The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Mary Ann Barber

Even though I only got to spend a limited amount of time with Mary Ann I feel the time that we did spend together talking and shooting her portrait was priceless.  From the onset of meeting her I could feel the calm demeanour that flows from her personality and being.  If I was ever shot on the battlefield I feel comforted knowing that the likes of Mary Ann would be there to take care of me.  Let us take the time, read her account and share some kind words for a true hero.  Captain Mary Ann Barber who served as part of Task force Kabul and Task Force Kandahar as a Role 3 Critical Care Nurse in the Multi-National Role 3 Medical Unit.

My name is Mary Ann Barber, I am 38 years old, originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. I joined the Canadian Forces in 1997 as a Nursing Officer, and eventually specialized as Critical Care Nursing Officer. I deployed 3 times to Afghanistan, 2005 to Kabul; 2007 to the Role 3 Multi-National Medical Unit (R3 MMU) Kandahar; and again in 2008 back to the R3. 

The person I was when I went to Afghanistan never came home. 

How do you put into words what Afghanistan was to you as a Critical Care Nursing Officer?  How do you describe the greatest triumphs of your life and worst moments of your life?

Life for us at the Role 3 was different than for everyone else on tour. We saw the casualties from almost every incident that took place in southern Afghanistan, there was nowhere else to send them.  It was a constant stream of mutilated and brutally damaged bodies. 98% of our patients were Afghans, between the Afgan National Army (ANA), Afghan National Police (ANP) and local nationals, and we also provided care to the Taliban.  It was tough to look after the enemy, knowing that potentially in the bed beside them was a friend they had hurt, or worse, you went to the ramp ceremony of the colleague they had killed.

We looked after our own, our friends, our family members. There would be this collective silence and sense of apprehension as we waited for the names of the Canadian casualties to come in. We worked around the clock, without pause to ensure our patients received the highest quality of care in the worst location. We dealt with finite resources, we ran out of supplies, equipment, or the equipment broke down. Everyone worked to get us what we needed, but often times what we needed was more staff, more beds, more surgeons, more operating rooms, more blood.

More… 

Despite these limitations and challenges, we overcame these obstacles, and can successfully boast about our survival rates, about how many lives we saved. Those triumphs are real, the hearts, the minds and bodies we repaired. Every patient who lived was a success to us, and we celebrated with them.  So too was every loss, the ones we couldn’t save. Those are the ones that are the hardest to let go, to wish you could have done more, but knowing you did everything that was humanly possible at that time, in that place, but still wishing you could do more.  We held our patients when they died; no one died alone, enemy, Afghan, Coalition, Canadian. We said prayers for them, and cried for them, we cried with them, we cried with each other. We replaced the family members who should have been there to hold them when they passed. 

These triumphs and losses are now elements of who I am, these memories are now woven into my personal fabric. Afghanistan is now part of my constitution as a woman, a nurse, and a leader. I would go back tomorrow to provide care to the people there, and to take care of our own. The average Afghan was a considerate, kind and generous soul, they would give you their last morsel of food if you were their guest. It was also my greatest honour to be able to help our own soldiers in their time of need. Every medical professional I worked with over there has expressed this same sentiment. There’s a quote from Clara Barton that I have related to, it reads;

I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight,     I can stand and nurse them.”

This burden has been difficult at times to bear though, and the scars left from these experiences will stay with me for the rest of my life and my colleague’s lives.  I am trying to remember who I used to be with fondness, I still grieve the loss of who I was once, the life I once had. There is an inability now to be close with people, the walls you build to stay alive over there never really come down.  You can be surrounded by people and loved ones, and still feel a sense of lonliness. You wish you could be surrounded by those you served with, some days it seems they are the only ones who truly understand who you have become now. But when I remember the children we saved, or talk to a friend who was a patient once, those smiles, that laughter, brings a peace to your soul, and keeps you motivated and inspired to continue to provide care. 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Dave Gionet

Week of Remembrance Day 4: Dave Gionet. He is a true Canadian Hero so please take the time to read this and send him some love via comments and likes. Master Corporal Dave Gionet served two tours in Afghanistan, from February 9 - September 7, 2005 and January 21 - August 30, 2007.

My name is Dave Gionet and I am forty-two (42) years old come from a small town in New Brunswick called Pigeon-Hill.  I was raised by my mother Celine and my father Theophile who are currently retired and still reside in Pigeon-Hill.  I have three siblings, my sister Diane who lives in Moncton, New Brunswick and my two brothers who are fisherman, Marcel and Steve who live in Pigeon-Hill.   

I finished high school when I was twenty (20) and enrolled in college for two years taking a course to become a correctional officer, however knowing I was not completely ready I decided to pursue other options.  When I turned twenty-five (25) I decided it was time for a new journey and moved to Kitchener, Ontario where at twenty-nine (29) I joined the army.  I served twelve (12) years and did two tours in Afghanistan.  When I returned from my second tour I was medically released and retired September 1, 2013.

Here is a history of some of my encounters during my two tours.  While in Afghanistan, Kandahar, 2007 on Tuesday, March 20th, we were trying to recover a Coyote surveillance vehicle that had struck a mine.  I was the gunner of C/S 61C we were staying in the rear for security; the dog handler (Shaun Parker) and his dog (Alex) were with us. Sgt Sheldon, called for Alex and Shaun to inspect the area.  Alex smelt an IED, but de stepped on the IED before he was able to alert us.  The bomb went off, Alex was killed immediately and Shaun was very badly injured.  I was roughly 50 feet from the Bomb; the blast almost threw me off my feet, when I looked at what had happened, I couldn’t see anything with all the dust in the air.  I ran to see if everyone was okay but by then I knew it was going to be bad.  I could hear someone crying for help and when I got in the impact area, I saw Shaun in a bad position and a couple of soldiers that were confused by the blast, in a second I took charge and went to give first aide to the dog handler that was in a very bad state, to this day, it’s too hard for me to describe the details but I did succeed to open his airway until the evacuation took place about an hour later.  That was the first incident happening to me in my tour.

On April 11th, 2007 after three (3) days on an OP we were relieved by C/S 62.  On our way to our location, 62D struck an IED.  We turned down from the OP and moved to 62D location to provide security.  On the way to the IED strike, the vehicle in front of me was also hit by an IED (61B).  I immediately jumped off my coyote and went toward the crew of 61B to give first aide.  However, despite the help of my friends and me we lost two great soldiers

 

On June 11th, 2007 we were traveling about 40 km north of Kandahar City, when C/S 61D hit an IED.  I was the second vehicle C/S 61C in the rear, when we saw the blast we stopped and I jumped off to go provide first aide.  When I got to the vehicle I saw the crew was in very bad shape, upon investigating further I saw one of the crew was still in the vehicle it was the driver, my good friend (Caswell) however, it was too late, after we secured the location me and two more of my crew removed Caswell and put him in the helicopter for evacuation.  For the Dragoons, and myself this moment was very difficult, it was unforgettable has stayed with me.   This was the final incident for me during this tour. 

When I returned home from Afghanistan everything had changed for me and it was a very difficult process to adjust to a normal life.  I served my country and my crew to the best of my abilities, however for everything there is a price and nothing remains the same. 

 

Medal of Military Valour Citation:

“For extraordinary courage while under threat of fire, explosions and enemy attack during the rescue of fellow soldiers from a burning vehicle following an improvised explosion with the 2 Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, Task Force Afghanistan on 11 April 2007.”

“On 11 April 2007, Private Dolmovic and Corporal Gionet saved the live of a fellow crewmember after his vehicle struck and improvised explosive devise in Nalgham, Afghanistan.  After freeing the trapped driver, Private Dolmovic and Corporal Gionet performed life-saving first-aid, despite imminent risks of fire, explosions and enemy attack.”

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: Week of Remembrance: An Account of War by Stephen Oliver

Today on Remembrance Day we stop on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and think about all of those that have sacrificed for our freedom.  On this day I am honoured to bring you Stephen Oliver's account.  About 4 years ago Stephen transferred into the Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada and lets just say he made a major impact.  Stephen's outgoing and positive attitude matched with his love of physical fitness and the experience he brought from a long life of soldiering made him a pivotal member of the regiment.  It didn't take long for us to cross paths and he's been kicking my ass ever since.  When I started this project I immediately thought of Stephen and knew that I had to get him to contribute...He grilled me about all aspects of the project and when he was satisfied with my answers he agreed to participate.  Its been some time coming but here it is!  Sergeant Stephen Oliver served in Afghanistan from April 2010 - December 2010 as part of Task Force Kandahar. 

In April 2010 I arrived in Kandahar Afghanistan as part of a five soldier Tactical Psychological Operations Team. The team had spent the prior year competing against one another for positions, training together as a team and building the individual skills we needed to step off the plane and support the Canadian mission.

Upon arrival we were attached to a Company of the US Army 82nd Airborne 2/508thoperating in the Arghandab Valley. It was there with the 82nd at Combat Outpost (COP) Ware that I first got my feet wet; a surprisingly literal statement. The terrain of the valley surrounding the COP encompassed deep rivers, lush apricot orchards and delicately milled radish fields. Every day we would conduct a patrol composed of a small number of Afghans, US Soldiers and we Canadians. Our constantly varying routes would take us through the rivers, over the walls and walking through rows of crops. I would sit and speak with the farmers, listening to their stories and often telling them ours. We would talk of the war and government, of the land and the rain, of families and home. This talk was not aimless. It was our job to shape what people thought about their government, the military and our enemies in hopes of supporting the various security and development efforts. I remember one such conversation from early in my deployment.

 We patrolled out to a nomadic village near our observation post both perched on the side of a hill. Our mission was to deal with a small crisis. The day prior a soldier was forced to kill a large dog from this village that came barrelling down upon him. Occasionally, this type of crisis mitigation was the reason for our meetings although probably not as often as many believe. Our well-armed patrol arrived among the shelters and we met the local leader. He was an old man with a long grey beard and aged face that showed many years of hard living. He invited us to sit with him in the Mosque tent, an invitation that came with a cultural catch - no footwear. My note taker, our interpreter, a US Sergeant and I considered this catch and decided that we could fight without boots should the need arise. We removed our boots and placed them neatly beside the door. A plate of dried fruit and tea promptly arrived. The old man initially refused to believe that I was also raised on a small family farm with animals and working dogs. I assumed he was wary of such coincidences with friendly strangers. Instead his stereotype of us focused on the towering cement cities not the wide Canadian landscapes. Together we drank tea, ate fruit and talked of where his country was going and how he could help guide it there.

Today I remember this conversation not because he was our enemy or our friend; he very well may have been either. I remember this conversation not because he gave us vital information or some other great military victory. I remember this conversation because it gave us each an opportunity to show respect for one another and feed a real curiosity that everyone in that tent shared. This was our job as much as fighting was our job and our team of five Canadians was really good at it.

This story and others from my time in Afghanistan will stay with me. I try to remember that as much as I arrived ready to fight in a desert only to walk through orchards it was our daily work and our conversations that were changing expectations and attitudes for everyone in that conflict. 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: Week of Remembrance: An Account of War by Henry Wong

When I was first contacted by Henry he was hesitant to participate in the project but as we talked  about it he changed his mind.  I am happy that I did because his account will resonate with everyone who reads it.  During my trip to Ottawa Henry took time out of his schedule to meet up and have his portrait taken.  It was great to finally meet him, Henry brings a humour that is all his own and its easy to see how he positively impacted the lives of those he served with and the Afghans that he strove to help.  I am proud to bring you Henry's account.  Cpl Henry Wong served in Afghanistan from September 2008 - April 2009 as part of Task force Afghanistan and Task Force Kandahar.

Positive Flashbacks

It was just before Ceremonial Guard 2007 started that I received word I had been selected to attend pre-deployment training for TF 3-08.  I remember seeing the short list of junior NCO’s from my unit and was pleased that I would be in good company for my tour.  As a reservist I couldn’t have imagined the varied experiences and opportunities that were waiting for me.  Initially I was assigned to Force Protection, 2 Platoon of the National Support Element.  We were trained to carry out escort duties for re-supply convoys to the various forward operating bases/patrol bases and conduct Defense & Security tasks.  By about mid October we started handing over our duties of daily convoys to Force Protection 1 Platoon and Force Protection 2 Platoon would begin the daily grind at Entry Control Point 3 of Kandahar Airfield.  Eventually we again handed over duties to the Slovak Military Police.  Since there was little requirement for two platoons to conduct Combat Logistic Patrols, my platoon would end up being divided into various other organizations.  With great fortune, I was assigned to a mentoring team within the OMLT. 

When I first heard of the Afghanistan Veteran Project I knew I wanted to contribute, but I honestly wasn’t sure how to go about it.  I’m not much of a writer or a story teller and by luck my experience encompassed a fair amount.  I’m convinced that if you gathered all the daily stories, from the mundane to the extraordinary, of each soldier, it would be measured in countless volumes.  Those who know me best will probably tell you I’m quite soft spoken, so I think it’s only fitting that I settled on humour as the main focus of my experience.  I think it’s safe to say that humour, especially for a soldier, goes a long way in keeping morale high and we relish those funny moments of peace with war going on about you. 

Looking back on my military career I’ve had many memorable moments and there are a few that stick out in my mind.  These memories make me smile and/or laugh out loud when I think of them.  One of my favorites is a memory from late Sept or early October 2008.  It was a pleasantly warm evening at Kandahar Airfield; the temperature was just right for shorts and t-shirt and as long as I didn’t move too much I wouldn’t start sweating bullets.

I was sitting outside the 2 Section Weather-haven tent in the Force Protection lines (“lines” being military speak for “where we were living that moment”) and enjoying a quiet evening after a very long day of re-supply convoys.  Next to me sat my good Friend Alec.  I honestly don’t remember what we may have been talking about, but that doesn’t really matter.  Here we were, lucky as all heck to have the chance to deploy (well…not all luck, there was some work involved) and fortunate enough to be part of a solid Platoon.

There was a moment of comfortable silence amongst the din of the Airfield.  Suddenly, we both heard a long whistling sound, the sound that is hard to mistake for something else, the sound that military guys know all too well and it just makes your skin crawl and your heart skip a beat.  I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time, but my mind immediately went to “Artillery Simulator” which then translated into “Mortar round or Rocket” which then further translated into “Bad”.

We both heard it, and likely we were both thinking the same thing.  I turned to face Alec as he turned to face me.  The look on his face was priceless; it was a weird combination of partial grin and “oh shit this is gonna suck Dude!”, and of course I likely had the same expression on my face as well.

We sat there looking at each other with our weird expressions for what seemed like a few seconds.  Then, I utter the following phrase out of my mouth while trying to maintain a serious, as a matter of fact demeanor:

“I love you, Alec…”

After a half second pause we both burst into an uproar of laughter, the kind that makes you slap your knee, double over, tear up and hurts your stomach.  We are now both gasping for air and I hear Alec force out “I love you too, Henry” through his gritted teeth laughter.

I’m sure in the back of our minds we both knew that we weren’t in actual danger (relatively speaking of course).  In the end, the whistling sound turned out to be the whine of a jet engine winding down on the tarmac close by.  But I tell you, it was comforting to know that had that been my last moment on earth, I would’ve died happy, laughing, knowing I was doing something worthwhile, and that one of my close friends loved me like a Brother.

Another moment I’ll never forget was from the second half of my tour.  Life in Strong Point Mushan as a member of callsign 7-2 Charlie was constant and steady work.  Working alongside 6 other Canadians and a Company of ANA was (to me) much more akin to an adventure than work.  Aside from daily presence patrols, life within the Hesco walls of Mushan were calm, relaxed, and yet busy.  There was always something to do or improve or maintain so that Mushan could continue to function.  Taking care of diesel generators, radio watch, burning garbage, maintaining weapons, cooking meals, everything right down to doing laundry in a basin with a washboard; the list was endless. 

One day I was taking a respite from the ongoing activity inside Mushan when I received mail from my units Junior Rank’s Mess back home.  In the package my friend Dan had sent me a can of Honey Roasted Peanuts with a little note that read “I hope you like Nutz!”.   You’d be surprised how something like canned nuts can make you miss home.  I sat on our “Deck” (which was fashioned from pallets and plywood) with a fellow reservist from London, John.   John is an interesting character.  He enjoyed a good laugh and always kept things light, even if at that very moment we were doing something completely serious (like firing mortars).  His lighter side bellied the fact that he was also a thoughtful and intelligent soldier; not to mention that he is quite fit and cared for his body, often lamenting the anti-oxidant virtues of Green Tea.

As we sat quietly enjoying the mild temperature of “Winter” in mid February, I offered him some of my honey roasted nuts.  In his perpetual raspy voice and serious tone he says to me:

“Duuude, those are sooo good, but do you know how much saturated fat is in there?”

To which I replied:

“John…we could be dead tomorrow.”

He looked at that can of nuts with a contemplative gaze, within a few seconds he replied:

“Truth.”

 He then proceeded to take a handful of that honey roasted goodness and we both had a suppressed chuckle as we sat there enjoying my care package.  Somehow amongst the constant danger there was always room for a little humour, a little compromise, and a handful of nuts. 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: Week of Remembrance: An Account of War by Angela Clark

In an effort to honour our veterans I am holding my own week of remembrance through the stories and images of veterans I have met.  Some of the stories are new and others are being refeatured.

Back in the summer I was able to make the trip to Ottawa and meet up with Angela to shoot her portrait.  Here is the portrait along with Angela's account, an except from the blog that she kept while on tour.  I was taken aback when I had the chance to read all of the blogs she wrote and posted during her tour.  They are very deep and insightful and I believe an important piece of this conflicts history as for one of the first times we are seeing a first hand account of combat from a woman's perspective.  I am honoured to be able to share with you an excerpt from her blogs.  I highly recommend you take the time after reading this except to read through the rest of her blogs. You can check them out here: http://ang-ghanistan.blogspot.ca . Now a JAG officer, Captain Angela Clark deployed as a corporal in the role of force protection on task force 1-08.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Boats and Burkhas

I have been keeping my day timer up to date with the events of each day. But I always struggle to fill up the small space during night shifts. We work all night until 7am, I check my email and am in bed by about 0800, sleep until 1230, eat lunch, go to the gym around 1500, maybe take another nap 1600-1700, go for dinner, go to work.

But I guess instead of writing about what has (not) been going on, I could write about some of the things I have been meaning to, but have ended up replacing with things that have happened that week.

I mentioned a couple of posts ago the stories the interpreters tell us of their life and their ambitions. A couple of weeks ago when I was on nights I spoke with Wally (good Wally) for a long time. I asked him tons of questions about life in Afghanistan and want to relate some of our conversation as best I remember it.

For example:

“Have you ever been on a boat?” I asked.

“Boat?” He seemed to be trying to place the word.

“Yes, you know, a vehicle that floats on water and you ride in?”

“Oh yes I know the word. Boat. No, I have never been on a boat. I have never seen a boat. Also, I do not know anyone who can swim.”

I spoke with him for a long time about women in Afghanistan - the conversation mainly revolved around his family’s experiences and that of his wife.

His grandfather (we’ll call him Baba Wally) is a well-known village elder who is, apparently, over six feet tall and 110 years old. He had four wives (only one is still alive now) and fifteen children. Baba Wally married his first wife as a result of a tribal blood feud. I can’t remember all of the details, but one of Baba Wally’s brothers unjustifiably murdered a man from another village. This man’s family was insulted and dishonored, so were obliged to kill Baba Wally’s brother in return. Baba Wally retaliated by murdering the dead man’s brother. This back-and-forth volley for honor would have continued until both of the families were completely decimated, but another solution was found. Baba Wally married the dead man’s sister in order to heal and unite the families who hands were already stained with each other’s blood. This woman was to become Wally’s grandmother.

Wally’s family is very strict and traditional, he explained. In Kabul, young men can date who they please, and sometimes can spend time alone with their girlfriends (!). But Kandahar is mainly the home of the Pashto. Pashtuns are the honorable warriors who formed the anti-Soviet Mujahedeen and who fostered the Taliban. Most are by no means Islamic Fundamentalists, instead all have their origins in the very important Pashto code of honor. (I will look up more on this and elaborate at a different time). 

Their views on women’s rights, or more correctly, the rights a man has over a woman, are intrinsic in these codes of honor. Wally has been working with Westerners for many years now, but his personal life is still dictated by the traditions and the family he grew up with.

His wife is his brother’s wife’s sister. It was arranged for them to be married by their parents. They had only met once before they were married, at his brother’s wedding. He said their marriage was good, though, and more sacred than most Western marriages. They tolerate each other’s bad moods like any marriage, and compromise like any marriage, but the fact that separation is not an option creates a devotion and bond much stronger than those who know deep down, “I can always get a divorce.” (Divorce is possible however, if a man requests it, not a woman, but it is dishonorable). I am sure not all arranged marriages work as well as Wally’s, but his sounds all right.

I asked him if his wife wears a burkha, and he said yes. He said they live in an apartment complex in Kandahar City and if any woman who lives inside is standing in the doorway without a burkha on and a man passes, she must run back inside and cover herself. His wife does not leave this building without his explicit permission. If he grants this, he must accompany her wherever she goes. If she wants to go see her mother and father, she must ask Wally for permission and be escorted by him to her family’s home.

Wally’s wife had a baby girl four months ago. His wife is very tired all the time, he said. Even if he is home and the baby cries, he does not help her. If the baby is up all night, Wally would not even think of getting up in his wife’s stead to rock the baby back to sleep. “That is the woman’s job and I must not interfere. But….the baby cries a lot,” he said.

Once in a while he will hold the baby and play with her. But he does not change her or wash her or make dinner so his wife can have a break. “That is not our way.” I asked him if he will try to send his daughter to school. “Well yes,” he said, “women can go to school for maybe one year to learn the Koran and learn how to be good wives.”

Wally is the one who is trying to get American citizenship so he can move to California. I mentioned to him that things are very different in California, and wondered if his wife was excited or nervous when they discuss the possible move. Education is mandatory, I explained, and women wear miniskirts and bikinis and show more skin than is hidden. I think he knows this, but is more concerned about providing a good life for his family than the cultural taboos that will be broken for him. “It is my family that is strict,” he said, “and they are why I live they way I do. But they too understand the importance of leaving Afghanistan if I can.”

MCpl Neilsen was also there and the conversation moved to how different dating is for us. Neilsen laughed and said, “I met my wife in a bar on a one night stand! Now we have been married for five years.” I told Wally I had had many boyfriends, had even been engaged once and lived with two different guys in relationships that didn’t work out. I couldn’t help wondering how Wally looked at us, and more specifically me….sitting there with all my rifle and frag vest and helmet and combats on, laughing and burping and farting like one of the boys, telling him stories about my relationships and university days and how I could do anything men were allowed to do. Was he disgusted? Curious? Fascinated?

Most likely, I think, he sees me as a separate species than an Afghan woman. I think that goes for most, if not all, Afghan men I have dealt with on KAF. I thought they wouldn’t listen to me, respect me, and maybe even hate me for being a woman and doing what I do. But I don’t think they feel this way. Most don’t act the opposite either, which is like me a little TOO much… Yes, they stare, but not the way they stare at an Afghan woman who walks by, or even a civilian woman. I think they see me more as a novelty, a curiosity. I don’t think I am seen as a woman first and foremost - I think they see me first and foremost as a soldier, the one with the rifle and pistol. Next, as a Westerner. And finally, as a woman. It is the combination of all of these that makes me a curiosity, and which allows me to get away with saying and doing things that could get an Afghan woman stoned to death.

But what of these women? What would they think of me? Would they be ashamed of me, for me, if they heard some of my stories? Would they be envious of my freedom? If they could take off their burkhas and shed Afghanistan like a skin, what parts of it would they say good riddance to and what parts would they miss?

A separate thought – after talking to Wally about his life and his wife, and picturing them moving to California, I can understand why you hear of so many immigrants whose lives end violently once they finally establish themselves in a Western nation. You hear of fathers who murder their daughters for not listening to them or heeding their culture or religion. You hear of wives murdering their husbands, and murder-suicides, and people kidnapping their children from their spouses and taking them back to their home country. It all makes much more sense after talking to Wally. Wally is a wonderful person and would do great in Canada or the US, of that I have no doubt. But what of those that want a better life, but then end up unable to adapt to the culture that inevitably influences the life they have immigrated into? Of course I believe immigrants have a right and a need to hold on to who they are at the root, but they have to be flexible and adaptable with certain manifestations of who they are. A man like Wally will have a difficult time if he tries to make his wife wear a burkha down to the beach in L.A., or if he sends his daughter to school for just a year only to learn how to please a man and a god.

Just heard three big booms, so I think we just got rocketed. Yup, the sirens are going off so I better end this. Good night all.

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Damian Jungermann

About a week ago the project was contacted by a the non for profit organization Martial Arts Community of Veterans (MACV) looking for some support raising awareness for their cause.  The organization focuses on helping veterans who are diagnosed with PTSD and operational stress injuries specifically through the study and practice of Jiu Jitsu.  I think this is a great cause and something that more veterans should look into.  I highly suggest that you take the time to check out some of the work they have been doing and give them some love or inquire how you can be a part or learn from what they have been doing.  You can check them out here: http://www.macvproject.org/#macv

Through our connection we have started to meet some outstanding veterans who are looking to share their story.  Damian Jungermann, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician, has deployed on several deployments to Afghanistan in many harrowing situations.  Overcoming the horrors and stress he experienced during tour Damian is a testament towards the work that is being done by MACV.  Through their work he has regained his life and we are proud to bring you his account.  Please take the time to read it and show him some support!

I suppose I will share the experience that really changed how I approached my missions.  I was on a night time village clearance with an Army SF ODA.  It was our second mission partnering with the Afghan commandoes.  The first had gone off without a hitch, which worried me.  We were doing these missions in a notoriously difficult part of Kandahar province called Panjwai.  We inserted off of a CH-47 with the Commando element and made our way to the compound we had decided to hit first.  After making our way through the dense marijuana field and grape rows, I placed an explosive charge on the wall and blew a hole large enough to breach the compound.  Unfortunately it did not lead into the compound and we were now relegated to using the doorway.  Our Afghan Commando engineers cleared the doorway of any explosive hazards.  Then I went up, kneeled in the doorway and cleared it quickly.  I found no signs of any IED hazards.  We made entry after I called it good.  After most of us had made entry and were inside the compound, there was a large explosion.  And for all of you who have heard an IED go off, it's sometimes hard to know where it happened initially.  Especially at night.  It turns out that the last two Afghan commandos had initiated an IED in the doorway that I had cleared.  I tried making my way back to get them.  Once we managed to get them inside we saw how bad the damage was.  One had lost both legs and one arm.  The other had blast injuries to his face and hand.  He would live. The triple amputee was begging us to kill him.  We attempted to medevac him by helicopter but by the time they arrived, he had passed away from his massive injuries.  His teammates wrapped him in a blanket and we brought the body back with us when we were extracted. It was my second IED strike I'd been involved in in the first 6 weeks I was in country.  At first light I made my way back to the doorway to investigate. The blast hole was exactly where I'd been kneeling just a couple of hours earlier.  How the fuck did I not function this thing.  What the fuck had happened?  There was little evidence to gather that helped me paint a picture.  This was still early in my first combat deployment in fall of 2010.  I had a lot to learn and it was this mission where I knew I had to change how I did this job.  I had to develop new ways to do our job.  I made it through 8 months of that deployment and did two more deployments to Afghanistan in the two subsequent years.  The last I was doing the same mission with the Commandos in Kandahar once again.  I have an incredible amount of respect for the Afghans who fought with us and a lot of love for the country of Afghanistan.  It is a tragically beautiful place and culture.  That mission haunts me every night.  I replay it daily and wonder how I missed that.  What could I have done differently so that didn't happen.  And I am sure I'll continue to go over that and see that Afghan's face and hear him moaning in pain.  That sound is always the same.  Every time I've been around someone who has stepped on an IED, there is that moment of silence after that blast, and then the moaning starts.  It's most definitely a sound I don't want to hear again.  

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Brett Irwin

A couple of months ago Brett contacted us via Instagram.  Immediately, Brett was keen to participate and we had several key conversations over the following months.  Finally when I found some time we were able to meet up and shoot his portrait.  Brett has to be one of the calmest most laid back sincere individuals that I have ever met.  After reading his story and the struggles he has overcome to find peace I was taken back with the success he has had.  Despite still dealing with and coming to terms with what he experienced in Afghanistan Brett is a great success story and example of courage for any and all veterans. Never give up, someone will help you!  Cpl Brett Irwin served in Afghanistan from April 2010 - November 2010 as part of Task Force Kandahar.

             I first came into contact with the Afghanistan Veterans project via Instagram and instantly wanted to be apart of this cause. I did a lot of thinking on what I wanted to say or what story I should tell to define my experience at war in Afghanistan. Should I talk about one of my gunfights with the Taliban, one of the close calls I had being ambushed and go for the glory, or maybe about being struck with Improvised Explosive Devices and seeing my friends injured and go with the gore behind war?

 

            None of that is really that important and I really couldn’t care less about glory or what anyone has to say about me. So, after careful consideration I have decided to talk about the greatest fight of all, and that’s the fight all combat veterans face. Coming home from war. Call it (PTSD if u want I don’t know how to define it any better than the next person).

 

            The challenges I faced in Afghanistan with my brothers were always manageable, we always had each other there to talk to or to confide in when the shit hit the fan. Being home is a different story. I found myself alone fighting my demands, lashing out at my family and the people who loved me the most and turning to the bottle for comfort.  Coming home from war is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It’s been four and a half years since I returned from war and there hasn’t been a day go by where I don’t think of my time there.

 

            My heart still jumps through my chest when I hear a loud bang, I haven’t been able to enjoy fireworks on Canada day because they bring back horrible memories, I have moments of sever anxiety that seemingly comes out of nowhere. I have been as low as a person can go to the highest of highs where I’m on top of the world and back down again all before I even have lunch. I didn’t know what was going on but I knew I needed help.

 

            Reaching out and admitting that I had an issue I couldn’t fix alone was the best decision I ever made. I started seeing a therapist about a year and a half after being home and it’s been a really tough road with a tremendous amount of challenges. I can say from the bottom of my heart I couldn’t have done it alone. I want all veterans to know that there is help out there if you think you need it. Don’t be ashamed of your demands because we are not alone. 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Daniel Yun

A couple of Months ago Daniel reached out to me and from the get go he was extremely enthusiastic.  About a week ago I finally got to meet him in person at CFB Borden when I went to shoot his portrait for the project.  Its meeting people like Daniel that make me continue doing this project and putting the effort in to keep it going.  The level of support and willingness to help that Daniel has given me is outstanding.  For these reasons and many more I'm proud to bring you Daniel's account.  Master Corporal Daniel Yun served in Afghanistan from November 2010 - August 2011 as part of Task Force Afghanistan.

My name is Master Corporal Daniel Yun. I was an armoured reconnaissance crewman with the Queen’s York Ranger’s 1st American Regiment (RCAC). I volunteered to go to Afghanistan to gain and experience operational tempo just like every soldier, their dream is to do their real job in a combat setting. At the end of November 2010  I deployed under the 1st Battalion Royal 22nd Regiment Battle Group Roto 10 based out of CFB Valcartier, Quebec.  The time and experience I had over in Afghanistan is something that I could not compare with my regular life style back home in Canada. I took pride in serving my country and that what I was doing in Afghanistan was making a difference in the lives of Afghan’s.

Our main mission was to support the ANP (Afghanistan National Police) in mentoring the police force and other ANSF ( Afghanistan National Security Forces) so that they can carry out their duties as law enforcement officers to protect their own country.  I was based out of Forward Operating Base Walton which as is located in Kandahar City, Afghanistan. The unit I was attached to was called Regional Training Centre-Kandahar (RTC-K)  also known as “ Scorpion” which fell under the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A). I was employed as Weapon’s and Tactic’s Instructor while I worked along with my Canadian and U.S. counterparts in achieving our mission to mentor the ANP forces.

The mentoring mission team was divided into 2 teams. Tactic’s team which formed a body of combat arm’s soldier’s along with the Military Police team which formed bodies of Canadian Military Police member’s and Civilian Police (CIVPOL) unit’s from Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Toronto Police member’s. The mentoring team always remained vigilant and on guard when doing our job with the ANP forces each time. We did encounter some combatant incidents but we still carried out our mission as a team and fought through as soldier’s.

Upon my return back home to Canada in the summer of August 2011 I realized my transition home was not going to be easy.  I was still experiencing some operational stress fatigue and trying to get back into my regular daily routine and life style was not easy. There was an incident just outside of Forward Operating Base Walton on the ANP force’s camp that injured one of our leadership. It was a Captain that we worked alongside with from the Operational Mentor Liaison Team also known as OMLT. No matter what happened at the time we as soldier’s still had to persevere as we had a mission to carry on.  The one thing I will always miss about my deployment was the brotherhood and comradery that I enjoyed. The leadership from FOB Walton and along with my subordinates is something that I will always remember and carry onward in my career. We were also known as the “ Walton Wranglers” by the U.S. Forces.

I know war is not the best thing in the world and it brings sadness and pain to everyone. I have learned to be thankful for everything around me and do not take things for granted. This has made me a better person and I appreciate that I did make a difference in the lives of Afghan’s during our mission. 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Cesare Ierullo

Its been about a month since my last publication but the time away has been worth while as I have a ton of new content coming your way.  I met Cesare last Monday at CFB Borden...not what its called now but whatever.  The meeting was arranged by Daniel Yun who will be featured here soon.  I was taken away by how humble they both were and the support they were willing to give towards the project.  Needless to say I'm excited to bring you Cesare's account.  Master Corporal Cesare Ierullo served in Afghanistan from April - November 2010 as part of Task Force Kandahar.

I volunteered for Afghanistan for the opportunity to do something truly significant. I hoped to gain much from the experience and I certainly did. The time I spent in Afghanistan was the high point of my life to date, nothing back home has brought me the same complex rush of emotion and adrenaline. Not a single day has passed where I don't find my mind wandering back to 2010 in Afghanistan.

Our mission in Afghanistan was that of convoy escort and our platoon was officially titled National Support Element - Force Protection Platoon. 

Nicknamed the "Road Runners" and consisting entirely of reserve Infantry & Armoured volunteers, we set out to to protect the invaluable cargo that was frequently dispatched across the province of Kandahar. We moved everything from ammunition to people, whether it was through the traffic laden, bustling Kandahar city or out in the far flung rural reaches of the province, we took much pride in the execution of our missions.

Coming home with all the experiences I brought with me made reintegrating back into my normal life before tour particularly frustrating. I left Afghanistan feeling tremendously angry and bitter about the whole affair for a variety of reasons. We had been violently ambushed with RPG's and machinegun fire and my friend Master Corporal Mark Soteroff was wounded. Another friend with the Combat Engineers Sapper Brian Collier had been killed.

As is typical with war there were moments of great dread, anxiety and doubt, fear and uncertainty but also were many moments of laughter and good times. The friendships and bonds that were forged with my peers in that country are long lasting and significant.

For what its worth, Afghanistan made me a better person and I'll always be grateful I had the opportunity to serve with such a fine platoon of soldiers.

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Luke Martin

As the project has grown so have our ambitions...Its time to bring some new soldiers into the fold and make this project an international project!  I'm super excited about this one, Luke is a super humble guy but he absolutely deserves the recognition for everything he has done.  His story truly speaks to the reality of war and the bonds that our military family create.  Please take the time to time to read Luke's story.  Specialist Luke Martin served in Afghanistan from May 2007 - August 2008 as part of Task Force Fury.

My name is Luke Martin. I was a Specialist with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, 1/503rd, C Co, 3rd Platoon (PL). My job was as a Forward Observer (FO) for my Infantry platoon. A job that was crucial in the fight, it was to provide the Artillery with the location of the enemy. I was in the US Army for 4 years. I was with the same unit the whole time and only went to Afghanistan once from May of 2007 to August of 2008, a 15 month deployment. For the most part we did missions our whole time there, a few breaks for refit but for the most part we were out of the wire for 300 of the 400+ days in country. We saw a lot of fighting, death, poverty, hate, appreciation, and disgust. We would look into the eyes of some men in a village and be able to tell that they would be fighting us later on. It truly was the strangest place I had ever been. 

My team mate Robbie Neary, from Illinois, and I were the 3rd PL FO's. He was one of those guys that could do anything, complete any task, and learn anything types. We hated each other when we first met, and I think that was why we were put together, some kind of character building test.  After getting into country we quickly became inseparable. It's hard to get shot at, and choose to not like one another. Over that year and three months we went through just about anything that two friends could in that desolate environment. We would set up targets along our routes, make the Fire Support op orders for what ever mission was going on that day, watch movies or play video games in our down time, eat chow and go over our job books. Well, after we made it home, all the way through a long, adventurous tour, Robbie went to Ranger School, and I started the process of getting out of the army to come home. He ended up getting out a bit after I did, within a day of being home he flipped the car he was driving and died. 

This is where my true battle began. I had no clue how to handle such a devastating blow. He was my best friend and teammate. We went everywhere together. I understood that Afghanistan was War. And as the saying goes, War Is Hell. I knew that the killing, fighting, shooting, rockets, mortars, and all the other stuff we had to deal with, was War. For the most part, I loved it. I loved the feeling of getting the quick reaction force call to roll out and help with the fight. I loved getting on a helicopter to get dropped some place in the middle of the night.  Walk down riverbeds tripping over everything because our night vision sucked. But a car accident? After all of the things we had been through I couldn’t accept that a car accident could be a cause of death. How was that fair to take such a great man in that way?

I lost it. I wanted to die. I couldn't get back into the fight fast enough and I knew that I would never be doing the things I had once done again.  I drank till I blacked out every night. If I had ran out of beer or liquor before I fell asleep I hopped in my jeep and drove to buy more. Sometimes just hoping I was going fast enough that if I hit a telephone pole it would be enough to kill me. Long nights of staring at my Smith and Wesson .40 cal wondering if I had the guts to kill myself. It was the constant question in my mind not of if I would kill myself but when. All of the drinking got me out of shape. All of the self-loathing turned me lazy and un-ambitious.

I was stuck in this hatred for myself, for not doing more. Not taking those steps to stay in the army, maybe me being there would have saved my best friends life. I kept thinking that I gave up on my team and myself. Perhaps if I had gone back for another deployment I would have felt better about myself, or maybe if I had tried out for something else that it would change how I feel now. But what-ifs get you killed. What-ifs take from what I did, I did sign my life for my country.  Had I died in combat, or if I die at 99 years of age with my wife by my side, I am going to remember that I went to a country that had no hope for help.  I went over with one of the best Units in the US Army and fought and made the difference we could. One tour isn't much at all. I'll never say that I did as much as I wish, but dammit Robbie, we did it, we survived, and I will never forget the fight. My fight’s not over, my life is a gift again and I am happy I brought the fight to their land, instead of letting it come this great land. 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Amanda Diamond

I am proud to bring you our second female contributor.  Amanda's story is full of highs and lows but is more importantly a story of success.  I suggest highly suggest taking the time to read her story, her website and Facebook page. She may be able to help you as well.  Private Amanda Diamond in Afghanistan from November 2006 - August 2007 as part of Task Force Force Afghanistan and Task Force Kandahar.

Army Life, Chronic Stress and Autoimmunity. My Journey Toward Wellness. 

By Amanda Diamond 

 

After graduating high school in a small town in rural Ontario, I struggled with the age old question..."What am I going to do with my life?"  I had always been an over-achiever and was looking for a new challenge and a way to see the world and expand my horizons. Naturally, I decided the join the Army.  After about a year of training, I was posted to Edmonton as a Signal Operator at the Brigade Headquarters.

 

In November of 2006 I deployed with the 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Headquarters to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Though most of my deployment was spent in a comfy, air-conditioned headquarters building, I struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my 9 months abroad. My sleep was non existent at times and my body seemed to be rebelling against me. My digestive issues were manageable at that time, but bothersome to say the least. I was irritable, on edge and began isolating myself from my friends and fellow soldiers. I never expressed how I was feeling to anyone else. I felt that I had no reason to complain, and that I was lucky that my job was relatively easy and safe. 

 

By the end of my tour, I knew that this lifestyle was not for me. Though I valued everything the military had taught me, I knew I was ready to move on. My release was processed 6 months after returning home. The following year I became a mother, and not long after the birth of my daughter I began experiencing a decline in my health. After months of doctor’s appointments and numerous tests I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, an auto-immune disease that effects the lower digestive system.  

 

I have lived with this disease for over 4 years now. I've experienced many ups and downs and constant changes in my body. Sudden weight loss, bloating, hair loss, bleeding, and gut wrenching stomach cramps became my normal day to day life. I've tried numerous treatments, from pharmaceuticals to herbal remedies, dietary restrictions to nicotine therapy and the biggest realization I've come to is this: 

 

Mental stress wreaks havoc on our physical health.

 

Noticing this link between long term stress and my own illness led me to begin researching the topic. Many studies have been done on the topic recently, supporting the idea that stress relief techniques are vital pieces of the wellness puzzle.  Multiple studies have shown that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. Specifically, prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone. In turn, runaway inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases. Mental health professionals dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have also noticed this link, stating that PTSD sufferers have an increased risk of developing heart disease and auto-immune disorders. 

 

 

So how do you put an end to the stress response in the body when it seems to be so deeply engrained... especially in veterans, police officers and other first responders?  

 

My personal experience with chronic illness has taught me that stress relief techniques are vital to both mental and physical health and wellness. Practicing meditation, yoga and breathing exercises calm the fight or flight reaction by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the body's natural relaxation response.  

 

For me, these techniques were the missing link on my healing journey. Since integrating them into my daily life I have noticed a marked improvement in my mood, digestion and inflammatory response. Along with proper diet and exercise, meditation and mindfulness play an important role in my balanced lifestyle. I am no longer taking any medications to manage my illness and can enjoy the quality of life I was accustomed to before getting sick. 

 

I now pour my energy into helping others regain their health and overcome illness through coaching support and wellness education. If you are a veteran, and are struggling with chronic health problems I want you to know that it can get better. But I assure you, the cure won't be found at the bottom of a pill bottle. Real healing starts with changing your thought processes, practicing mindfulness and learning to love yourself, flaws and all.

 

 

 

About the Author - Amanda Diamond 

Amanda is a Health Coach, Wellness Educator and Mother of two. She draws from her personal experience with chronic disease to inspire others to take control of their health and find balance in their lives. You can connect with Amanda on FaceBook and Twitter or by visiting her website. 

 

 

[http://www.facebook.com/amandadiamondhealthcoach] 

[http://www.twitter.com/amandakdiamond] 

[http://www.amandadiamond.com]

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Scott Hahn

I have known Scotty for probably 8/9 years now and he's always been an interesting character.  Scott has always been someone who was never afraid to share an idea or not do something.  In that way he has always been an inspiration to others.  Now as a councillor for Woolwich Township Scott has taken this to the next level yet behind the scenes there has been a hidden battle most people don't have insight into.  In this way through his participation I hope Scott's story will be able to help others that may be struggling to either seek help or share their own story.  I am now honoured to share with you Scotts story, please take the time to read it.  Corporal Scott Hahn served in Afghanistan from 17 May - 15 December, 2010 as part of Task Force Kandahar.

Every soldier is different, soldiers ten feet apart from each other in a firefight will tell two different stories. I feel the most important story to tell is not of the mission, but after the mission. No soldier comes home the way they think they will.

 

Coming home can only be described as euphoric, after being stuck in a war torn country for seven months. All the things that were missing from daily life in Afghanistan, are all easily accessible. Running water, sleep, sex, good food, cold beer, and no fear for your life. In those first few fantastic days, a soldier’s mental health is checked by the Canadian Forces. I doubt many red flags are raised with any soldier. All the wrongs in the world are on another continent, everything in life is perfect in those first few days.

 

But I am not a veteran of war for a few days... I am a veteran for life.

 

During decompression, or re-integration into society training, I was told that I would think about my tour frequently when I returned to Canada, but after several months it would slowly sub seed. The difficulty I had was that after two years, there was rarely a moment where events of my tour were not running through my head like a permanent daydream. I would come home agitated because I had ultimately lived two full days in a nine hour work day. Nine hours physically on a job and nine hours mentally in Afghanistan. The minor stresses of daily life, the major stresses of battle and the politics of war that a soldier is subjected to, would compound on each other every day, and as you can imagine, anger was a side effect. Unfortunately, I often redirected that anger towards my wife, not physically, but verbally.

 

How does a soldier get over this? There is no one answer, the mind is a complex puzzle. Some simple examples could be, talking to a therapist, group therapy, peer support, taking up a hobby, drinking, drugs, suicide?  The last one is not an option for myself, life is too precious. I have tried a few ways to get over my personal struggles, some were effective, and others were not. I haven't found peace yet, but I have found ways to keep my mind busy enough that I am forced to think about other things. I am an electrical foreman at work and often have several jobs on the go that require constant attention. I started into municipal politics and the meetings and research are time consuming. I took up bow hunting for deer and moose, and I try to get out fishing a few times a year. I also have the most important part to my personal therapy, my children. How could anyone look at a child and think of war? All the innocence and joy a child has is something to truly marvel at. They are the light at the end of a very dark tunnel for myself. 

 

Other little things in life remind me that I am not alone and I truly have a nation behind me in support. There is a long list of kind deeds, from Canadians towards veterans, which I see daily. Support your troops magnets, a stranger buying a coffee, a family in Wellesley bought a beer for me one time, Don Cherry's constant support on Hockey Night In Canada, a firm handshake and "Thank You". This list doesn't do justice to all the unwavering support across Canada, but I feel that it should be acknowledged.

 

After four years, there still isn't a day where I haven't thought about Afghanistan, but I am noticing small improvements and I hope others that have any issues are finding their peace.

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Don Fraser

Its been over a week since my last update, I've been crazy busy starting work again and there has also been a family emergency so bare with me.  I have a ton of new content on its way.  And now I share with you a short account from Master Corporal Don Fraser who provided the support all the men and women in the field needed to be able to do their duty.  This is a great opportunity to recognize those that support the combat arms in all they do.  I would also like to give a shout out to Canadian Heroes who have been a giant supporter of this project which is also an organization that Don also belongs and participates. 

Master Corporal Don Fraser served in Afghanistan on rotation 5 of Task Force Kandahar 1-08 and was the Kitchen Officer of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Wilson from March 08 to September 08 and is known for his ice cream runs and visits to the many Police Sub Stations, Strong Points and Security Points.  Master Corporal Fraser was awarded the task force commander's accommodation and as well as the National Support Element commander's coin for his work in and outside the FOB Master Corporal Fraser is currently still serving in Edmonton with 3 Canadian Division Support Group and dedicates his spare time to working with the Canadian Heroes Foundation with his memorial vehicle.

Master Corporal Paul Franklin with Don Fraser's Canadian Heroes Memorial Vehicle

Master Corporal Paul Franklin with Don Fraser's Canadian Heroes Memorial Vehicle


The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Maxime Gaboriault

Over the last several weeks I have gotten to know Max very well through the many conversations we have had over Facebook.  When he contacted me I could tell he was looking for an outlet to share his feelings and I believe he has done it well.  I hope this is as healing for you as it was for Max...I know he has shed some tears over it.  So without further adieu I introduce to you Max's story which continues to be written every day.  Master Corporal Maxime Gaboriault served in Afghanistan from 5 February - 5 November, 2006 as part of Task Force Afghanistan and Task Force Kandahar.

My name is Maxime Gaboriault, I served as a Signal Operator and retired as a Master Corporal. I served from December 2001 until July 2014 for a total of just less than 13 years. I am from Granby, Quebec and was posted in Edmonton, Alberta for 7 years.  I was deployed to Afghanistan on Febuary 5th 2006 until November 5th 2006 as part of Task Force Afghanistan Op Archer and almost half of Task Force Kandahar 03 - 06 for a total of 9 months.

I deployed with 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group and Signals Squadron (1 CMBG HQ&Sig Sqn). Once over I was part of Multi National Brigade Head Quarter (MNB HQ). We were located in Kandahar Air Field known as KAF. My first 2 months I acted as a stores man for my troop and for the General's crew. During those 2 months I was also responsible for two locals that were cleaning the Head Quarter. During this time I was also doing Gate duty, searching people and vehicles that were entering the base.

During my first two months I attended many ramp ceremonies without understanding the implication of what was going on. But that was about to change as on the night of April 21st the close protection personnel (CPP) crew I was taking care of welcomed me as part of their crew. I had dinner that night with Randy Payne, Miles Mansell and Matthew Dinning. I never realized that I was sharing their last steak dinner as they died the next morning on the 22nd of April from an IED blast, it killed the four occupants of the G-Wagon. That’s when it hit me, more or less about the value and meaning of the ramp ceremonies. I attended a total of 42 ramps ceremonies over my time spent there.

I was later transferred to the Rover section where I would be an electronic countermeasures (ECM) Driver and a C9 gunner. I served with the Romanians for about four months providing ECM coverage. I had a great time with them doing surveillance at night, although most of them did not speak any English. Our calls sign (C/S) was always Viper or Cobra, which was kinda funny due to the typical cliché of war movies. For every patrol we did the Padre blessed our vehicles and us before departing.  I am not a religious person, but it became part of the routine and we expected to be blessed before departing otherwise it would be bad Karma. There was once or twice when we were about to leave where the Padre was nowhere to be found! Thankfully they found the Padre every time even if it meant a slight delay in our timing. Rule number one never mess with the routine no matter what!

Concurrently I participated in security details with the Counter Intelligence Team, providing security in the villages while they did their thing on many occasions. One of my first outings involved going to recover an anti tank mine in a village and securing an informant on board that needed to be protected.  While the Counter Intelligence Team were busy with the Elder to recover the package I was providing security on the left side of the column of trucks by myself, as we needed to post people to the vehicle with the informant. During that time our photo tech Les Budden was taking pictures of us, however we were not the subjects of them as their primary mission was to gather intelligence on possible enemies.

Of those pictures one of them caught the eye of his bosses and I was asked if I would agree to release the picture. About 6 months later I was coming back from a patrol and the boys told me to go get a Timmies coffee. So I went and there I was on the support our troops poster. This earned me some attention. I found out later that they had made all kinds of merchandise with my picture on it.

Of my many patrols, a few events come to mind that are worth marking I think.

One was while we were in Panjwai District, where we went to pick up journalists from Germany. After we left our safe area, we drove to the ANA compound to pick them up. We were parked strategically so i would be facing the rear and cover the street with my C9. In front of me was a snake in the road; a construction made of Hesco bastion (a rapidly deployable earth-filled defensive barrier) to slow down who ever is crossing there. After a while a man came on a motorcycle towards us and was wearing part uniform and part civilian attire with an AK on his back, which at the time was profiled as a suicide bomber. I talked to my partner and he got him in his scope ready for warning shots, meanwhile I got ready to eliminate the threat.  The decision was made and I assumed the position to fire my gun and send this guy to hell! As I was pressing my trigger, at the last possible second meaning any more pressure I would have shot him, a guard from the Afghan National Police (ANP) compound sound off as he saw my head go down for the kill. This is when my partner called me off and it was the end of that incident. The man in question was a police officer coming in for work. All I'll say is that there was an angel holding my finger that day, it was that close.

I participated as well in bringing doctors, food and school supplies to many locations. This one time we brought food to a village and there were about 2000 people in front of us. My patrol commander came to us and told us to guard the bags of Rice we were transporting and if anyone comes within an arms length open up. I don’t know if you understand the concept here but I’m guarding rice! but if things get out of hand we have to disregard our rules of engagement (ROE's) and just plainly kill these people in order to get out of there. Most villages are extremely poor and who knows how famished the villagers are and all that keeps it from total chaos is the Elder of the village and the patriarchal structure that they follow. Nonetheless, I have to say that this one was one of the hardest jobs I had to do.

 

In August 2006 I was part of General Fraser's crew where we were going to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Robinson in Helmand Province, during Op Medusa. We got there in a very stealthy 33 vehicle convoy, we made our way into the FOB hidden in the convoy that came to recover equipment to be brought back to base the next day. That night after we were done setting up I took my radio shift at 2200 hrs. 10 minutes later we got 4 incoming into the vicinity of the FOB, which as you can imagine ramped up things a notch. I was on the satellite communications (SATCOM) trying to understand the panicked Brits, which by the way is a very hard task when English is not your first language! So I asked the American Major if he could do the comms as I wrote the coordinates from the radio and passed them to the General breathing down my neck! Our artillery gun line fired all night and we lit up the sky for the ground troops while the boss was directing the traffic, to kill the enemy. It was a long night but we made it. I am unaware of what followed other than we drove back to base the next day and the boss flew as intel said there were 4 improvised explosive devices (IED’s) planted on the hwy, we drove the 45km off road along side the hwy. I was told much later that this was the first Command and Control of troops since Korea or something like that.

My tour was very emotional. Lots of good people lost their lives including my friends. At the beginning of the tour I did not feel much during the ramp ceremonies, as I did not fully grasp what was going on. For sure it is never a good thing to lose people but at that time I did not feel anything, it was just a ceremony to attend. But all that started to change once I went out on patrol. I was driving a vehicle that if it were struck by an IED would most likely kill me instantly.  Somehow we focused on the mission and to bring everyone back alive. Being an ECM driver my job was to jam bombs but if the system fails bombs go off, others or possibly myself may die.  There's a sense of greatness in having the balls to sit in that truck because if shit goes down I'm not coming back and neither are my friends. But it is foolish in retrospect; it created a false feeling of importance even when you’re not more important than anyone else.  Its a weird feeling but to also think that we do what we do for the guys that we lost as they would do the same for me if I had fallen. Their only wish would be to go out, do their thing and bring everyone back.  For that reason we can't stop. So having said that, risking my life every time we go on patrol gave me a sense of purpose. Not for politics or government, but for the guys I serve with. On the battlefield there is no such thing as politics. There is life and death and I think that balancing that in your head takes its toll. For sure there is the mission and all that but putting all that aside, in the end all that matters is life and death. There is no greater purpose in life than devoting your life for someone else. The only people that mattered were the guys in my section that would protect me and I’d protect them.

When I came back, my dad told me one day while visiting me that I had changed. That I didn’t seem as angry all the time that in fact I was at peace. My answer was that all the problems of normal life seemed insignificant. As I was alive and made it home, nothing mattered much other than honouring the ones that would not have the opportunity to grow old and have the privilege of dealing with everyday problems. A few months later I was posted to my new unit, shortly after that I started to show signs of aggressive behavior. Many senior guys told me that it was normal, as I had protected people directly for a long time.  Now there is no need for all that aggressiveness and my mind doesn’t know how to deal with it. For a time I didn’t think anything of it and let it go, saying that it would sort itself.  However things did not work that way.  I remain angry and volatile and don’t know what to do. That survival instinct was part of me and I started to be outcast because of my behavior. I sought counseling in Edmonton without any results and as I think about it they had no clue about how to handle a guy like me. I met my wife in 2008 at a time when I didn't know what I had. For some time she brought peace in my life and made me feel extraordinary! I had never felt that way before, as this was my first true relationship.

A side note to this, while I was deployed I was single and never had a girlfriend in my life. All the guys had their wives, girlfriends and kids to share their experience. All I had was my mom and dad, which were amazing.  However, no one close enough that I could share my fears, thoughts and wants. So I Became depressed and envious of my fellow soldiers and maybe as well grew a bit bitter. All I wanted in life was to have a family, and at that time it seemed that my future was to be a gunslinger. So needless to say that when I met my wife she kinda rescued me on that level. And for that I am forever grateful.

I was sent to battle school in 2010 following my promotion in 2009 to substantiate my new appointment. I performed very well until I had to conduct a section attack. Although I knew what I had to do I could not execute the maneuver. I had no reason why and broke down into tears, as I had no idea what was going on with me.

Upon graduation I was posted to Comox, BC where I was told to relax and see something else other than war.  Once I got there I sought help and was diagnosed with Generalize Anxiety Disorder. My work started to fall apart, my superiors treated me like crap and administrative measures were taken against me. Although I was told it was to help me it did the complete opposite and destroyed me completely.  This in turn also affected my home life and my relationship beyond what I could have ever imagined.  I was drugged, zombified, and it took counseling for a total of 4 years to bring me to a functioning level. My condition rendered me utterly useless to my family and I became a poor husband and father. Which in return made me angry, and then the cycle begin. I have to thank my wife who is the most amazing women I know. She has been there for me all the way through hell and back. Even when I treated her poorly! I lost who I am or was and became nothing. I became like a small child with special needs that needed to be cared for and could not do anything by himself.

One day I finally asked to have my meds changed as I could not function on them, the replacement meds I took for a week nearly killed me as one of the uncommon side effects was stuttering and the other was death. I got lucky I got the stutter! From there on I quit and with the help of my wife I got rid of those toxins and started to get better slowly. My wife saved my life! For a while I would be good and functioning normally and then crash.  This happened for a few years and no matter what I'd try to do to get better I would fail. Now I have reached a breaking point where I can no longer continue to live this way and I have to step up or check out since my greatest fear is to lose the only thing I wanted in life, my family.   With the fear of growing old and alone, I decided to take action, even though my wife had been telling me for years to do so. It just seemed I kept failing myself and above all my wife.  And this is the reason why now I somehow found a bit of my lost flame and turn my rage and anger into positivity. I want to break my cycle and win over this mind-fucked situation and get my life back and give my wife the man she deserves and miss. I want to conquer my mind and beat the shit out of this invisible enemy that has destroyed my life and my loved ones…and no one threatens my love ones. So this is my new mission beat my mind to its own game.

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The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Angela Clark

When Angela contacted me about participating I was very excited as she is our first female participant.  I was taken aback when I had the chance to read all of the blogs she wrote and posted during her tour.  They are very deep and insightful and I believe an important piece of this conflicts history as for one of the first times we are seeing a first hand account of combat from a woman's perspective.  I am honoured to be able to share with you an excerpt from her blogs.  I highly recommend you take the time after reading this except to read through the rest of her blogs. You can check them out here: http://ang-ghanistan.blogspot.ca . Now a JAG officer, Captain Angela Clark deployed as a corporal in the role of force protection on task force 1-08.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Boats and Burkhas

I have been keeping my day timer up to date with the events of each day. But I always struggle to fill up the small space during night shifts. We work all night until 7am, I check my email and am in bed by about 0800, sleep until 1230, eat lunch, go to the gym around 1500, maybe take another nap 1600-1700, go for dinner, go to work.

But I guess instead of writing about what has (not) been going on, I could write about some of the things I have been meaning to, but have ended up replacing with things that have happened that week.

I mentioned a couple of posts ago the stories the interpreters tell us of their life and their ambitions. A couple of weeks ago when I was on nights I spoke with Wally (good Wally) for a long time. I asked him tons of questions about life in Afghanistan and want to relate some of our conversation as best I remember it.

For example:

“Have you ever been on a boat?” I asked.

“Boat?” He seemed to be trying to place the word.

“Yes, you know, a vehicle that floats on water and you ride in?”

“Oh yes I know the word. Boat. No, I have never been on a boat. I have never seen a boat. Also, I do not know anyone who can swim.”

I spoke with him for a long time about women in Afghanistan - the conversation mainly revolved around his family’s experiences and that of his wife.

His grandfather (we’ll call him Baba Wally) is a well-known village elder who is, apparently, over six feet tall and 110 years old. He had four wives (only one is still alive now) and fifteen children. Baba Wally married his first wife as a result of a tribal blood feud. I can’t remember all of the details, but one of Baba Wally’s brothers unjustifiably murdered a man from another village. This man’s family was insulted and dishonored, so were obliged to kill Baba Wally’s brother in return. Baba Wally retaliated by murdering the dead man’s brother. This back-and-forth volley for honor would have continued until both of the families were completely decimated, but another solution was found. Baba Wally married the dead man’s sister in order to heal and unite the families who hands were already stained with each other’s blood. This woman was to become Wally’s grandmother.

Wally’s family is very strict and traditional, he explained. In Kabul, young men can date who they please, and sometimes can spend time alone with their girlfriends (!). But Kandahar is mainly the home of the Pashto. Pashtuns are the honorable warriors who formed the anti-Soviet Mujahedeen and who fostered the Taliban. Most are by no means Islamic Fundamentalists, instead all have their origins in the very important Pashto code of honor. (I will look up more on this and elaborate at a different time). 

Their views on women’s rights, or more correctly, the rights a man has over a woman, are intrinsic in these codes of honor. Wally has been working with Westerners for many years now, but his personal life is still dictated by the traditions and the family he grew up with.

His wife is his brother’s wife’s sister. It was arranged for them to be married by their parents. They had only met once before they were married, at his brother’s wedding. He said their marriage was good, though, and more sacred than most Western marriages. They tolerate each other’s bad moods like any marriage, and compromise like any marriage, but the fact that separation is not an option creates a devotion and bond much stronger than those who know deep down, “I can always get a divorce.” (Divorce is possible however, if a man requests it, not a woman, but it is dishonorable). I am sure not all arranged marriages work as well as Wally’s, but his sounds all right.

I asked him if his wife wears a burkha, and he said yes. He said they live in an apartment complex in Kandahar City and if any woman who lives inside is standing in the doorway without a burkha on and a man passes, she must run back inside and cover herself. His wife does not leave this building without his explicit permission. If he grants this, he must accompany her wherever she goes. If she wants to go see her mother and father, she must ask Wally for permission and be escorted by him to her family’s home.

Wally’s wife had a baby girl four months ago. His wife is very tired all the time, he said. Even if he is home and the baby cries, he does not help her. If the baby is up all night, Wally would not even think of getting up in his wife’s stead to rock the baby back to sleep. “That is the woman’s job and I must not interfere. But….the baby cries a lot,” he said.

Once in a while he will hold the baby and play with her. But he does not change her or wash her or make dinner so his wife can have a break. “That is not our way.” I asked him if he will try to send his daughter to school. “Well yes,” he said, “women can go to school for maybe one year to learn the Koran and learn how to be good wives.”

Wally is the one who is trying to get American citizenship so he can move to California. I mentioned to him that things are very different in California, and wondered if his wife was excited or nervous when they discuss the possible move. Education is mandatory, I explained, and women wear miniskirts and bikinis and show more skin than is hidden. I think he knows this, but is more concerned about providing a good life for his family than the cultural taboos that will be broken for him. “It is my family that is strict,” he said, “and they are why I live they way I do. But they too understand the importance of leaving Afghanistan if I can.”

MCpl Neilsen was also there and the conversation moved to how different dating is for us. Neilsen laughed and said, “I met my wife in a bar on a one night stand! Now we have been married for five years.” I told Wally I had had many boyfriends, had even been engaged once and lived with two different guys in relationships that didn’t work out. I couldn’t help wondering how Wally looked at us, and more specifically me….sitting there with all my rifle and frag vest and helmet and combats on, laughing and burping and farting like one of the boys, telling him stories about my relationships and university days and how I could do anything men were allowed to do. Was he disgusted? Curious? Fascinated?

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Most likely, I think, he sees me as a separate species than an Afghan woman. I think that goes for most, if not all, Afghan men I have dealt with on KAF. I thought they wouldn’t listen to me, respect me, and maybe even hate me for being a woman and doing what I do. But I don’t think they feel this way. Most don’t act the opposite either, which is like me a little TOO much… Yes, they stare, but not the way they stare at an Afghan woman who walks by, or even a civilian woman. I think they see me more as a novelty, a curiosity. I don’t think I am seen as a woman first and foremost - I think they see me first and foremost as a soldier, the one with the rifle and pistol. Next, as a Westerner. And finally, as a woman. It is the combination of all of these that makes me a curiosity, and which allows me to get away with saying and doing things that could get an Afghan woman stoned to death.

But what of these women? What would they think of me? Would they be ashamed of me, for me, if they heard some of my stories? Would they be envious of my freedom? If they could take off their burkhas and shed Afghanistan like a skin, what parts of it would they say good riddance to and what parts would they miss?

A separate thought – after talking to Wally about his life and his wife, and picturing them moving to California, I can understand why you hear of so many immigrants whose lives end violently once they finally establish themselves in a Western nation. You hear of fathers who murder their daughters for not listening to them or heeding their culture or religion. You hear of wives murdering their husbands, and murder-suicides, and people kidnapping their children from their spouses and taking them back to their home country. It all makes much more sense after talking to Wally. Wally is a wonderful person and would do great in Canada or the US, of that I have no doubt. But what of those that want a better life, but then end up unable to adapt to the culture that inevitably influences the life they have immigrated into? Of course I believe immigrants have a right and a need to hold on to who they are at the root, but they have to be flexible and adaptable with certain manifestations of who they are. A man like Wally will have a difficult time if he tries to make his wife wear a burkha down to the beach in L.A., or if he sends his daughter to school for just a year only to learn how to please a man and a god.

Just heard three big booms, so I think we just got rocketed. Yup, the sirens are going off so I better end this. Good night all.

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Dave Gionet

This week I had the Pleasure to meet Dave Gionet and I must say he is an awesome down to earth guy.  Ever since he contacted me weeks ago I had been excited to meet him and I felt honoured that he asked me to help tell his story.  So, without adieu here is Dave's account.  He is a true Canadian Hero so please take the time to read this and send him some love via comments and likes. Master Corporal Dave Gionet served two tours in Afghanistan, from February 9 - September 7, 2005 and January 21 - August 30, 2007.

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My name is Dave Gionet and I am forty-two (42) years old come from a small town in New Brunswick called Pigeon-Hill.  I was raised by my mother Celine and my father Theophile who are currently retired and still reside in Pigeon-Hill.  I have three siblings, my sister Diane who lives in Moncton, New Brunswick and my two brothers who are fisherman, Marcel and Steve who live in Pigeon-Hill.   

I finished high school when I was twenty (20) and enrolled in college for two years taking a course to become a correctional officer, however knowing I was not completely ready I decided to pursue other options.  When I turned twenty-five (25) I decided it was time for a new journey and moved to Kitchener, Ontario where at twenty-nine (29) I joined the army.  I served twelve (12) years and did two tours in Afghanistan.  When I returned from my second tour I was medically released and retired September 1, 2013.

Here is a history of some of my encounters during my two tours.  While in Afghanistan, Kandahar, 2007 on Tuesday, March 20th, we were trying to recover a Coyote surveillance vehicle that had struck a mine.  I was the gunner of C/S 61C we were staying in the rear for security; the dog handler (Shaun Parker) and his dog (Alex) were with us. Sgt Sheldon, called for Alex and Shaun to inspect the area.  Alex smelt an IED, but de stepped on the IED before he was able to alert us.  The bomb went off, Alex was killed immediately and Shaun was very badly injured.  I was roughly 50 feet from the Bomb; the blast almost threw me off my feet, when I looked at what had happened, I couldn’t see anything with all the dust in the air.  I ran to see if everyone was okay but by then I knew it was going to be bad.  I could hear someone crying for help and when I got in the impact area, I saw Shaun in a bad position and a couple of soldiers that were confused by the blast, in a second I took charge and went to give first aide to the dog handler that was in a very bad state, to this day, it’s too hard for me to describe the details but I did succeed to open his airway until the evacuation took place about an hour later.  That was the first incident happening to me in my tour.

On April 11th, 2007 after three (3) days on an OP we were relieved by C/S 62.  On our way to our location, 62D struck an IED.  We turned down from the OP and moved to 62D location to provide security.  On the way to the IED strike, the vehicle in front of me was also hit by an IED (61B).  I immediately jumped off my coyote and went toward the crew of 61B to give first aide.  However, despite the help of my friends and me we lost two great soldiers

 

On June 11th, 2007 we were traveling about 40 km north of Kandahar City, when C/S 61D hit an IED.  I was the second vehicle C/S 61C in the rear, when we saw the blast we stopped and I jumped off to go provide first aide.  When I got to the vehicle I saw the crew was in very bad shape, upon investigating further I saw one of the crew was still in the vehicle it was the driver, my good friend (Caswell) however, it was too late, after we secured the location me and two more of my crew removed Caswell and put him in the helicopter for evacuation.  For the Dragoons, and myself this moment was very difficult, it was unforgettable has stayed with me.   This was the final incident for me during this tour. 

When I returned home from Afghanistan everything had changed for me and it was a very difficult process to adjust to a normal life.  I served my country and my crew to the best of my abilities, however for everything there is a price and nothing remains the same. 

Medal of Military Valour Citation:

“For extraordinary courage while under threat of fire, explosions and enemy attack during the rescue of fellow soldiers from a burning vehicle following an improvised explosion with the 2 Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, Task Force Afghanistan on 11 April 2007.”

“On 11 April 2007, Private Dolmovic and Corporal Gionet saved the live of a fellow crewmember after his vehicle struck and improvised explosive devise in Nalgham, Afghanistan.  After freeing the trapped driver, Private Dolmovic and Corporal Gionet performed life-saving first-aid, despite imminent risks of fire, explosions and enemy attack.” 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Eric Rivera

After many drafts and hard thought Eric has finished his account.  I am proud to be able to bring it to you today.  Sgt Eric Rivera served as part of Op Athena with the 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment from September 12, 2008 until April 15, 2009.

Back in middle school I remember watching a documentary on the CBC regarding the brutal Taliban regime in Afghanistan.  It elaborated on a society that subjugated and oppressed women in a manner unheard of in modern times.  Their extreme interpretation of Islam dictated even the most mundane aspects of life such as the length of a man’s beard and anything considered sacrilege was punishable by death even by stoning. Their destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues, a world heritage site, on religious grounds near the end of the documentary left me feeling very bitter about the situation in Afghanistan.  I thought to myself at the time “Someone ought to go in there and take out the Taliban”.  I was only 13.

Fast forward a decade to March of 2007.  Coming off a winter exercise and performing the usual post exercise cleanup of our kit, my name along with that of 8 other fellow fusiliers are called to the small class at the Cambridge armouries.  We sat down at the desks and we were informed by then Major McDonald that the nine of us had been selected for pre-deployment training to Afghanistan with the 3 RCR battle group no less.  We were going to be the boots on the ground, going head to head with the infamous Taliban.  It took time for it to sink in, initially feeling fearful and apprehensive.  When I put my name in a few months ago, I didn’t think I had much of a chance of being selected so it took me by surprise.  Thanks to a chatty friend on the drive home, my mother found out sooner than I intended.  She was understandably very worried and even wept when we got home.  It took her months to finally come to terms with my decision.  The rest of my family had their own anxieties and mixed emotions but after a heart to heart talk, they openly expressed their love and support.  They sought the comfort from our close knit church family whom, being pacifist Mennonite, had misgivings about the military and the use of force in general but provided a great deal of love, prayers and support to us.  They would need this as our family bonds would be put to the test.  In the coming months they would be bombarded with news stories about bombings, massacres and ongoing Canadian casualties.  Thinking back on it now, I have lingering remorse about what I put them through during those seven and a half months of deployment.  However at the time, as I thought more and more about it, the initial fear dissipated and it was replaced with a sense of excitement, duty, pride and great anticipation as the epic endeavour of my life was about to begin at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Petawawa. 

The nine Fusiliers arrived at CFB Petawawa on May 1, 2007 to link up with our adoptive new unit, 3rd Battalion The Royal Canadian Regiment (3 RCR).  We along with the rest of the reservists from across Ontario were distributed amongst the three rifle companies: Mike, November and Oscar.  For the next 15 months, we would be immersed in an environment and culture that would prepare us for the fight ahead.  Around October 2007, we were introduced to the LAV III armoured personnel carrier.    Our pre-deployment training would take us to Fort Bliss, Texas, U.S.A. where its arid climate simulated the conditions we would experience in Kandahar and it allowed us to further develop the bonds that would help keep us all alive in a dangerous, unstable and unpredictable country.  Our final confirmation training exercise was conducted from mid-April to mid-May in Wainwright, Alberta where we in honed in and sharpened our skills as a single mechanized fighting infantry battalion

September 12, 2008 was our departure date.  It was my little brother’s birthday and most of my family made the five and a half hour long drive up to CFB Petawawa to see me off.  My family and I said a quick prayer before making our final good byes. Twelve hours later, my platoon and I would find ourselves landing at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) very late into the Afghan evening.  The experience was very surreal to me at the time.  Looking out from the window of our bus that would take us to our temporary living quarters, the gravity of the situation sank in; this was no longer a training exercise, we were now fighting a real enemy with genuine hostile intent.  Everything that I did from now on would carry significant consequences and I was determined to do my job to the best of my ability and training.  I represented not only myself but my family, my regiment and most importantly, my country and the weight of it all followed me through my seven and a half month tour. 

Leaving the safety of KAF for the first time allowed us to get our first glimpse into an impoverished country that knew nothing but conflict.  The hot dusty climate of the Afghan country side contrasted sharply with the busy active nature of Kandahar city where primitive mud huts stood next to relatively modern looking shopping districts.  The months of work up training taught us to look at everyone in the crowd with deep suspicion as our enemy would use them to his advantage as cover and concealment.  Building bridges of trust, recognizing patterns and a sharp eye would help ensure our wellbeing in a place historically hostile to foreigners.  However I found the people to be mostly friendly.  Many Afghans appeared to be like any other citizen of the world; hard working, industrious people just trying to make a living in a harsh world.  The Taliban recognized this reality and used it as a weapon against the international coalition and more specifically, the Canadian forces.  We often found ourselves playing a game of cat and mouse with them as they attempted to engage us in fire fights or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and then meld back into the crowd as a merchant, a humble farmer or anything else they thought would help them evade us.  We intercepted much of their radio communications over the iCom making us well aware that any time we left our FOB (Forward operating base), our movements were being closely watched and scrutinized.

Their attempts at causing us casualties were unsuccessful for the first half of the tour but around Christmas of 2008, a sad new reality began to take shape.  As concealed IEDs were their preferred weapons, we were always on the lookout for objects or disturbances that were out of place.  Though we were successful in finding and neutralizing the vast majority of them, the Taliban began to get lucky as one IED after another began inflicting us with casualties.  I will never forget being at my first ramp ceremony in KAF as the casket of a Canadian soldier was loaded on to a C-130 Hercules cargo plane for his last voyage home.  It was a sober reminder of my personal responsibility to my section mates and my platoon, to ensure their safety and our collective success in the mission.  Hence we drew a lot of satisfaction anytime we were about to apprehend a suspected insurgent fighter responsible for setting up IEDs. 

Occasionally we would find ourselves having a significant amount of free time in between operations so we would have to resort to playing computer games, working out at the patrol base make shift gym or having friendly games of soccer in the gravel compound.  We of course never lost sight of the fact that at any given moment we would be required to drop whatever we were doing, gear up and load up in to our LAVs in response to a major incident.  The most dramatic of which would be situations where there would be IED strikes against friendly vehicles and we were to assist in establishing a cordon, securing the scene and help in the treatment of casualties.  We were always cognizant of the fact that anyone of us could be a potential casualty at some point.  Luckily after numerous close calls, everyone single soldier in our platoon would return home unscathed.  Despite all the physically demanding patrols, wild and fluctuating Afghan weather, close encounters with the hostiles and their explosives devices and the occasional home sickness, every one of us wanted to be there and serve our country.  Support from family, friends, our communities and the country at large kept us moving, sustained our drive and motivated us to see the mission through to the end. 

We caught our flight from Kandahar, Afghanistan on April 15, 2009.  From there we spent a few days in Paphos, Cyprus for decompression before touching down in Ottawa on April 20 for a long awaited reunion with our loved ones.  I came back from Afghanistan a much different person for the better.  I grew, gained valuable wisdom and gained a whole new perspective on life.  I have come to appreciate the little things just a little more; peace, freedom, security, love and family.  Historians and political scientists will debate the impact of the Canadian effort for generations but my hope is that at the end of the day, our sacrifices will not be in vain, that Afghanistan will see an era of peace and security that many of us take for granted.  That being said, I eagerly await for an opportunity to serve this beautiful country again.  For us soldiers, it truly is an honour and a privilege. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Afghanistan Veteran Project: From the Fire: An Account of War by Afghanistan Veterans

I have decided that the best way to properly publish longer accounts and accounts that I currently do not have a portrait for on my blog.  I expect this will be the first of many accounts to come so please check for updates here.

I am honoured to share with you the account of Cpl Tyson Hunter, a medical technician that served with 2 Field Ambulance from April - December of 2010.

Here is Tyson's Story:

I served in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan from April to December of 2010 as a medical technician. Initially I was the Bison medic with the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD) A-Squadron (A Sqn). But since 90% of the time they were occupying an observation post (OP) my crew was moved to the Battlegroup quick reaction force (QRF) and A-Sqn received a dismounted medic. For the remaining 7 months I went on QRF calls to improvised explosive device (IED) strikes, firefights, and other situations that required immediate support. On several occasions my crew would be tasked on Operations (Ops) with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, Royal Canadian Regiment and American forces.

 When I first arrived in country I felt a sense of importance. “I'm a medic, I'm here to save people”. This is why I volunteered. Very quickly my attitude changed to “I'm the guy that will try to get you to a Role 3 facility alive”. It didn't take long to realize that I wasn't there to save lives. I was there to prolong life. Just like any other person, my very first impression was that the air smelled disgusting and it was really hot. But just like when you're in a bath and body shop, you don't notice the smell after some time. The heat took a few weeks to get used to.

My experience from tour was one I hope I never repeat. But there were many things that amazed me. Like how the farmers could grow fields of grapes, marijuana, poppies and other types of vegetation in a desert. How they would reroute the wadi's to move water to different fields or use a pump to get the water from one side of a road to the other.

Whenever I wasn't out on an Ops or a QRF call I would work out of the Unit Medical Station (UMS) in Ma’sum Ghar. We would have sick parade in the mornings and would provide emergency care 24/7 to coalition forces, Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, and local nationals. Unfortunately a big part of what we saw was injured children. Usually from insurgent attacks on villages, IED's, mines or being close to a patrol when insurgents engaged the troops. This hit me hard. I knew I was in a war zone. I knew there would be casualties, I trained long and hard to treat casualties but not once did I ever consider that I would have to work on a child. We never trained for it and it was never talked about. But one day at the gate of Ma’sum Ghar, a father handed his son to me, the child was covered in shrapnel wounds. I laid down on the back of the gator with the bleeding child on my belly, putting pressure on the wounds as we sped to the UMS. Later we found out that the boys sister was also injured but she was left in the car because the son was priority. By the time we were told by the father that the girl was in the car it was to late. That day opened my eyes to the fact that there will be child casualties and just how much women are held below men in this country.  Treating and seeing wounded was something that I would never forget.

Shortly after the events unfolded at the gate I was scheduled to go on Home Leave Travel Assistance (HLTA). I had decided to go home to see my family and friends and be back in my safe world. The day I flew out of Kandahar there was a communications lockdown. By the time it was lifted I had arrived at Camp Mirage in Dubai and was able to call home.  The next morning I woke up went to breakfast. As I was sitting there a Warrant Officer with a Red Cross on his arm approached me and asked if I was Tyson Hunter. He introduced himself as the physician’s assistant assigned to Camp Mirage and we talked for a minute. Then he asked if I knew the two soldiers that were killed the day before. I told him I hadn't heard the names. I barely remember him saying the names. But I do remember that as he was saying them I saw two pictures of soldiers on the TV behind him. The pictures were of two of my friends, fellow medics, two of the three that replaced my ambulance crew so we could go on HLTA. The next thing I can recall is the Warrant walking me to the UMS as I'm crying uncontrollably. He put me in an office and helped me call the UMS in Ma’sum Ghar. I was able to get a hold of the physician’s assistant that I worked for, he was also from my home unit. He told me what had happened. I pleaded with him to help me get back to Ma’sum Ghar. I couldn't go home. Not now. After a long talk we agreed that finishing my HLTA as planned would be the best course of action. I spent the rest of the day sitting at a patio table by the canteen. It was just after supper when I managed to get up to hydrate and eat. When I got home my HLTA was 2 weeks of drinking, gambling, video games, and meaningless encounters.  It was the second event that I will never forget.

Then I went back. And everything felt different. I wasn't there to grieve with my comrades. I constantly wondered if they blamed me going on HLTA as the cause of their deaths just as I blamed myself. I was an augmentee. The two that were killed were from the same unit as the rest of the medics. I became paranoid thinking that everyone hated me for leaving. It took a few days to get back into routine but once I did I slowly started to feel like part of the team again.

The 3rd event that haunts my dreams is one where I was scared more than I had ever been in my life. QRF got called to an IED. The device consisted of a pressure plate attached to mortar rounds that were in a tree. By the time Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) had finished with it the sun was going down. It got dark fast and the drive back to Ma’sum Ghar took longer due to increased amount of vulnerable point search’s that needed to be done. The lead vehicle ended up hitting an IED. The explosion was small. I was listening to the conversation between the crew commander of the vehicle and EOD. The last thing I heard before being told to move up to the EOD vehicle was that it was probably an antipersonnel mine. It was common practice for me to move up to the EOD vehicle when the operator was approaching a device. I dismounted from my ambulance and turned on my night vision goggles. I started walking towards the EOD vehicle making sure I stayed on the tire tracks made by the vehicles ahead of us. I was halfway there and the tire tracks had disappeared. Instant fear spread through my body. I would have to walk on unproved ground where we knew there has already been an antipersonnel mine. Usually once I left the gate of the forward operating base I would be scared. It wouldn't last long. Every time I left I accepted that I might not make it back. But standing there at the end of the tire tracks with my legs shaking, cold prickly chills shooting through my body I couldn't push the fear away. I took a couple deep breaths and was about to start walking when I saw the tracks again about two meters away. Without thinking I took two steps back, stepped forward and jumped. The longest, slowest jump I had ever made. When I realized I had only made it 3/4 of the way across the gap I closed my eyes and braced. I knew that I had landed but was still waiting for the blast. After a few seconds (that felt like minutes) I opened my eyes. I looked at the tracks that started about a foot away. I Stepped onto the tracks and continued up to the EOD vehicle. I didn't stop shaking until it was time to leave. My ambulance drove up to me and I got in, sat down and started crying. The adrenaline rush wore off and tears started rolling down my cheeks. I couldn't stop it. I wasn't sobbing. It was just tears coming from my eyes. I was confused at this point. I had been in firefights, mortared, face to face with aggressive locals, taking sniper fire and many other types of dangers. I couldn't understand why that event scared me so much. I still don't understand it to this day.

When I finished my tour and arrived home I did the family thing and spent 33 days drinking and working on a pre-course package for the QL5 course I was starting. Halfway through this 6 month course I started to notice the signs of a mental disorder. It wasn't until several months after that I decided I needed help. My view of the world has changed significantly since my tour. I'm no longer blind to the brutality and harshness as I once was.

The positive change I have noticed is that I find I really enjoy teaching, from developing junior medics to teaching TCCC. I use what I have learned and experienced to develop effective learning environments. If I met somebody who was thinking about joining the military my advice would be to speak with people that have several years in the trade they are interested in. And to really think about why they want to be a soldier.

 

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Task Force 01-10

April – December 2010

Medical Technician – Health Support Services

2 Field Ambulance / 42 Canadian Forces Health Services Center


 

Reflection

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REFLECTION

Reflection – as a student of fine art at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) or OCAD University for you new kids, I learned the importance of reflection and the power it instills to the developing artist…Without reflection, it is impossible to grow and develop ones work.  Through reflection, the artistic process is analyzed and we acknowledge our shortfalls.  Ones shortfalls may be in technical skill level, knowledge of the subject, maturity, and idea or execution of the idea. 

Reflection helps the artist create goals and pinpoint areas where skill development is necessary.  This being said, growth through reflection is not necessarily immediate.  Sometimes it can take months or even years to look back and reflect upon your work and grow from it.  For instance, I remember a painting I started in my 4th year thesis class at OCAD.  I was overwhelmed with the gigantic size of the canvass and how to incorporate colour theory into the textures and subject of the painting.  I found I making little progress so I pushed it to the side.  The painting sat in a corner in the studio for about 3 months.  Finally after 3 months of skill development, staring and reflecting upon it I found a way to overcome the problems I was facing and successfully completed the painting…to this day I believe it is the finest work of art I have ever created.

In this sense, photography is merely an extension of the arts and as such, reflection is essential to the development of your work as a photographer.  I have applied this principle to my own photography practice and development.  Over the last several years I have compiled a wide array of different types of imagery and themes throughout my photography.   I have grown and matured learning many new lessons along the way….AND…yet I continually identify new aspects of improvement and development everyday.  Some of these realizations come from reflections I had sitting around tonight.

So I was sitting around going through work I have completed over the last few years.  Going through the files I started to select images I had previously overlooked and put them in a revisit folder for future edits.  I realized looking at the images that there was room for me to go back through and edit them in a way that could create a strong and emotional image.  The reflection upon my work pinpointed the shortfalls I have with my selection process but also lets me see the work from a different perspective as I now have new skill sets and tools to work with.  Also, my idea/approach to image creation has changed.  Looking back and reflecting upon your photography work is one of the most important things you can do.  Just because something didn’t work 3 months ago doesn’t mean it cant work now.  What you learn from that work will also change the way you approach work in the future….

My advice to you is…look back on your work, don’t accept it at facevalue, acknowledge what it has done for you and pinpoint areas where it can be improved.  You may be surprised at the new approach a fresh look on your past work can bring and it will highlight the achievements and progress you have made.

2012

2012

Your photography work is a testament to who you were and to who you have become…always continue to grow

2013

2013

New Gear

Just got my new camera bag and lens case in the mail today….ordered it tuesday and got it wednesday, not too shabby for canada express post…yes more expensive but I got it before the weekend which is my first wedding shoot. I am extremely excited.

Sooo I bought myself a Hazard 4 Forward Observer Bag and Jelly Roll.  What makes them special is the molle loops around the bag making it mountable to anything that also has molle loops….this is the army tactical gear nerd coming out inside me but I like being versatile and having belt mounted systems which is what I intend to do with these two.  Now I just need my battle belt to come so I can mount it all.  

Why go tactical?  why not?  It's far superior to a camera bag in terms of versatility, compactness, accessibility and durability. Its versatile in the sense that  I literally can take this anywhere and have my gear accessible and within arms reach without having to put down a bag to get at it…all I do is open a zipper and bam! I have the gear I want, say a new battery, card or lens.  It is far more compact than a bag as I don't have this big bulky thing on my back…which when in a suit isn't the best option.  Also with the molle I can literally configure my belt any way I want which is AWESOME!  I also like the fact that it is made out of cordura…which is extremely tough and durable.  The padding inside is amazing and comes with velcro inserts so I can configure the case even more.  What more could you ask for in a case system. BTW I got it in black…more discreet!

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It was pricey but you pay for quality!

I'm a gear junky at heart