On Saturday, January 2, 2010, The Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno published this article (repeated here in full) about Pte. Dawson Bayliss pictured here in happier moments during his Afghanistan deployment. This should never happen again, but it will if we don’t join the National Protest on Saturday, November 6, 2010 in front of our local MPs’ offices across the country from sea to sea.
Dawson Bayliss died in his sleep on Nov. 23, 2009, lying alongside his pregnant wife in their Calgary home. “I heard him gasping for air,” recalls Naomi Bayliss, eyes moistening. “That’s what woke me up. His whole body was convulsing. His fists were balled up and his eyes were rolling back. I tried shaking him but he was totally unresponsive.”
Naomi lunged for the phone and called 911. Paramedics arrived within minutes. “I’d just given him four breaths and they were there.”
Despite intense efforts to revive him, Bayliss was pronounced dead at the scene within the hour. A preliminary finding by the medical examiner said death resulted from lack of oxygen to the brain that caused swelling. Bayliss was 24.
Those are the indisputable facts.
Yet there is an alternate version of events, another narrative which is very much in dispute; maddeningly elusive and bureaucratically impenetrable, for all that his widow and friends have searched for answers.
It goes like this: Pte. Lawrence Matthew (Dawson) Bayliss actually started dying on April 2, 2006, on a dangerous stretch of highway outside Kandahar city, bleeding from a head wound. I was there.
As Liberal MP Dan McTeague put it, before the deaths of five more Canadian soldiers last month: “Pte. Bayliss would appear to be the 134th Canadian to die as a result of combat in Afghanistan.” But the official record doesn’t say that.
Bayliss was out of the army, a confused and bitter civilian, when he died. There were no formal military honours at his funeral, though a Princess Pats NCO presented Naomi with a folded flag, on his own initiative, and the local branch of the Canadian Legion – where Bayliss had worked as a volunteer – picked up the bill. Since he served less than 10 years, there was no military pension for Bayliss and limited supplementary death benefits for his wife and unborn child. Even that, arguably, is occurring only because advocates have taken up the case.
There has been distress and retroactive revision of the military’s apparent abandonment of Bayliss after he shed the uniform – which he subsequently burned in a fit of rage, along with most of his case file documents. No less than the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, phoned Naomi a few weeks ago to offer his personal condolences, along with a promise that the file will be reviewed to assess what can be done. Too late, of course, this belated concern – a high-level attention to details never displayed while Bayliss was alive and needful. It was Bayliss’s misfortune to take so long to die, and outside of the military “family” – the only family that the Kirkland Lake native, ostracized by his mother and brother, with no father, had actually known until Naomi came along.
For months on end, years actually, Bayliss had suffered from seizures, nausea and paralyzing headaches, symptoms he believed were caused by a closed head injury never properly diagnosed or treated; raging at the brick wall of bureaucracy that sent him pinballing from one department to another, begging for help, exasperated by the red tape. A psychologically fragile young man, already slipping into alcoholism and despair, Bayliss was no match for the bureaucratic rigidity.
“He’d lost all faith in the system,” says Naomi, 24. “He felt the military had just used him and tossed him away. He said that everyone pretended to love soldiers but it was just lip-service. It was all so hard for him – the papers and the phone calls and the doctors’ appointments. But his mind wasn’t right. He couldn’t do it and nobody would help him. By the end, he’d given up, threw everything away except the dog-tags. I hid those.”
There is a photograph of Bayliss from early in his Task Force Orion deployment to Kandahar, Roto 1 with 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, out of Edmonton. The combat soldier is smiling mischievously, a cigarillo clamped between his teeth. The guys had found a big turtle in a trench, all of them signing their names on the shell before releasing it. This was the fun-loving man he used to be, a proud soldier who’d enlisted in 2004, deeply affected by 9/11.
“Like a lot of us, he wanted to make a difference,” says Cpl. Joseph (Rusty) Rustenberg, a close friend who met Bayliss after training, was a member of his company section in Afghanistan, and kept in touch in the years since. Rustenberg had been there, inside the Light Armoured Vehicle with him, when Bayliss was wounded.
On that April day in 2006, a convoy of some 150 military vehicles lumbered toward Forward Operating Base Robinson in support of a skeletal detachment that had come under intense attack from the Taliban. Pte. Robert Costall was killed during that initial siege, Canada’s first firefight death since the Korean War. Bayliss was one of the coffin bearers for the ramp ceremony at Kandahar Airfield.
FOB Robinson-bound three days later in a massive show of strength, Rustenberg had just changed positions with Bayliss in the LAV, Bayliss taking over as air gunner (the open hatch sentry position) along with Pte. Daniel Mahlo. In a freak accident, the LAV was clipped by a passing jingle truck, the collision causing the cannon to spin around, smacking both privates in the face and head. Both casualties were treated immediately by a medic, Andrew (Boomer) Eykelenboom, then evacuated to the KAF hospital by chopper. (Months later, Eykelenboom himself was killed in a suicide bomber attack.)
From this point, the chain of events gets murky, largely because of privacy legislation and the absence of those documents that Bayliss destroyed. The family has asked repeatedly for replacements and the entire medical file but has yet to receive anything.
What’s known is that Bayliss was released from hospital within a few days and sent back to his unit. His injuries had been deemed slight. Shortly thereafter, however, he was hospitalized again, apparently flown to a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, for further treatment. Bayliss would later tell Naomi – the couple didn’t meet until 2008 – that he’d spent 10 months in and out of hospital and, at one point, had attempted suicide. Rustenberg ran into him late in 2006. A trained infantryman, Bayliss had been put to work in the kitchen, apparently because he was no longer fit for combat duty.
Bayliss would tell Naomi that he’d been treated poorly by former mates who jeered at his KP status, and said that he’d filed an official complaint to the regiment. At the end of his three-year military contract, Bayliss voluntarily quit the army. His release date was Sept. 6, 2007. He did not receive a medical discharge, which would have allowed him to access various disability benefits. There is no evidence either that he got a “transition interview” – the formal and mandatory exit interviews required of all military personnel six months before they leave the forces. That would have been the occasion for Bayliss to raise any personal concerns, including lingering medical or psychological issues.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to most of these questions,” admits Maj.-Gen. Walter Semianiw, chief of military personnel for the Canadian Forces. “Did he even get danger pay for the time he spent in Afghanistan?” (No, he didn’t.) “Why wasn’t he medically discharged because of the closed head wound?”
That is the crux of the matter, at least in terms of compensation. But there is a more crucial issue: Could Bayliss’s life have been saved if he’d received proper medical treatment?
It is unclear what military doctors told Bayliss about his head injury. Two weeks ago, Semianiw informed the family that, at the time Bayliss was treated for his injury, it had been discovered that he had a brain tumour, according to the medical file.
“That was a total shock,” says Naomi’s father, Steven Taylor. “We’d never heard that before.” But a day later, Semianiw called back to say that information was wrong. There was a “brain abnormality, but not a tumour,” Taylor says.
Maj. Mike Audette, an army spokesman, told the Toronto Star this week that the medical file shows Bayliss suffered a “non-battle” injury in Afghanistan – meaning, not in the theatre of war, as the accident was strangely designated. He was transferred to Landstuhl for additional examination, apparently after he’d briefly returned to his unit. “There were no traumatic injuries identified … but the examinations produced an incidental finding for another non-related condition for which repatriation to Canada was decided.”
Yet Bayliss didn’t come home for nearly a year and, as far as can be determined, received no treatment for the condition. Audette continues, citing medical information that senior authorities have vetted for release: “Pte. Bayliss saw a specialist for this condition and no treatment/surgery was deemed required. Pte. Bayliss completed his contract without medical restrictions on his duties and left the CF. The conclusion of all this is that Pte. Bayliss died of natural causes not linked to the event in Afghanistan and that the medical condition the family speaks about was discovered during examinations done after the trauma but not linked to it.”
The determination that the brain abnormality was “pre-existing” or “congenital” would subsequently influence decisions on liability and compensation. In fact, the family has yet to learn whether that pre-existing condition caused Bayliss’s death or, critically, if the condition was aggravated by the injury he sustained, thus leading to death. Certainly the condition had not been caught when Bayliss underwent medical testing upon enlisting, nor had there been any manifestation of symptoms before the accident. It’s unclear how much Bayliss knew, or understood, about his condition. He twice mentioned, but only vaguely, a brain “abnormality” to Naomi, and that he could die suddenly.
Semianiw has been helping the family navigate the bureaucratic thicket of compensation claims and review applications. But once Bayliss was out of uniform, his outstanding issues essentially transferred from the Ministry of Defence to Veterans Affairs.
Moving from Edmonton to Calgary, Bayliss floundered. He received no money from any government source for six months, during which he bunked with a friend, taking odd jobs, playing the occasional musical gig at local clubs and attending doctors’ appointments, anxious to relieve the headaches and vomiting that continued unabated.
In early 2008 he began receiving a wage replacement from Veterans Affairs – $2,400 a month after taxes – to cover him until he was able to finish high school and train for a civilian job. But his application for that education funding was repeatedly deferred and had not been formally approved by the time he died. “He was sad because he could no longer do the one thing he’d been trained to do – be a soldier,” says Naomi, who married Bayliss last February.
Bayliss applied for compensation for his closed head injury: Denied, on the grounds the “acute injury” had no long-term effects. After all, he hadn’t been medically discharged. He applied for compensation for post-concussion syndrome: Decision had been pending when he died, expedited only afterwards. A week ago Naomi received a “partial disability” payment for $33,420, with an equal amount held in trust for the baby.
There had been other monies, earlier. In March 2008, Bayliss was awarded a lump-sum payment of $104,000 for post-traumatic stress disorder, a strangely high amount. Says McTeague, who became involved after being contacted by Taylor due to his earlier efforts on behalf of Afghan veterans: “My take is that, generally speaking, a lump-sum payment is the wrong way to go. Wounded soldiers have always been able to rely on a steady pension.”
For Bayliss, the windfall was disastrous. He burned a hole through the money, spending huge sums on clothes, electronic toys and his wedding. He had barely enough left over to put $25,000 down on a house for the couple. “Dawson wasn’t thinking straight,” argues Naomi, who hadn’t yet met Bayliss when he went on his spending spree. “You have to understand that there were times he couldn’t even speak, couldn’t put words together because of what was happening in his brain. How can you give someone like that all that money and not help him sort out his life?”
But what was happening, exactly, in Bayliss’s brain throughout 2008 and 2009, when his symptoms worsened? That’s important to determine if his widow has any hope of securing not just extra benefits but proper recognition for her husband as “a fallen soldier,” which is equally if not more important. “He died for his country, even if he died in Calgary.”
Bayliss had been seeing a specialist for his head symptoms but this doctor was, the family has since learned, only evaluating his cognitive responses. Bayliss thought, wrongly, that the specialist would arrange for treatment of the pre-existing medical condition itself. Bayliss knew, in his bones, something was dreadfully wrong. He became fatalistic and, in his final weeks, upset Naomi with talk of what he wanted at his funeral.
Naomi recalls that final evening, when they went to bed: “We said our good-nights and he kissed me, twice. He said, ‘I just love kissing you.’ ”
Immediately after the funeral, Naomi quit her job as an office manager, packed up her possessions and drove to Markham, Ont., moving in with her father. She’s living in his basement. The Calgary house, bought for $245,000, was hastily sold for $230,000. She worries about raising a child alone. She grieves that the military allowed Bayliss to “slip through the cracks” and wonders how many other ex-soldiers – those with less than a decade in service – are encountering similar boondoggles.
But mostly she misses her husband, the goodbye too rushed in the swirl of events. “I feel like I just left him behind.”