Cpl. Hilliard Paul Kahpeaysewat was given the nickname ‘Unkillable’ by the Taliban. At home on Moosomin First Nation, he’s known as Golden Eagle. On the National Day of Honour, we tell of his journey from alcoholism and poverty to the battlefield
On Sept 1, 2009, Cpl. Hilliard Paul Kahpeaysewat was en route to Afghanistan, leaving Canada for the first time.
When he stepped off the plane, the temperature was a sweltering 55 C.
Six hours later, a rocketpropelled grenade exploded in front of him.
“That’s when I realized it was real. These guys aren’t fooling around and I’m going to have to protect myself,” he said. It wasn’t until later that he noticed his knee had been hit by shrapnel.
Kahpeaysewat, the first Afghanistan veteran to come from the Moosomin Reserve near North Battleford, was stationed near the Pakistani border in Southern Afghanistan in the Panjwai district. Part of his job was driving an armoured vehicle. He spray painted an Autobot symbol on it because it looked like a Transformer.
Over his nine-month tour, he was shot at repeatedly and drove over five improvised explosive devices.
The Taliban gave him a nickname — Unkillable.
Kahpeaysewat joined the army when he was 36. Although it had always been a dream of his to enlist, it was only when the army contacted him after Sept. 11, 2001 that he decided to sign up.
“I’m definitely one of the older guys to join, but I’m like 250 pounds of muscle … I’m a machine,” Kahpeaysewat said.
At that time, he was working odd jobs and struggling with alcoholism.
“Basically the war saved my life,” he said.
He was inspired to join the army to protect his nieces and nephews in Canada and help the people of Afghanistan, he said. It was also for himself and his own peace of mind.
“(The reserve) was not the healthiest place to bring up a child; there is always drugs and alcohol. People don’t think that you can get out,” said his sister, Denise.
“It took a lot of guts, and now people see that if he can do it, so can they. It was a proud moment for his family.”
In 2005, he picked up and left for training in Ontario and Quebec without telling anyone. After several gruelling months that included many sleepless nights, obsessively clean boots and long runs with heavy backpacks, he graduated near the top of his class. Then came Afghanistan. “At first I was really gung-ho about it, and then I realized I could get killed and no one in my community or family knew,” he said.
He told everyone his plans when he returned to Moosomin. Then he discovered his brother Jason had cancer. He wanted to drop out to spend time with him, but his brother pushed him to stay in the army.
“Do this for me and for yourself. Show the youth what can be done, and be somebody,” Jason told him.
Before he left, his community held a banquet and naming ceremony for him. Elders gave him the name Golden Eagle and offered him a feather which he wore or put on his rifle in Afghanistan.
Much of his time there was spent on reconstruction efforts, protecting girls as they walked to school, and patrolling. One day, the village got electricity and television.
“After the TV came, you should have seen how many Fonzies popped up,” he said. “Leather jackets in the desert — come on.”
He got to know some of the language and would hang out drinking tea with the Afghan police. They were fascinated with him because they had never seen an aboriginal person before, he recalled.
“I taught them about the culture. I showed them Dances with Wolves and they were shocked. I was a little celebrity. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom sometimes,” he chuckled. “I understood them because they’re kind of like natives; they’re tribal.”
Kahpeaysewat spent several months living in a platoon camp with the Afghan people, sleeping outside and protecting them from the Taliban and wild dogs. Growing up in Moosomin, there was no running water. In Afghanistan, water was so scarce he couldn’t take a shower for three months. When he called home, he would always ask for baby wipes.
“It was 24/7 on alert for nine months. I was so played out at the end,” he said.
He didn’t see rain until his plane home first landed in Trenton, Ontario — and started doing a rain dance on the tarmac. His army buddies laughed, but when they realized the luxury of clean, cool, abundant water, they ran out and joined him.
When he saw his family again in Edmonton, Jason — who has since died — ran up to him like a little boy to give him a hug, Kahpeaysewat recalled. His mom, Mary, said she was crying like a river.
He is now considered a hero in his community and is inspiring children on his reserve to think about joining the armed forces.
“He wanted to see the world. He was always a dreamer,” said his mom, who attended a residential school and has overcome her own struggle with alcohol.
“Now, if he says he’s going to the moon tomorrow, I would just say, ‘Well, OK, let’s prepare,’ because I know that he’s going to do it. We know how to survive — most people on the reserve do. I’m proud of him and everyone in my family.”
In the army, Kahpeaysewat lost three friends who were like brothers to him. He is still recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and has retired from the army due to his knee injury. Today, he works the night shift as a security officer at the Gold Eagle Casino in North Battleford.
He hasn’t had a drink in two years.
“My goal right now is living. I might go back in the military,” he said. “Now I’m seeing all this stuff about Russia, and I’m having second thoughts.”
Cpl. Hilliard Paul Kahpeaysewat says the army helped him turn his life around, to escape alcoholism. ‘Basically the war saved my life,’ he said