Politics

Veterans lobby for soldier to receive Victoria Cross

If a group of veterans has their way, Pte. Jess Larochelle will be the first recipient of Canada's modern Victoria Cross. He was awarded the Star of Military Valour for actions in Afghanistan, but retired general Rick Hillier says new information casts additional light on Larochelle's heroism.

Pte. Jess Randall Larochelle was 'at the point of the spear' in Afghanistan, retired general says

Pte. Jess Larochelle, who was awarded the Star of Military Valour, for his role in a 2006 battle in Afghanistan. A group of soldiers have written the Governor General asking for a review of the citation, hoping it will upgraded to make him the first recipient of the Canadian Victoria Cross. (Department of National Defence)

Almost 15 years ago, a bleeding and badly wounded Pte. Jess Randall Larochelle crawled back to his wrecked machine gun post in his smashed observation post in Pashmul, Afghanistan. 

His unit — a part of Charles Company of the Royal Canadian Regiment — was about to be overrun by Taliban fighters who had peppered the outpost with rocket-propelled grenades.

Two members of his section were killed and three others wounded.

Larochelle grabbed one of 15 M72 rocket launchers that had miraculously not been destroyed in the initial attack.

He fired. 

The Taliban were cut to pieces and the survivors retreated, their assault in what later became known as "ambush alley" was defeated.

The date was Oct. 14, 2006.

The area of Pashmul, Afghanistan where Larochelle fought off an attack. His unit was about to be overrun by Taliban who had peppered the outpost with rocket-propelled grenades. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

Larochelle's actions saved the lives of the remainder of his section and he was — in the spring of 2007 — awarded the Star of Military Valour, the country's second-highest citation for bravery in combat.

A group of Afghanistan veterans, known as Valour in the Presence of the Enemy, wants to see his award upgraded to the top honour — the Canadian Victoria Cross.

Additional information has been uncovered about the circumstances surrounding the battle, some of it through new witness testimony. 

Retired general Rick Hillier, who is backing the group, said Larochelle was at the "point of the spear."

He said they will ask the Governor General, in writing, to institute a review with an eye to making Larochelle the first recipient of the Canadian version of the medal, which was instituted in the 1990s.

"This young man, this baby-faced soldier, this awesome Canadian, kept the Taliban attack away and behaved in a way that was incredible," Hillier said.

Ninety-eight Canadians received the British Commonwealth version of the award, with the last being handed out during the Second World War.

The combat outpost where LaRochelle fought off the attack. Larochelle's actions saved the lives of the remainder of his section. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

It has irked some soldiers and veterans that Canada, unlike its allies, exited the Afghan war without awarding its highest battlefield citation. The defence department, over the years, has defended the absence of a Victoria Cross by saying that new medals recognizing various degrees of valour have been instituted since the 1940s but none of the actions in Afghanistan met the extremely high criteria.

Hillier told a group of soldiers and veterans who assembled online Thursday that the committee which originally recommended Larochelle get the Star of Military Valour could only go with the information it had at the time. In the intervening years, he said, more soldiers have been willing to open up about what happened during the battle. 

"It's a matter of getting people to talk about what happened that day," Hillier said.

Larochelle did not attend the online event. He has been out of the military for several years and was released under a medical category because of the injuries he sustained in battle.

The online event was, in many respects, bittersweet. The soldiers toasted Larochelle's courage and previous Victoria Cross winners.

The recent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan casts a long shadow for many who served and sacrificed and Hillier, despite the outcome of the war, said the troops have everything to be proud of because they helped give the country two decades of freedom.

"Be proud of: When our nation asked, you stood up and volunteered to serve in the most dangerous circumstances in the world," Hillier said.

"You did your job superbly and it is no reflection on you that the international community, the political leaders; that the organizations like NATO and the United Nations and the political leaders in Afghanistan could not come together to build a more robust structure and a society."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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