Mel Birmingham still has nightmares about the riot in Kosovo that changed his life.
On that fateful day, Serbs surrounded his police station. Protesters threatened to blow them up with rocket-propelled grenades.
A Serbian protester hurled a nearly two-kilogram cobblestone that struck him on the back of the head. Birmingham waited three days before the situation settled down enough that medical help could reach him. By then, the wound started to heal and doctors did nothing for him.
When he returned to Canada, an MRI scan revealed that his occipital nerve, located on the back of the head, was crushed. The severe headaches that started when he returned home haven’t let up in the 15 years since the riot.
He met with several psychiatrists and doctors, but it wasn’t until he was in the hospital for a kidney stone years later that a nurse found a clue. She noticed that he was having nightmares and, coincidentally, asked a Serbian doctor working at the hospital to see him. The doctor diagnosed Birmingham with PTSD.
In the course of his work, Birmingham investigated political assassinations and cases of ethnic cleansing. Mass graves were often his crime scenes. He lived through riots, was on a hit list, and slept with a pistol under his pillow.
Those experiences still haunt him today, and the nightmare of dealing with uncaring bureaucrats only worsens his headaches.
“I’ve been fighting this for 15 years,” he says of his battle to get someone to compensate him for the injury.
Birmingham was a member of the Cape Breton Regional Police Service when he volunteered to go on the nine-month mission to Kosovo. He would work on behalf of the United Nations to provide policing in the former Republic of Yugoslavia, which was then experiencing ethnic strife between Kosovan Albanians and Serbs.
He signed a contract with the government of Canada, the Cape Breton Regional Police Service, and the UN. It covered him in the case of accidental death and dismemberment, but none of the organizations will claim responsibility to compensate him for the injury he suffered in the line of duty.
The UN told Birmingham he has all the right documentation, and agrees that he was injured in the line of duty, but that the organization has never compensated a Canadian participant.
“I’m in limbo,” Birmingham says.
The Cape Breton Regional Police Service won’t cover his medical costs either, and referred him to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Here is where the excuses get really silly: because Birmingham was a civilian police officer, he is not eligible for benefits under the Veterans Affairs new veterans charter. He would be eligible if he was an RCMP member. He worked side-by-side with Mounties in Kosovo, supervising them in some cases. Yet in the eyes of Veterans Affairs, he is not considered to be one.
He says people often react the same way when he tells his story.
“’This is ludicrous, it doesn’t make sense,’ is what they usually say,” Birmingham says. “I’ve heard that at least 100 times since I’ve been fighting this.”
Peter Stoffer, a former NDP Member of Parliament and critic for Veterans Affairs, encouraged Birmingham to contact Foreign Affairs and request compensation from the federal government, which could then in turn be reimbursed by the UN.
“He served the UN, but in many ways he served Canada,” Stoffer says. “It would be easier for the government to get the money back than it would be for him.”
That would be a great way for the federal government to “show some compassion,” Stoffer says.
There’s an element of common sense missing, says lawyer Ray Wagner, a Halifax lawyer who represents clients who have suffered serious injuries.
“If people are going over and doing that work, if they get harmed, they should be taken care of,” he says. “It doesn’t seem quite right to me that he would not be compensated for injuries he suffered.