Going to war with the Yanks
Like most of the media-saturated world, I sat captivated in front of my television on Jan. 20 listening to President Barack Obama's inaugural speech, thinking of the new era being ushered in.
Being military, I have often had the occasion to work closely with my American counterparts over the course of my career as well as with those from the UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, Russia, Ghana, Turkey, Bangladesh, India and a number of smaller nations.
Each country brings something different to the table and each situation has its pros and cons when it comes to how closely we work together. As soldiers, of course, we always pass along every bit of information we gain from these experiences, whether good or bad.
Because of their sheer numbers, I have had the opportunity to work closely with U.S. forces on each of my deployments to Afghanistan. I know there are some Canadians who view the U.S. military and foreign policy with suspicion. But from my own experiences, I am wholeheartedly thankful to call them allies and brothers-in-arms.
On my first tour in 2003, in Kabul and the surrounding area, I found myself hanging out with a NATO detachment commanded by a U.S. lieutenant, with a mixed crew of U.S., British, Dutch and Belgian soldiers.
Just socializing with this many different groups was a great way to escape the humdrum routine of camp life in Kabul.
When I first had the experience to travel to Bahgram in northern Afghanistan, the site of a large U.S. base, I was astonished to find a Burger King along with a U.S. PX that had a full supply of North American products.
It may not seem overly important, but when you have been away from home for four months or more, a burger from Burger King and a case of "real" Coca-Cola can do wonders for morale!
I didn't think much could top that experience until the NATO lieutenant invited me to Camp Phoenix for their weekly steak and lobster barbecue.
As the Americans saw it, if their country was sending them in harms way, they might as well be able to enjoy some common amenities with the folks back home.
No sleeping on the job
On my second tour in Afghanistan in 2005, I didn't work with U.S. forces as much as I did other NATO troops and I quickly realized that I missed the professionalism that the Americans bring to the table.
On a couple of occasions, for example, soldiers from other nations were caught sleeping in the guard towers overlooking Camp Julian. Doesn't give you a warm and fuzzy feeling when the people guarding you are sleeping on the job.
When Canadian troops moved from Kabul to Kandahar by convoy over a period of months, we found out that we would be stopping at U.S. forward operating bases (FOBs) on the way, where we would fall under the protective eye of the U.S. task force in Kandahar.
This allowed us to have access to tools and firepower that we Canadians were just not able to provide at the time, when we were adjusting to a greater military role. From a soldier's perspective, having access to that kind of weaponry is pretty reassuring.
The first few convoys were mostly uneventful, save for the occasional broken vehicle, and stopping at the U.S. FOB's was definitely a highlight of the often nine-hour road trip.
When you have a bunch of tired, dirty and hot soldiers, who have been on the road for hours in a high state of alert, there is nothing better in the plus-45 degree heat than stopping at a U.S. base and having a North American style meal, pop and ice cream bar.
At one point, after having done over a month of mostly uneventful convoys, we ran into a Taliban ambush a few hours outside of Kabul. It was a November evening with a light rain coming down and the ambush was a quick and dirty attack with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
As I called in the information on the radio, I was surprised to find out that U.S. planes were already on their way: two Apache attack helicopters and a B-52 bomber on call.
Now I know that was probably overkill and that the insurgents would be long gone before any coalition forces arrived on the scene, but it was reassuring to know that another nation cared enough about its allies to send their own people into harm's way to help us.
A common bond
My third trip to Afghanistan last year didn't involve more then a few potentially dangerous occasions, but I did deal with U.S. forces at the base at Kandahar Air Field on a regular basis.
By far, the most helpful of all the soldiers I dealt with over these years were the Americans. Maybe it was our common language or similar soldier skills and beliefs, or a whole slew of things that we have in common.
Whatever the reason, I found that being Canadian achieved more of a response or quicker service than what I saw some of our European counterparts were getting from the U.S.
I know Canadians who aren't fans of the U.S. or their policies and I have even worked with Canadian soldiers who would prefer to not have to work with U.S. soldiers. Maybe it's the track record of friendly-fire incidents, maybe its something personal.
I for one, though, have had only good experiences with U.S. soldiers. We've shared laughs and hard times and when their firepower was needed to help us out, it was always there with no caveats or questions asked.
As nations we are like brothers and what affects one impacts the other.
With the troubling times we are both facing maybe the visit of President Obama will help usher in positive changes that are good for the U.S. and Canada, too. For me, I'll watch and see, and hope for the kind of positive impact that my American friends in uniform have shown me in the past.