National Post (Latest Edition)
A soldier lost her son and her leg in a crash. Her fight against the Canadian Forces continues.
In 2006, Capt. Kim Fawcett’s air force unit was gearing up for deployment, not unexpected for an experienced member of a high-readiness unit as Canada’s war in Afghanistan was expanding.
This time, however, there were extra complications: Fawcett was a new mother just back from maternity leave, and her military husband had been ordered onto base to prepare for an imminent mission of his own.
Fawcett, a planning officer at the time, was able to make quick arrangements to help both of their deployments and, on the morning of Feb. 21, 2006, she phoned her commanding officer and received approval to trigger the military’s mandated childcare plan for their nine-month-old son, Keiran.
She put on her forest green combat uniform, with the button-down side pockets in the pants, its matching winter coat and black combat boots. Her husband, a major, carried Keiran to their Jeep, kissed them goodbye, and Fawcett headed from their house near Canadian Forces Base Kingston to hand Keiran over to his grandparents.
As she merged from the long on-ramp onto Highway 401, her Jeep spun on ice, slid across two lanes and slammed into the road’s concrete median. Behind her, strapped in his car seat, Keiran began to cry. Near the bottom of his almost perfectly round face with three dimples, Fawcett saw a speckle of red. Perhaps he had bit his lip.
She was about to climb into the back seat to check on him when she realized how precarious they were, stuck blocking the passing lane. She thought it safer to carry him back across to the shoulder of the highway and up an embankment on the other side of a ditch to wait for help.
“I stepped down into the ditch and then we were hit broadside right out of nowhere,” she says.
A truck crashed into Fawcett’s right side. She was carrying Keiran in her left arm and the impact sent him flying. She had no idea where because at that moment the button on her combat pants snagged on the truck’s front grill and she was yanked abruptly down. Both tires ran her over and the forward motion tore off her right leg.
“I landed on my back on the 401,” she says. “I looked up and I just remember seeing a clear sky, and a snowflake had touched down on my nose.” It was the last thing she remembers of that day, which is a blessing.
Keiran had also landed on the highway. As a transport truck barrelled towards him, its driver caught a glimpse of what he thought was a doll in the middle of the pavement, she was later told.
Nothing could be done. Fawcett almost joined her baby. She had 21 fractures in addition to her missing leg. Shattered bones along her right side were held in place by the hardy cloth of her combat coat: her shoulder, ribs, hand, fingers, wrist, forearm, elbow and upper arm, were in pieces. Her spine was broken in five spots, along with her cheekbone and jaw. Her remaining foot twisted completely around, still in her boot.
In the time since, Fawcett fought to overpower her grief as well as her injuries. She fought to adapt to life as an above-knee amputee. She fought to return to work and to complete a second tour of duty in Afghanistan — the first female soldier to serve in a war zone with a prosthetic leg. She fought to excel as a para-athlete, winning four world medals. She fought to climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, twice.
She has fought and fought but her fighting is not finished.
Fawcett is now in a battle with the Canadian Forces. After 10 years of litigation, she is heading to the Federal Court of Appeal to try to change the military’s decision to deny her disability benefits.
“Six months after I lost my leg I went back to work. I put the uniform back on and I went back to work full time, even though I was still in and out of surgery,” she says. “I needed to re-join my unit, I needed to reconnect with my friends and military family.”
Fawcett, 49 and now living in Toronto with her husband, was raised in military culture.
Born in Nova Scotia, her great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all in the armed forces. Her father retired an air force colonel. Growing up, her family jumped from province to province according to his military postings. Her two brothers are in the military.
Fawcett joined the army as a combat engineer in 1996 after graduating from the University of Manitoba. She later transferred to the air force and worked as an air movement officer, including on an early deployment during the war in Afghanistan in 2002.
She met her husband, Maj. Curtis Smith, at Canadian Forces Base Borden, north of Toronto. After they married in 1998, their careers kept them posted in different cities for five years.
“It made trying to have children a little difficult but that was just the way it worked and the nature of our occupations,” says Fawcett.
By 2004, though, the couple was finally posted to the same base, both in high-readiness units designated for short-notice overseas deployments.
Fawcett was tapped to apply for Canada’s elite special forces unit, Joint Task Force 2, or JTF2, but by the time she had her interview she was seven month’s pregnant. She planned to reapply after her maternity leave.
Keiran’s arrival — on May 7, 2005 — required the couple to map out a Family Care Plan, a military order for soldiers in high-readiness units to always be prepared with child care in case of a prompt deployment.
Fawcett and Smith’s FCP needed special attention: It was possible they could both be deployed abroad at the same time and Keiran had health problems, he was partially deaf and had a blockage between his stomach and his intestines. Should their duties overlap, the couple’s FCP was to leave Keiran with Smith’s parents.
On the morning of the crash, Smith was ordered onto base for an urgent training session prior to imminent deployment to Africa. Fawcett’s unit was expected to be next, she says, so she activated the plan to have Keiran’s grandparents step in as caregivers.
After the catastrophic crash, her rehabilitation was difficult but the results remarkable. She found the pain easier to bear when channelled into sport rather than traditional physiotherapy. And she used her grief over Keiran as motivation.
WE WERE HIT BROADSIDE RIGHT OUT OF NOWHERE... I LANDED ON MY BACK ON THE 401. I LOOKED UP AND I JUST REMEMBER SEEING
A CLEAR SKY, AND A SNOWFLAKE HAD TOUCHED DOWN ON MY NOSE. — CAPT. KIM FAWCETT Capt. Kim Fawcett lost her son and her right leg in a horrific crash. Her recovery has been remarkable, but one battle continues: against the Canadian Forces
AN INVESTIGATION CONDUCTED BY THE CANADIAN ARMED FORCES CONCLUDED THAT CAPT. FAWCETT WAS NOT ON DUTY AT THE TIME OF THE ACCIDENT AND THAT HER INJURIES WERE NOT ATTRIBUTABLE TO MILITARY SERVICE. — MAJ. DOUG KEIRSTEAD Does executing a Forces-mandated care plan mean Fawcett was on duty at the time of the crash? The military says no.
“I kind of thought, okay, if Keiran was alive right now, what would I want to learn to do with him? Swim, bike, run,” she says. “Three skills you would normally want to do with your child. Every step my son wasn’t going to take I would take in his memory.”
Fawcett combined her efforts to learn how to swim, bike and run again into paratriathlon. She earned high honours, including two bronze and two silver medals at international games. Her resilience sparked an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Fawcett had also returned to work, but her job had changed. At first she was posted to the Royal Military College to work with cadets. Then she became a special advisor on the care of the ill and injured.
In 2008 she redeployed to Afghanistan. Two years after her own son’s death, her mission was to bring 20 families of Canadian soldiers who had been killed on deployment to visit Afghanistan to see how and where their sons had lived, fought and died.
Meanwhile, her bills for prosthetic legs and leg repairs piled up, she says. So, 15 weeks after the crash, she applied for military disability benefits. The military’s initial investigation deemed her on duty at the time of the crash but her unit’s new commander disagreed and denied her claim.
“I was the dutiful soldier. I was trying to restart my career, waiting for the next challenge, the next level, the next promotion,” she says. So at first she let it go.
As the bills continued to mount, however, and as she heard of other soldiers with similar injuries approved for benefits and disability pensions, she decided to file a grievance in 2009.
After a two-year wait, Fawcett’s case was finally addressed — but the military’s decision to deny her benefits was upheld. So she sought a judicial review by the Federal Court.
A judge found the military’s decision to deny her benefits to be unreasonable and ordered a reevaluation.
In 2015, her claim was yet again denied. So again she sought the court’s review, and again it was sent back for re-evaluation. The military’s assessment did not change and Fawcett again appealed. Last year, a third Federal Court judge finally ruled in the military’s favour.
Fawcett, who is still in the military but is on medical leave, is now appealing that decision.
“I was serving my country and at the same time not being able to pay for my legs and my leg repairs,” she says. “I had such amazing experiences when I had both my legs and it’s really hard to have to admit to yourself that you don’t have the support of your chain of command.”
In February, on the anniversary of the crash, an envelope marked FINAL NOTICE arrived at her home. She opened it knowing what was inside: a bill for $34,151.15 from the company that makes her prosthetic leg.
“This is for repairs for my leg from when I was still in uniform, serving my country. I find it difficult to swallow. My little boy would (have been) 13 in May. It’s hard to believe 12 years have gone by and I’ve spent the last 10 years fighting for a pension.”
The heart of the dispute is the interpretation of “on duty.”
The military argues it was personal factors not military service that caused Fawcett’s injuries; that at the time she was acting as a mom not a soldier.
Fawcett argues she was required to have a Family Care Plan by military order and activated that plan to accommodate her and her husband’s preparation for deployment; she was in uniform during work hours with the approval of her commanding officer to execute the care plan.
In May she says she received a letter with an offer from the military’s lawyers.
“It essentially said they won’t give me a disability pension but they’ll name a building after my dead son. It was very upsetting.”
For its part, the Canadian Armed Forces says it does not minimize Fawcett’s loss but stands by its decisions.
“The accident that injured Capt. Kimberly Fawcett and claimed the life of her son was a terrible tragedy,” says Maj. Doug Keirstead, a military spokesman. “An investigation conducted by the Canadian Armed Forces concluded that Capt. Fawcett was not on duty at the time of the accident and that her injuries were not attributable to military service.”
Keirstead says he cannot discuss Fawcett’s personal situation because of the Privacy Act and, because the matter is still before the courts, declined to discuss the legal case.
A date for her appeal hearing has not been set.