His face is clean-shaven, with not one rogue hair trying to emerge into a five o’clock shadow. Sunglasses frame his face until he takes them off and rests them gently on the top of his head exposing his gentle, blue eyes which stand out in contrast to his grey sweater. His white undershirt peeks out from around the collar and the sunlight shines on his face. The Starbucks patio feels as if it is a warm summer afternoon. But, it is just a warm chinook, providing us with a glimpse of what is to come within the next few months. This kind face however, doesn’t reveal the secrets of conflict and loss that the 34 year old had experienced in his childhood and overseas.
KC Richards worked in the Canadian Armed Forces, and served two overseas tours in Afghanistan. Five years after he enlisted, he left the military and found structure through organized sports and a university degree that aided in his journey to transitioning back into the civilian way of life. Many struggle to reintegrate with mental health or finance troubles can be a common challenge that they face. But with two tours in Afghanistan under his belt, Richards found the process of reintegration fairly smooth. He was able to save money while working as a soldier, and pay for his education. Despite personal challenges Richards has managed to obtain a degree, marriage and a job.
When I asked what his initials stood for he laughed and responded: “KC is a nickname. There are different stories as to why I started being called KC when I was a little kid. I don’t think anyone was too happy about calling a little baby Kenneth [his first name]. Someone somewhere didn’t like Kenny or Ken so I got a nickname out of it. It just stuck.”
As a child Richards lived with his mother in Maple Creek, Sask. His family describes him as being a shy, but confident kid. He went through some difficulties when his mother and his step-brother died within two years of each other.
After his mother died by suicide when he was 16, Richards moved in with his dad and step-family in Cochrane, Alta. “It was pretty different moving back from Saskatchewan. I spent a few years where it was just me, my full brother and my mom, so it was different transitioning to a fuller house,” says Richards. However, his friends thought he handled the situation well. Richards says, “Some of the shi**y stuff makes things easier. Life can be a challenge, but it will only be harder when you try to put a reason to it.”
“When I got out nobody was really like, ‘hey there is this program if you go down this route. I heard about them later, I felt a bit left behind but at the same time I didn’t investigate it. It is a shared responsibility.” – KC Richards
In June 2002, 19-year-old Richards joined the Canadian military and began basic training in Esquimalt, B.C. He always wanted to serve in the military as he has a long family history of his maternal grandfather and step-grandfather serving Canada. “I wasn’t geared towards it by my family, but I knew about my grandfathers and it was something I respected and always was interested in doing,” says Richards. In 2003 he began his infantry training in Shilo, Man. He was a member of the First Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and only one year later he found himself on a plane travelling 10, 484 kilometres destined for Kabul, Afghanistan for his first overseas tour.
His brother, Don Richards, remembers being extremely proud of his younger brother. “Our family has a fairly long history in the military so when he said he was enlisting I was so proud of him,” says Don. The younger brother who he says used to be a pain was not only enlisting, but also flying overseas and following similar footsteps to their grandfathers, just 60 years prior.
However, KC's best friend, Jesse McLean, had his own reservations, “We had some pretty heated arguments about him going into the army. I didn’t see the benefit of him doing it. I thought it would be more beneficial for him to go to university for four years instead of going into the army for four years.”
The two have been best friends since attending Cochrane High School together and McLean, now a local construction company owner, remembers having a conversation with KC prior to him enlisting. “At the time I thought that the people who couldn’t get into university— that’s when they turned to other options such as the army and I didn’t see why KC would consider that option when he was already accepted into university.”
The two would have gone to the University of Calgary together, however, KC had set his mind on enlisting and serving with the Canadian Armed Forces.
At 21, KC became part of the 61,394 other regular members of the Canadian Armed Forces in 2004. KC remembers the sweltering heat in Afghanistan. There were times when the temperature gauge on the light armoured vehicle (LAV) would reach 60 C.
“The military does a great job at preparing you mentally and in training to go overseas. They break you down a little bit and rebuild you into what you need to be as far as how you think and how you react to certain situations,” says KC.
His first tour was during the first 2004 democratic election in Afghanistan when former president Hamid Karzai was elected. His mission was to patrol and establish safety within the capital, but KC and his fellow soldiers played a small, but important role in history during that tour as they helped keep peace in Afghanistan.
During his second tour in 2006, he was part of a Canadian mission with Task Force Orion in Panjwayi, Kandahar. His second tour to Afghanistan was a completely different mission from the first. “The excitement wore off a good chunk through the second tour. I wasn’t as motivated or eager. That tour was a little bit more hairy. We lost some friends at that point so it was not quite the adventure once that starts to happen,” says KC.
“We had already been fighting for a couple of days I think. We did a raid on a compound that we suspected had an enemy weapons cache and one of my friends, Tony Boneca, was shot and killed during that raid. Because of the air strikes, we were somewhat cut off for what felt like a couple of days but it was probably only five or six hours. It was long enough in that heat that guys were running out of water.”
KC’s body temperature was so high he developed acute kidney failure. He was hospitalized for nearly four days and then confined to base for another week after that.
“They said a combination of my body temperature being too high for too long, the stress from the fighting ... I started acting weird, not making sense. They put an IV in my arm and pumped a few bags of NaCl [sodium chloride] into me and I was fine,” says KC.
According to KC the heat took its toll on many of the soldiers. “You wear body armour, a helmet, 300 rounds [of ammunition], two grenades, a rifle and smoke grenades. I had a backpack of water and I think I had been packing about 75 lbs., let’s say. Combine that with 60-degree heat, it’s really a testament to what the human body can put up with.”
His brother Don remembers when KC came back from his second tour and moved in with him and his wife temporarily. “When he lived with me — my wife and KC had interesting late night conversations about his experiences and adjustments,” says Don.
“I feel the adjustment on the second return was lengthy but I think his adjustment period being lengthy is probably what’s helped him now. He is still one of the most fun people to hang around with and he is still a really good brother,” he continues.
KC’s step-brother, Andrew Knouse says, “KC is built for the army. He is the type of person that can bite his tongue and look at the bigger picture.” He continues, “I am so proud of him to have done what he did.”
Knouse remembers hearing recruit training stories from KC. One specific time KC’s shaving cream bottle was left out and his superiors would complain about it being dirty. So he had two bottles, one he would keep out that had never been used and the other one he would put away until he needed to use it. He would still get in trouble because it was too clean recalls Knouse.
“I wouldn’t say he wasn’t structured before but the army really embeds that. He was always organized but even more so when he got back,” says Knouse.
KC says: “There are almost three phases [to being in the military]. You are getting ready to go, get training and make an impact. Then you get there and as the tour goes on three, four, fives months on. You kind of get a ‘f**k this place’ kind of attitude. You get home and you are trying to decompress and process your experiences.”
KC lost a close friend overseas and still finds that date a difficult memory, Don explains: “I noticed those dates are probably what stick out in my mind. It was a quick change from smiling, happy KC to a not happy at all. It was difficult on the family side to see him go through that.”
By the age of 24, KC had completed two tours in two years. “I did my time and it was kind of going on five years in the army and it was time to sh*t or get off the pot.”
KC decided to leave the military in 2007. The reintegration process from the Canadian Armed Forces that KC faced was challenging yet, ‘moderately successful’, as he explains it. When he left the military, he joined 600,300 other Regular Force and Primary Reserve veterans. According to Veteran Affairs Canada, 20,453 applicants applied for disability benefits and the top three medical conditions determined from 2015-2016 were tinnitus, hearing loss and PTSD. Richards was one of those who didn’t apply for disability benefits.
“Life can be a challenge and it will only be harder when you try to put a reason to it. So you take the hard stuff and learn and grow and it makes the easy stuff even better.” – KC Richards
“When I got out nobody was really like, ‘hey there is this program if you go down this route’. I heard about them later, I felt a bit left behind but at the same time I didn’t investigate it. It is a shared responsibility,” says KC.
KC finds himself somewhere in the middle in regards to his integration process, where the majority of the days are good but there are some tough ones as well. “There are tons of programs that people can go after once they are released from the military but it is up to them to be a grown up and do it. There isn’t a real way for them to reach out to every soldier leaving the army and a find out if they want those programs,” says KC.
KC entered the University of Calgary in 2007, shortly after he returned from his second tour. He used his money that he saved working two back-to-back tours in only two years. He also completed a bachelor degree in communications from U of C and a diploma in radio, television and broadcast news from Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.
KC previously worked as the communications and marketing manager at The Military Museums in Calgary. He spent just over four years working in media relations, planning events and managing the internal and external communications department.
McLean explains, “He enjoyed working there; he enjoyed helping veterans or people to understand the importance of the army and what it stands for. It isn’t all guns and violence and at the end of the day is trying to protect people who cannot protect themselves. In a way it might have helped him integrate.” Currently KC is working at AICEIM Construction as a project manager.
Looking at KC from across the table on the patio, his facial expressions are serious, his eye contact is direct however, his light-hearted, uplifting voice plays the role as comedic relief. We continue with our conversation that has eased since the beginning and it has become more comfortable. KC’s relaxed posture portrays that of one of two friends catching up.
His time in the military taught him to value honesty, stay organized, have structure and to live life to the fullest while working hard and efficiently. KC’s family and friends are a strong support system that he can count on. Despite his hardships through his life and his experience as a member in the Canadian Armed Forces, KC’s personality is contagious and his positivity and humour spreads to people around him.
“KC has got a definite wisdom that you typically don’t see in people and I think that has a lot to do from his deployment and experiences which a lot of us don’t have,” says Don Richards.
In September 2016 KC married his wife, Rachel Richards. He had left the military after serving two tours back-to-back, he had a communication degree from the University of Calgary under his belt and now he had completed his last mission, the mission of finding peace and love.
The couple enjoy spending time together and with family, traveling and taking their dog Hector, a 110-lb. Rottweiler mix to the dog park. Making the things in life that actually matter a priority is very important to KC.
His healing process will always be ongoing and there are small quirks that Rachel notices. She thinks that they can be related to KC’s time overseas. In her friendly, warm voice she says, “He doesn’t like sudden noises. I mean those things scare most people but sometimes weird sounds like a siren or like a loud bang. Whereas a civilian wouldn’t necessarily think what’s that sound? KC would say, ‘What is that? What’s causing that?’ He is very alert. He is very observant.”
Rachel continues with her gentle tone, “He likes to see what is going to happen at all times. I think that’s from him being overseas and acutely observing all times.” The bond the two of them share together is very apparent throughout their interviews. Rachel describes KC as extremely loyal, sincere and very family oriented.
KC's history has shaped him by giving him the opportunity to see the really good things in his life and to hold tightly onto the things that mean most to him, those being family, friends, happiness and success. “Throughout all his experiences he has learned how to deal with things better and now he can help people—he puts effort in,” says McLean.
“We all look at life and everything through the filter of our own understanding. All that all you can do is look back and hope that there was positive change for your work and your sacrifices,” says KC.
Remembering his experiences in the army and thinking about what he half jokingly calls, “a moderately successful story” he continues to be passionate about his interests while also being open to new adventures that come his way. Despite the challenges he has faced with loss, he still affects those around him with his humour and positivity.
“I look back and there are a lot of great things about being in the military and a lot of great things about my military career. Military service has made me as forthright as I am. You take the hard stuff and learn and grow and it makes the easy stuff even better,” says KC.
Meet three other soldiers who are reintegrating into society by clicking here!
- By Cassie Riabko |