World

Danger on the roads, sadness at the base

Russell Storring writes about his experiences on the frontlines in Afghanistan.

Heart-racing convoy ride to Kandahar and emotional ramp ceremony serve as reminders of Afghanistan's perils

I am re-introduced to one of the many tactics of the insurgents one evening, just after getting off the phone with Nathalie and the boys, as the local alarm for a rocket attack wails on the PA system.

The author, Russell Storring.

We immediately carry out our rocket attack drills, and although our drills are done quite seriously, we augment it by heckling each other over every little thing possible. It's not that it isn't a serious event, we know from the impact just how serious it can be, it's just one of the coping mechanisms soldiers use to lighten a potentially dangerous situation. Of course our heckling always focuses on "remember that time" or "whatever happened to this person?" followed by a funny story. 

The rocket attacks are pretty regular my first couple of weeks, but they are more of a nuisance really as they are not overly accurate most of the time. Nevertheless we carry out our drills immediately and correctly each time, and when the rockets happen to land a little bit closer we just tend to move a little faster.

One of my soldiers starts a tally above one of the office doors, and with just over a month gone by we are already at 15 rocket attacks.

The convoy ride to Kandahar

A couple of weeks into the tour, I am slated to head to Camp Nathan Smith (the Provincial Reconstruction Team or PRT) to liaise with the MT6 detachment, and then track down some kit at the Joint Provincial Coordination Center (JPCC) in downtown Kandahar. I had told Nathalie that I would occasionally have to travel, but in order to reassure her, I told her I would take a helicopter whenever possible. Unfortunately this trip is by convoy, but I plan on telling her that part after I get back.

I meet up with the convoy at the designated time, having checked all my gear twice, and get a briefing from the convoy commander. I will be travelling in an RG-31 or Nyala, and after a quick brief on the door operation and actions from the crew commander, I climb in and take my seat.  Knowing that improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and suicide borne IEDs are a real threat in the city, I cinch the five-point harness tight around my body, thinking that at least if the vehicle gets blown up I'll remain strapped in my seat.

The vehicle's air-conditioning keeps the temperature cooler than the 45 C outside, but with all my gear on, my shirt is soaked with sweat shortly after leaving the camp. We stop 15 minutes later to change a flat tire, and it's actually a relief to get outside and have the warm wind blow around me, drying me off. With the repairs quickly made, we mount up and carry on towards the PRT.

We bump and jostle along a dirt road, when the vehicle grinds to a sudden halt as I hear the crew talking into the vehicle intercom as they look behind us. Thinking the worst, I look back into the cloud of dust that we just came through, wondering if a vehicle got hit and I didn't hear the explosion. Almost as if it's a flashback from my last roto here, the crew commander says "LAV (light armoured vehicle) rolled over, dismount." I don't have time to worry about the LAV crew right now, but I hope for the best as I dismount and carry out my drills.

After the crew is medevaced out, the LAV is righted and another group of LAVs arrive on scene. We finally mount back up and make the last leg of the journey. My heart is racing, I'm soaked in sweat, and my two-litre Camelbak is almost empty of water, but the first thing I do is call home to Nathalie to let her know I'm okay and I made it to the PRT. I tell her about the LAV rollover, just like on my last tour, and she quickly responds, "You didn't take a helicopter?"

I spend the next five minutes telling her not to worry, and that the crew I am with knows exactly what they are doing. I don't think she's completely at ease when I tell her I have to go, as she reminds me how much she loves me and to be careful the next day. 

My visit to the Joint Provincial Coordination Center and subsequent return to the confines of Kandahar Airfield are thankfully uneventful, and I know Nathalie is relieved when I call her from my office and relive every detail of the trip and the changes I saw in Kandahar city proper. At least when I am not out on the roads the only thing she has to worry about is the rockets, but I know she still worries more than I think she has too.

Remembering fallen comrades

Ramp ceremonies (or repatriation ceremonies) are a tragic part of living in Kandahar Airfield, and although other Coalition Forces ceremonies are not mandatory to attend, as we are all in the same fight, respect and honour ensures that everyone available is always there to send the soldiers home. It is because of this that my crew is always there for every ramp ceremony whether American, British and unfortunately in the first week of June, Canadian.

As the month of June began, we learned that Capt. Richard Leary was killed in action during a battle with insurgents. Afghanistan is a NATO coalition fight, but every time a Canadian is killed it is more personal and hits closer to home. It's one of ours, someone that maybe we knew, and even if we didn't, they wore the same flag on their shoulder. That small little symbol we all wear makes us one, and it hurts to lose one of our own.

There is no distinction in rank as we form up for the ramp ceremony with all ranks from private to major interspersed en masse in three rows. Each contingent sergeant major marches their respective formation to its designated spot on the tarmac, and Task Force Kandahar are marched out to the rear left side of the Hercules aircraft. On the rear right are soldiers from the battle group with who Capt. Leary fought beside, and formed up behind each Canadian contingent stand Americans, British, Australians, Dutch and representatives of every contingent on Kandahar Airfield. 

Each contingent faces inwards, forming columns that are 15 soldiers deep on each side running 100 metres in length, while leaving a column down the centre about 10 metres wide that leads to the ramp of the aircraft. The rear ramp is open, touching the ground, and inside the belly of the aircraft hangs the Canadian flag, as if waiting to receive its sombre cargo.

A light armoured vehicle drives slowly towards the far end of the column and as it comes to a halt, the battle group sergeant major bellows out, "Task force, ATTENTION." We snap to attention, as a padre begins to talk about Capt. Richard Steven Leary, and the family he leaves behind, both his paternal family back home, and his family here in Afghanistan with whom he served.  There is never enough you can say about any man who has laid down his life for his country, but in the brief time the padre talks he tells us enough for us to know just how much his family at home, and his military family here meant to him, and how much he meant to them.

The sergeant major interrupts everyone's thoughts as he yells out the command, "To your fallen comrade, SALUTE." Capt. Leary's coffin begins the slow procession of being carried down the long column of saluting soldiers toward the waiting aircraft, as a lone bagpiper playing Amazing Grace echoes across the tarmac.

I don't know what the eight men carrying the coffin are thinking or reflecting about, but I can see the hurt in their faces, something you can't hide. As the flag draped coffin passes before my eyes, I stand a little taller; making sure my saluting arm is crisply squared away. It is crushing to see a fellow soldier carried before you, knowing what they leave behind and the impact on families it will have. Yet it is with the utmost honour and respect that we stand here, paying a soldier's respect to a fallen comrade.

Tragically a few short days later, we again assemble to honour Capt. Jonathan Snyder who drowned while on night operations with the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team. It is a tragic and sad week for Canada and Canadians, as we bid farewell to another of Canada's fallen with a night-time ramp ceremony. I can only hope that our own are few and far between.