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An IED explosion and an amputation can’t keep this officer out of the trenches

By Evelyn Brotherston

Captain Simon Mailloux discusses security and development concerns with the heads of villages surrounding the Canadian base at Sperwan Ghar in Afghanistan. The Canadians in Sperwan Ghar had been under sustained rocket and ambush attacks and winning the support of the population was key to their effort. Captain Mailloux was injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan in 2007, which resulted in the loss of his left leg.

Captain Simon Mailloux discusses security and development concerns with the heads of villages surrounding the Canadian base at Sperwan Ghar in Afghanistan. The Canadians in Sperwan Ghar had been under sustained rocket and ambush attacks and winning the support of the population was key to their effort. Captain Mailloux was injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan in 2007, which resulted in the loss of his left leg.

If you asked Captain Simon Mailloux what it’s like to take part in the biggest army exercise in Canada — the epically orchestrated MAPLE RESOLVE, which is played out across 62,000 hectares in rural Alberta — his response wouldn’t be unlike your average soldier’s. Mailloux would tell you it’s a great challenge, a team-building experience, and a unique opportunity to replicate a large-scale conflict.

Mailloux, however, is not your average soldier. In 2007, while serving in Afghanistan, he lost a leg in an IED explosion. Two years later he returned to Afghanistan, becoming the first Canadian amputee to deploy to a war zone as a combatant. “We were a team at war,” he says, “I couldn't just stay home.”

Canadian soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment check their equipment during Ex MAPLE RESOLVE. The huge training exercise is played out over 62,000 hectares at CFB Wainwright, Alberta. During the exercise, the Royal 22nd Regiment retook land that had been “overrun” by enemy forces, in an elaborate narrative that included the use of mock villages, as well as soldiers and civilian actors portraying refugees, village leaders, and military officials. (Sgt Dan Shinouinard, DND)

Canadian soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment check their equipment during Ex MAPLE RESOLVE. The huge training exercise is played out over 62,000 hectares at CFB Wainwright, Alberta. During the exercise, the Royal 22nd Regiment retook land that had been “overrun” by enemy forces, in an elaborate narrative that included the use of mock villages, as well as soldiers and civilian actors portraying refugees, village leaders, and military officials. (Sgt
Dan Shinouinard, DND)

Mailloux serves with the Royal 22nd Regiment (known to Anglophones as the “Van Doos”), based out of Valcartier, Quebec. During MAPLE RESOLVE, the Van Doos were put through their paces in order to successfully achieve ‘high readiness’ status, enabling them to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice.

The Van Doos objective? To take back territory that had been over-run by LCol Josh Major’s Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiment, based out of Edmonton. “Having worked with him in Afghanistan, I know he is a very tough nut to crack, and he gave us a good challenge,” says Mailloux.

MAPLE RESOLVE is what’s known as a force-on-force exercise, explains Mailloux, which means, “The enemy has all the independence they want to make our life hard.”

At one point, Mailloux’s unit had a particularly difficult attack to mount: “It was the crossing of a river, one of the hardest operations you can do. First we had to lay a bridgehead, then hold it under fire, without support, and then lay some bridges with the engineer assets before continuing to move forward.”

Mailloux is in 21C Admin Company. “Our job is to maintain combat fighting power. So we repair all the trucks, evacuate all the wounded, and we take all the detainees or the prisoners of war back. We make sure bullets and food get back up to the front so they can keep fighting.”

Doing all this on one leg isn’t without its challenges.

“It’s very cold at night,” he says. “And it’s a very challenging thing to get out of your sleeping bag and put that cold prosthesis on.”

Alberta’s unpredictable weather aside, there are technical challenges to having a battery-powered leg. “One night I was trying to deliver some defensive stores to the company battle position,” he explains. “It’s a military specific leg, and I ran out of power during the night, because I didn’t…have a chance to charge it for three or four days.” Without power, the leg was completely stiff. “My plan at that point was to just stay inside my vehicle. My sergeant was running around making sure everything was done and I stayed on the radios. It worked out in the end — I found some power. There are limitations, as I find out sometimes, but there’s always ways to get around them, and you can always find some power on the battlefield.”

A CF-18 Hornet drops a 300lb bomb amid the rolling hills of CFB Wainwright's vast training area as part of EX MAPLE RESOLVE on May 6, 2015. The exercise, which simulates a large-scale conflict environment, is the largest annual Army exercise in Canada, drawing close to 5,200 Canadian soldiers and 700 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with 700 American troops and 150 British soldiers. (Cpl True-Dee McCarthy, DND)

A CF-18 Hornet drops a 300lb bomb amid the rolling hills of CFB Wainwright's vast training area as part of EX MAPLE RESOLVE on May 6, 2015. The exercise, which simulates a large-scale conflict environment, is the largest annual Army exercise in Canada, drawing close to 5,200 Canadian soldiers and 700 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with 700 American troops and 150 British soldiers. (Cpl True-Dee McCarthy, DND)

Mailloux added: “If you don’t challenge yourself, you don’t get back up.” His day-to-day job also has its own physical demands. “I do the same kind of training and the same kind of exercises as the other guys do,” he explains. “Just recently we did a winter sports competition, and I snow-shoed up a little mountain we have back in Valcartier. I am trying to keep in shape, but snow-shoeing is a bit of a challenge.” How does he manage it? “It doesn’t look good, but it works,” he says with a laugh. “It’s much harder going up than coming downhill. But I can still keep up with the old guys. The young ones, I let them go, but the old guys I can still keep up with.”

Although he’s a familiar face to many in the Armed Forces, there were still plenty of soldiers who were taken aback to see a soldier with one leg participating in MAPLE RESOLVE.

“Every now and then when I was in my shorts and T-shirt walking through our base camp you’d get a glimpse of people going ‘What?’ Or while taking a shower there’d be guys passing in front of my shower, just looking at the prosthesis hanging out and they’d look twice, to make sure they understood. Then after that they’d just shake my hand and say ‘good job.’” 

“Everybody is very supportive,” he adds. “I'm very glad that the military is open to these kinds of things now.”

A soldier who wants to return to active duty after an injury has to pass the same physical fitness tests as anyone else. If you can do the job, you can continue to serve. “If you want to, and if you’re ready to put the effort in, it’s possible,” says Simon. “But not every soldier wants to do it.”

For Mailloux, the decision to return to active duty was a particularly bold one. “There were moments when I doubted, because nobody had done it before. I couldn’t pick up a story where somebody did it before me.”

Captain Simon Mailloux received the Sacrifice Medal from then-Governor General Michaëlle Jean at Rideau Hall on November 9, 2009, shortly before redeploying to Afghanistan. Following his injury, Mailloux was posted as an aide-de-camp to Her Excellency. (Sgt Serge Gouin, Rideau Hall)

Captain Simon Mailloux received the Sacrifice Medal from then-Governor General Michaëlle Jean at Rideau Hall on November 9, 2009, shortly before redeploying to Afghanistan. Following his injury, Mailloux was posted as an aide-de-camp to Her Excellency. (Sgt Serge Gouin, Rideau Hall)

His example paved the way for other amputees who had been injured in Afghanistan to return to the job, including two of his fellow Van Doos. Now, post-2009, “We’ve used the re-deployment to Afghanistan as proof that we’re still able to serve,” he says. “To be honest, I don't know what’s possible, and what's impossible now. We’ll figure it out as we go along.”

For him, the important thing is to have an opportunity to continue serving, in whatever capacity possible. “I’m back at Wainwright eight years after my deployment, and I can still do a job that is important and fulfilling.” Should another deployment come along, “I’ll take that up, too,” he says.

Not every soldier thinks about what they’d do if they were wounded. “I don’t think most do,” says Mailloux. “I never thought about being an amputee before I was one. It’s after the fact that you start putting the pieces in place… And I think if something happens to guys in theater, or domestically… nothing is over with the Canadian Armed Forces. We take care of our own.”