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.