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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on October 18th, 2011, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 12, Issue 33 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 12, Issue 33

'Just a pawn on a chessboard'

Engaged in a battle for his life, a Santa Maria Army veteran speaks out about Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war within

By JEREMY THOMAS

Head shorn and wearing a light blue jumpsuit, Silas Kanady shuffles into the Santa Barbara County Jail visitation room, led by an armed guard.

His heavily tattooed arms rest behind his back, though they’re not cuffed. He takes a seat on a metal barstool behind double-paned glass and picks up the receiver of the jailhouse phone, pressing a series of digits.


Top gun:
Silas, an Army gunner, posed with his M4 rifle near a river in the mountains of Afghanistan.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SILAS KANADY

“Hi, I’m Silas,” he says.

He smiles faintly. He appears relaxed. He says the nights he’s spent behind bars are the best he’s slept in a long time.

“It’s not that bad, actually,” he explains. “I haven’t had any nightmares. I feel safe in here.”

Just months ago, Silas Kanady was a decorated Army corporal, leading a combat team as a senior gunner in the battle for Afghanistan. Today, he’s Santa Barbara County inmate #0274033, and at just 23 years old, he’s seen more than most people do in their entire lifetimes.

Turning back the clock

It was Dec. 13, 2007, when Silas first appeared in the pages of the Sun, in an article about his cousin and him, deployed to Iraq near the Christmas holiday. On the cover of that week’s issue is his mother Julia, beaming and holding a photograph of her son’s troop, the 1st Squadron of the Army’s 32nd Calvary Regiment. She appears proud.

At the time, Julia Kanady said she wasn’t surprised when Silas joined the Army, seeing as how he’d always wanted to be in the armed forces.

“When he was 7 or 8 years old, he got on the computer and wrote to the Air Force,” she said then. “The Air Force started sending him posters. They would tell him to get good grades. He had a poster of the Marines, too.”

When the Sept. 11 attacks happened in 2001, Silas was in detention at Lakeview Junior High in Santa Maria. Seeing the Twin Towers fall that day, he said, inspired him further.

“It made me mad,” he recalled. “I wanted to do something about it.”

As a student at Righetti High School, Silas was troubled, dropping out during his junior year to pursue “childish activities,” as he called them. While on probation for a petty crime, he made a deal with a Santa Maria judge to drop his punishment if he brought in a letter from an Army recruiter. At that point, he said, he just wanted out of his hometown.

“Things happened, and I knew I’d end up in trouble if I didn’t do something with my life,” Silas said. “I believed in the commercials. I wanted to travel. I always wanted to be a soldier, and ended up being pretty good at it.”

Six months after enlisting, and just two months out of basic training at Fort Campbell, Ky., Silas shipped off to Iraq on Nov. 11, 2007. It didn’t take long for him to feel that his initial exuberance and morale were crushed.

“I believed in the cause and all that, I still do to a degree, but after being there and seeing behind the scenes … I’ve never felt so much like a pawn on a chessboard,” he said. “We weren’t names; we were numbers.”

Silas didn’t kill anyone in Iraq, but he did witness his share of mayhem—sights he never expected to see at just 19 years old.

“I saw what happened to kids, car bombs taking out markets, dead bodies all over the place, children being burned,” he recalled. “It did something to me.

“We fought more IEDs [improvised explosive devices] than people,” he added. “It was frustrating.”


Good times:
Silas Kanady and daughter Gwen enjoyed a day at the beach.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SILAS KANADY

Three months into his tour, after seeing several of his fellow soldiers killed by IEDs, Silas got hit by one himself.

“We were just driving down the road, and much like everything happens, we were talking to each other, joking and laughing and before you knew it, we got hit,” he said. “Confusion and pain is the best way I can describe it.”

Silas survived the attack, and when he returned to Fort Campbell after a year in Iraq, he received some surprising news: He had a baby daughter back home. Gwen was born on March 11, 2009, to a woman he’d only known briefly while on his mid-tour leave in 2008. By the time he’d found out, his daughter was more than a month old.

“I was at my barracks and my mom called me and told me, ‘There’s this lady here who says that you’re the father of her child,” Silas recalled. “I was excited. I’d wanted to have a kid.    I’d been hit by IEDs; I thought I was going to die. I wanted to leave something behind.”

A DNA test proved Silas was indeed Gwen’s father, but he’d have to wait another eight months, until his holiday leave, to finally see her. He bought Christmas presents, wrapped them, and drove from Kentucky to Santa Maria to see her.

Unfortunately, Gwen’s mother, who he barely knew, never got on the train from Oakland to visit.

“She wouldn’t let me meet her. That was the worst Christmas of my life,” Silas recalled. “I packed up and went off to Afghanistan without ever laying eyes on my daughter.”

On to Afghanistan

Whereas Silas had been battling a mostly invisible opponent in Iraq, he explained, Afghanistan was a different story. There, over a period of 13 months, he was constantly in a fight for his life.

“We got mortared so much,” he said. “One time, a mortar landed right outside our [tents] late at night. I jumped up and put on my gear. I didn’t understand there was no one to fight.

“To this day,’ he added, “whenever I hear someone whistle, it does something to me.”

In one instance, Silas was inside an armored truck at a checkpoint in the chaotic Kunar province of the country, when a mortar hit the vehicle.


Hello from Afghanistan:
Kanady spent a total of 13 months in Afghanistan as a gunner for the Army’s 32nd Cavalry Regiment.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SILAS KANADY

“The whole mission—let’s see if I can remember exactly what they called it—was to ‘secure a supply route to ensure a sphere of prosperity for the region,’” he said, with a touch of sarcasm. “We had these checkpoints at problem spots, and we’d basically just wait for something to attack us. We started taking indirect fire, and the last one hit our truck. It rocked us a bit.”

Several soldiers in his unit were struck with shrapnel and all were given Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) tests afterward. The incident made the Army’s newspapers, and Silas received a medal for valor. The narrative accompanying his award reads, “His swiftness in action and unwavering fortitude indisputably saved the lives of 3rd Platoon.”

Meanwhile, back at home in Santa Maria, Silas’ mother worried constantly about his well-being.

“It was horrible,” Julia told the Sun. “I’m a woman of faith, so I did a lot of praying. I prayed for his safety.”

Silas said he only called home about 10 times during his two tours overseas—but not because he didn’t miss his family.

“Whenever I would call, it would just make me sad,” he said. “It made me sad to talk to them. It was too hard for me to do what I had to do.”

Unbeknownst to Silas, while he was in Afghanistan, his mother discovered she had lymphoma, and was undergoing chemotherapy. She was unable to bring herself to tell her son she was sick. Silas eventually met a love interest, who was also enlisted. She won custody of his daughter in his stead, taking her to Washington to live.

On his mid-tour leave in
December 2010, Silas flew to Seattle, where he finally met Gwen for the first time.

“I woke up the next morning with my daughter in her crib, smiling at me,” Silas recalled with a grin. “It was a beautiful time.”

Silas and his wife were married on Dec. 30, and he returned to Fort Campbell. However, just days later, he learned things that made the marriage fall apart. He sent his mother and brother Frank to Washington to get Gwen and bring her back to Santa Maria.


Flexing their muscles:
Silas (left) and fellow soldier “Barton” posed for a photo in Afghanistan.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SILAS KANADY

Then, he was right back in Afghanistan.

“I had to put it all out of my mind,” Silas said. “I rewound my personal clock and told myself, ‘I’ll be here forever.’”

From behind the glass in county jail, Silas says he thinks the same way about being locked up. It’s a lot like being over there, he says, except in here, he feels safer.

The horror

In February 2011 came Helgal Valley, in the mountains of northeast Afghanistan, during Silas’s last tour.

“It was a shitty mission,” Silas said. “I thought I was going to die. I actually wrote a death letter for the first time ever.”

During the operation, NATO forces mounted an offensive against Taliban insurgents in the area. Afghan government officials later alleged 65 innocent Afghans, mostly women and children, were killed as a result of the ensuing firefight. Silas, who led a team as a corporal, watched it all through his binoculars.

“We saw women and children walking up the road with a truck behind them, and a guy with a video camera on the back,” Silas explained. “They had burns all over their bodies.”

Top Army brass accused the Taliban of burning their own civilians to exaggerate the number of civilian casualties. The incident made headlines, and the Afghan government pulled the plug on the mission.

“The Taliban was mad, and they had snatched up women and children and burned them with hot oil and hot water,” Silas said. “The whole world believed we did this terrible stuff. It really bothered me. We didn’t hurt one innocent person. It was the Taliban. We were there to help.”


Temporary home:
Silas was a senior gunner in this RG-31 Armored Personnel Carrier, shown here on a mission in Afghanistan.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SILAS KANADY

In his last tour in Afghanistan, Silas killed three people, making a total of six during the war. In the recommendations for his awards—medals for meritorious service and valor—Silas’ superiors describe him as “one of the best Team Leaders in the Troop,” “a proven combat leader,” and a “warrior.”

Upon returning to Fort Campbell in May, where he had no family waiting, Silas said he realized something had changed in him.

“I felt like I never really came back,” he said. “I turned in my weapon, went to my reintegration and medical check, and that was it.”

Because Silas was still legally married, he wasn’t allowed to live in the military barracks and for nearly a month, he crashed on the floor of a private’s barracks.

“I thought the Army was going to help me,” he said. “I had no money, no car, just military gear and nowhere to go.”

Silas left Fort Campbell without ever getting a psychological evaluation, and in July, returned to Santa Maria, reuniting with his daughter, who had been living with his mother.

Julia said seeing her son finally bond with his daughter was one of the best times of her life.

“Silas got very close to her,” she said. “He’s a great dad. It was wonderful to watch him with her. It just made me smile to see how happy they were together.”

‘I’m still there’

But cracks had already begun to appear in Silas’ psyche. Faced with a choice between staying with his daughter and returning to the Army alone, Silas chose to go AWOL, telling his sergeant he’d come back as soon as the situation got solved.

“I told them my reasons for it,” Silas said. “I couldn’t leave my daughter. My hands were tied. I didn’t have any other way to go about it. Leaving my daughter again was not an option.”

To his family, Silas showed outward signs of high anxiety, depression, paranoia, isolation, an out-of-control temper, and constant irritability.

Compared with his demeanor before he left, Julia said her son returned home a completely different person.

“He’s always looking behind him,” she said. “Everything reminds him of the war.

“It breaks my heart to watch him sleep,” she continued. “He lies there and shakes his foot. … He starts moaning and groaning in his sleep, and he’ll wake up. Sometimes he’ll sit straight up. It’s very heartbreaking.”

Julia said her son also talked about suicide in the months following his return.

“He’d say, ‘Mom, it would be so much less painful if I could just off myself,’” she said. “I would just beg him to promise me [he wouldn’t] do that.”


A different sort of battle:
Santa Maria police arrested Silas Kanady on Sept. 18 in connection with a home invasion robbery. Kanady is charged with numerous felony counts, including residential burglary, kidnapping, robbery, and assault with a deadly weapon.
PHOTO COURTESY SANTA MARIA POLICE DEPARTMENT

When asked to describe his mental issues, Silas shakes his head; his expression turns dour.

“Whenever I drive around, no matter where I go, I’m still looking for the enemy,” Silas says. “I’m scanning rooftops, I’m making sure there’s nobody behind me. I’m easily startled. When I go into a restaurant, I have to go to the back near an exit. I know where all the threats are.

“The best way I can describe it is a sense of impending doom,” he explains. “I know something bad is going to happen. I can’t explain it. That’s the feeling I’ve kept with me.”

Though Silas hasn’t been officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he exhibits all the classic symptoms of the condition, according to Dr. Harry Croft, a renowned PTSD expert who has evaluated more than 7,000 veterans.

“They get the best training that they can, but the Army’s stretched so thin, a lot of them go pretty quick over there,” Croft said. “This is the first war in the history of modern warfare where people go back to the same combat zone over and over. Here’s a guy who’s been there twice.”

Croft, who authored the recent book I Always Sit With My Back to the Wall: Managing Stress and PTSD, said about one in five combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan eventually develops symptoms of PTSD. Though the Army does have a diagnostic checklist for the disorder, Croft said unfortunately many soldiers still fall through the cracks.

“[Vets] don’t even know there’s anything wrong with them; they just want to get the hell out,” Croft said. “They’re not necessarily evaluated by somebody, nor are they perfectly honest with whomever is doing the evaluation. The system is overloaded at the present time and so sometimes, tragically, people don’t get evaluated as they’re getting out.”

According to Silas, he was set to go back to Fort Campbell to seek a discharge from the Army, when, while walking the streets of Santa Maria on Sept. 18, he drew the suspicion of a Santa Maria police officer. After a brief footrace, police say, Silas was found to be carrying ID cards, nearly $3,000 in cash, and about 11 ounces of marijuana.

Police arrested Silas on suspicion of a home invasion robbery, alleging he forced his way into the victim’s home—brandishing a .357 Magnum—and bound two people, ordering a third to collect items at gunpoint.

Silas is currently facing 11 counts, including kidnapping, burglary, robbery, and assault with deadly weapon. Several charges carry special gang allegations of involvement with members of “La Eme” a.k.a. the “Mexican Mafia.” With his bail set at $1 million, Silas will remain behind bars in Santa Barbara at least until his case is resolved.

As advised by his attorney, Silas refused to discuss details of his case, beyond calling the allegations “completely false.” He’ll make his next appearance in court on Nov. 1 in Santa Maria.

With only limited contact with her son, Julia said she believes Silas needs mental health help.

“My heart just breaks for him,” she said, tearfully. “As his mother, I feel so sad. I can’t tell you how much I’ve cried. He doesn’t deserve to be in jail, and now he’s looking at some serious prison time. It’s just really sad.”

In spite of all the sorrows, Julia says she’s still proud of her son and of his service to his country.

“He saved people,” she said. “But I don’t like what the war has done to him. He’s damaged. He’s so broken.”

Facing years in prison, Silas said he doesn’t care if telling his story changes his circumstances. It would be enough, he said, for people to know that soldiers like him are still making sacrifices every day.

“It’s not all romantic, fairy tale stuff when you come back,” he says. “Each individual soldier has his own particular set of circumstances, beyond what anybody can fathom. There are countless soldiers who have had similar experiences to mine. I’ve seen a lot of sad things—broken families, destroyed marriages—over just serving the country.

“We come back and there’s nothing for us,” he says. “No one will ever know.”

Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas can be contacted at jthomas@santamariasun.com.




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