bureaucrats told him there were no homeless veterans in Canada (that was considered to be an American problem), he went for a five-minute walk to an Ottawa shelter and found one. He asked why the public service — including Veterans Affairs — wasn’t hiring more veterans.
“I think the federal government thought it was getting a rough-around-the-edges colonel who could be easily manipulated and made inconsequential,” says Taylor. “But that’s not what they got. What they got was one of the best battlefield commanders in the Canadian army.”
As such, he had been trained to fight. The final explosion — match finds keg — came in regard to the federal government’s New Veterans Charter, which had been introduced in 2005 — a sweeping document that changed many long-term pensions to lump-sum payments. The charter, which took effect in 2006, was supposed to be reviewed continually — a sort of “living document,” as Stogran puts it. Instead, “They just shelved a flawed piece of legislation,” which constituted — in his mind — “a cruel-hearted attack on veterans’ pensions.” He realized the government had no intention of improving or reviewing the legislation. Thereafter, Stogran became very vocal about the “government’s deception” over the charter.
In August 2010, the federal government announced it would not be renewing Stogran’s three-year appointment. His last day of work would be November 10, one day before Remembrance Day. Instead of going quietly, Stogran used his last three months to campaign against the New Veterans Charter — along with “a culture of mistreatment of veterans” — once inviting soldiers wounded in Afghanistan to share the podium with him during a news conference.
“I don’t know what people were expecting,” says Borland about Stogran’s time as ombudsman. “Pat did that job the same way he commanded a battalion. There’s a straight line between the two jobs. Looking after the troops. It’s the same thing, right?”
Since his removal as veterans ombudsman, Stogran has remained a public figure, even speaking of his own difficulties in adapting to civilian life. It was around that time that he also became more vocal about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Pat has been very open about his PTSD,” says Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors. “When someone of his stature comes out and talks about his struggles to get healthy — that’s a powerful message to other soldiers.”
It was while getting treatment for PTSD (which Stogran does not attribute to Afghanistan, believing his condition might go all the way back to Bosnia) that a therapist encouraged his interest in music as therapy.
“I picked up an old guitar I had lying around the house, and damned if it didn’t seem to help. Companion dogs. Music. They’re trying everything these days.”
Stogran has even found a way to combine his current passions — folk music, veterans’ rights, and responsible government — and has started Singing for Change, an open-mic series that raises money for Wounded Warriors.
“It blows some people away, but the first time I met Pat, he was playing guitar and singing by a campfire,” says Maxwell with a laugh. “It seems quite natural to me. And Singing for Change has been very popular. Colonel Pat Stogran singing Woody Guthrie songs. You’re curious, right?”
Stogran uses the concerts not only to sing but also to spread his well-honed message: the welfare of Canada’s veterans is in the hands of penny-pinching bureaucrats more interested in actuary tables than in duty. He believes common sense, decency, and good governance are under attack in this country. Power corrupts, and it has corrupted this current federal government — and Stogran isn’t afraid to say it.
“Some people think he has become extreme, but there is truth in what he has to say,” says Taylor. “People are used to hearing things all dressed up in Ottawa — there are certain ways you express yourself. Pat has never learned to play that game. But he’s a man worth listening to.”
“So when did you become such a radical, Pat?”
“What are you talking about? I’m not a radical.”
The breakfast crowd in Mello’s Diner has mostly left. People have gone to work or to school, back to whatever needs to be done this morning.
“Pat, you’re debating names for a whistleblower website, you want to start a revolution, and any minute now you might start singing This Land Is My Land. It’s a wonder we haven’t locked you up already.”
He laughs and puts down his coffee cup. Runs his fingers through his hair. The chiselled face of the man who led the first Canadian combat troops into Afghanistan more than a decade ago has started to slacken somewhat. Pat Stogran may finally be looking his age, which will be 55 this year. He lives in a house in a quiet middle-class neighbourhood in Orleans, both children grown, his wife still working as a vice-principal of an elementary school. He’s gearing up for a busy year of interviews as reporters seek his assessment of the Afghan mission, documentary filmmakers look for a compelling quote, and DND mandarins prepare briefs.
Stogran will tell his Tim Hortons story and argue that Afghanistan was a failed endeavour, that Canada fell victim to so-called “mission creep.” At the end of it all, uncertainty abounds. Why were we there? To send young girls to school? To defeat the Taliban? To prop up the corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai?
“I know a lot of people won’t want to hear it,” he says, “but within a year of us leaving, it will be like we were never in Afghanistan. That’s what happens when you haven’t won the hearts and minds of the local population.”
In certain ways, Stogran has already moved on from Afghanistan. Ever the practical soldier, he has assessed the situation and deployed to the next. At the same time, he acknowledges that the fallout from the mission continues.
“Afghanistan is over,” he says. “But it will define the Canadian Forces for the next generation. How we treat the veterans will define the country.”
Stogran says he never thought he’d be called a radical. Maybe he should get a decal for his guitar. What is it that Woody Guthrie had on his?
“This machine kills fascists,” I answer.
“Right. Right. What can I get? This machine kills bullshit?”
“That might work. How about Rebel Dog Guerrilla?”
He spits out a drop of coffee.
“Oh, man, it’s a funny life, isn’t it? But I still don’t know about radical. If you’re saying I’ve changed since Afghanistan, then sure, I have. But if that’s how you define things, then there are a lot of radicals in Canada right now.”