Hello from Kandahar
Nov 15, 2007

Kris resorts to local methods of reducing the inhalation of dust.

The four-day trip from Trenton to Kandahar Air Field (KAF), by Hercules aircraft, was mostly uneventful, except that we were with a bunch of journalists. They kept eyeing John Bieber and I, the only other civilians on the flight, whispering and pointing. I wondered if they thought we were JTF, since Joint Task Force members don’t wear uniforms.

During a stopover in Cologne one journalist reinforced that suspicion by asking: “Are you what I think you are?” Now, how do you answer a question like that (no, I’m straight and I’m married; or no, I’m Japanese not Chinese)? So I replied: “Better not ask that question.” He walked away and didn’t speak to me again.

The Technical Assistance Visit (TAV) we were tasked with, arrived in Kandahar on 2 October. KAF has a unique combination of sensations that have imprinted themselves on me. As you exit the Herc, you get a ­barrage on all senses: intense heat, jet fuel vapours, chopper noise, rank odour of the camp poop pit – all with an underlying ­permeation of dust.

Captain Legare, Sergeant Hoy, John Bieber and I were assigned quarters that were, thankfully, far from the airstrip, in a compound area known as the BAT (Big-Ass Tents). I’m told this is in reference to the size of the tents and has nothing to do with the size of our butts.

Our first two nights in KAF were celebrated with two Taliban rocket attacks each night – welcome to the war. Partly because of this, all personnel are required to wear body armour and helmet between 6 pm and 6 am.

Sgt Peter Hoy    Kris Hatashita    Capt Bernie Legare
All three work for Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) under the Director General of Land Equipment Program Management (DGLEPM) in the Directorate Land Com­munication Systems Program Management (DLCSPM).

The TAV is in Afghanistan to test electronic systems on two vehicles recently deployed by the Canadian Army. The tests are called EROC (Expedient Route Opening Capability) and the ARV (Armoured Recov­ery Vehicle). For EROC testing, we found a barren area of the camp with nothing but scraggy plants and dust. Always, there is dust.

This empty space is used for retrieval of UAVs, as some lack the ability of controlled flight landings. The method of getting them out of the sky is to send them over the test area, cut the engine, and deploy a parachute. It would be an irony beyond description if we were to survive all the rockets launched by insurgents only to be crushed under a Canadian UAV while testing EROC in the dustiest place on Earth. Have I mentioned that it’s dusty?

Kris and Bear (his daughter’s teddy) relax in the guest accommodation tent at MSG.

“Our first night of travel on this trip was in a very nice Marriott in Cologne, Germany – easily a three star joint. Then we stepped down to shared bunk rooms in Camp Mirage. Still, the floor was wooden and the room had a door and a ceiling – one star. Then we stepped down to the BAT and the shared 10x10 cells, no door, concrete floor, open ceiling – zero stars. In MSG, we take yet a further step down to a big open tent that sleeps 12 with cots that are sized for little girls. We’re instructed to lay down a ring of industrial strength “arthropod repellent” to discourage the scorpions from getting to our body heat. If we go any further down scale, it will be a cardboard box in a ditch in Kandahar City.”

Looking out over the valley in KAF you can see several spires that look like columns of smoke. These are, in fact, spires of dust kicked up in spinning columns that come whipping through the valley like the Tasmanian Devil chasing Bugs Bunny. The amount of dust in the air has driven some members of the TAV to adopt local means of preventing complete clogging of our respiratory tracks. This type of dress is not recommended when approaching sentry points or MPs.

One day, while in this area testing all this new equipment, a truckload of locals pulled up, jumped out and began picking up rocks. You have to understand the futility of this effort in order to appreciate what an unbelievably surreal sight this was. A bunch of local Afghanis, ambling around in a huge expanse of desert picking up rocks and placing them in little piles – in Canada this would sound like some make-work project for youth in crisis but in Kandahar Province it passes as economic development.

One thing about the Afghans: they are very friendly and not afraid or timid about dealing with foreigners. One of the guys in the truck asked for money while the other one asked (very politely) if he could have my camera. I wish I knew how to say, “Nice try” in Pashtun.

After testing the EROC, we waited for the return of the ARV – the second vehicle system we were tasked with testing. As it turned out, because of the local situation, the command chain in KAF made it clear that if we wanted to test the ARV, we would have to go to it, because it was not coming to us.

Now, before leaving for KAF, I had assured my wife and family that there was no way I was going outside the wire and I had no plans of ever doing so. As they say, if you want to give God a good laugh, make plans.

I had a tough decision. It may be an over dramatization, but in my mind I was thinking – “If I turn around and go home now, how many soldiers might not, because of untested equipment?” I agreed to go and the next thing I knew, Capt Legare and I were checking our height against the “You must be this tall to ride” sign, waiting to ride a Black Hawk helicopter 40 km to a forward operating base (FOB) called Ma Sum Ghar (MSG). Bernie was tall enough. Bernie also had a gun.

A ride in a Black Hawk – through a war zone below 150 feet – is high on my list of the wildest things I have ever done. It took all my will power to not start screaming “WOOOOOHOOOOO!” and shouting out Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, “Ba-dum-da-da-da-dahh – Badum – da-da-da-dahhh.” I’m sure this is what Black Hawk pilots do when nobody is flying with them – if you haven’t seen Apocalypse Now, ignore this reference.

Aerial shot of Kandahar taken during the Black Hawk flight.

The reality of what I was doing crystallized when we flew over populated areas, scattering goats and scaring ­children. We were looking directly into afghan homes. I was both fascinated to see how they lived, and wary that any of them could have a rocket to take down the Black Hawk – 150 feet is not much distance, especially when the terrain shifts rapidly and the pilot takes a craggy route through the mountains so as not to establish a routine.

I was told that it’s safer to be lower because it doesn’t give a heat-seeking missile enough time to lock onto an aircraft. It also doesn’t leave you much time to worry if someone does fire a heat-seeking missile at you. Cold comfort.

The flight plan from KAF to MSG took us over some incredible landscapes. We flew over herds of goats, fields of marijuana, vineyards and children playing in the courtyards of their homes. One of the most interesting things to see is the acres and acres of brickworks that cover the land. Large, smoking chimneys rise from the desert, each surrounded by tens of thousands of mud bricks – made the way the Israelites did for the Pharaohs.

Two mountain ridges overlook the village of Ma Sum Ghar, creating a type of natural fortress. There is a barrier along the road that runs in front of the FOB. Local traffic walks, rides or drives along the road, as they have for a hundred generations before the FOB was there and before the road was paved to help prevent the implanting of mines and IEDs.

In many ways, life just goes on, even when the soldiers come, the whole world continues to ignore the people of Ma Sum Ghar. In another sense, the world has come to this ancient place, and everything has changed.

Several large structures look like they’ve been there since Alexander the Great came through these parts. They are in fact drying houses for turning grapes into raisins. They also look ominously like ancient fortresses that could house a battalion of warriors.

As a taxpayer, I was very pleased to see my money well spent on numerous sentry outposts on the mountain ridges. There were also large and expensive armoured vehicles including Leopard tanks and LAV IIIs, many weapons of 9 mm, 20 mm, 50 and 120 mm calibers – all the kit one would expect to see in a war zone. The only thing on the base not armed… was me.

The visitor tent is located part way up a mountain ridge outside the main body of the camp, far from the mess, showers and bunkers. This fact will play an important role later on.

Several Canadians operating out of Ma Sum Ghar have been killed in action. During the five days I was in MSG, I saw dozens of patrols heading out. I said a silent prayer for each of them. I heard the explosions of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the distance and watched convoys head out to retrieve vehicles or comrades that had been hit. It brings the war really close to home when you see the young lady that was eating lunch in the mess at the next table driving out in an ARV knowing that there is an enemy beyond the gate that wants her dead.

These people carry burdens most of us will never appreciate.

We expected to hit the ground working when we arrived at MSG. The ARV was supposed to be there – we’d get the work done quickly and get the heck out of there. If there’s one thing soldiers don’t want around while they’re working, it’s a civilian. And the only thing worse than a civilian, is a civilian from headquarters in Ottawa. To make it even worse, most of the soldiers at the FOB are part of the glorious 22nd Regiment – the vaunted Van Doos. These guys are hard-core Francophone.

As you might imagine, this Anglophone civilian from Ottawa was highly motivated to make the trip as short as possible. But you know things are not going to go well when the vehicles aren’t around and nobody knows you were supposed to be there. Even I didn’t know how colourful my language could be.

With a day to wait for the ARV’s return, Capt Legare, WO Price and I climbed to some of the sentry points. The views from there are stunning. The men and women at the sentry points are some of the best soldiers one could ever meet. I don’t remember who said that polite people sleep better at night knowing that rough men are prepared to do violence to keep them safe. I’m not especially polite, but after seeing the sentries at the FOB, even I slept well that night.

The soldiers have erected monuments for all of the lost soldiers. I went up to see the big flag with the special markers. Cpl Nathan Hornburg’s marker is there. It struck me hard when I saw the date of his marker – my eldest daughter, Ashley, is the same age as him. I cried there for a long time.

I was out watching the night sky at around 9 pm on our second night at Ma Sum Ghar. The air here is dry and clear at night, and there is no light pollution because the camp is in blackout after nightfall and the surrounding towns just don’t get enough electricity to light up. The Milky Way was bright enough to read by and I was wishing that Kaylie (daughter #2) was with me to tell me the names of the constellations. I was leaning against the blast wall on a cot beside my tent when a bright flash arched across the sky and exploded into daylight over the vineyard outside the camp.

Most of us have used the term, “all hell broke loose,” to describe computer malfunctions, traffic jams, or kids running rampant at the playground when the Dickee-Dee man arrives. We should have said, “then something really tame and hardly worth mentioning happened,” because after the flare ignited, the turf surrounding MSG lit up and a peaceful night of star gazing ended in a jaw dropping, butt scrunching, eye-popping deluge of noise and lights – and all hell really did break loose.

I watched as people ran back and forth and tracer bullets from what seemed like a hundred sources fired into the vineyard across the road. A rocket flew over my head and landed against the mountainside. I thought I’d better head for the bunker, but that was 50 metres away.

The flares and flashes had wrecked my night vision. There was no way I was going to carry a flashlight to indicate my position to enemies looking for targets. As I leaned behind the concrete, I thought of the Hollywood cliché where the desperate civilian runs across the open area and is blown up just steps from the safety of the bunker. Nobody wants to die in a cliché. So I stayed behind the blast wall at the tent and had a front row seat for a firefight.

Raisin hut amid the grape vines.

The sentry that I had visited earlier was firing his gun into the fields on the opposite side of the base that the first attack had originated from. Gunfire was coming from all around. I would later find out that insurgents had set up three mortar positions and had fired into the camp from all three directions. But at the time, it just looked like lights and flares and tracers and cannons and explosions were going on all around.

I had a funny thought in the middle of all of this – it looked like the Genesis concert my wife had taken me to just before I came to Afghanistan, but the music ­wasn’t as good. Weird what goes through your mind in times of stress. The other not-so-weird thing that went through my mind was, “Sure would be nice to have a loaded weapon right about now.” Note to boss: Next TAV, I get a gun. As it was, the only thing I could shoot was my camera so I tried to get a shot or two. The only one that turned out shows three flares over the vineyard across the road.

After two hours, something happened that can be explained one of three ways: either I was tired from the day’s work and travel; or the adrenaline rush of the initial attack had psyched me to exhaustion; or (my personal favourite) I’m just an extremely cool person who is not shaken by life-threatening situations. Whatever the reason, I fell asleep waiting for crazed Jihadis to come storming through the camp slaying infidels. Especially unarmed ones. My sleep did not last long.

Canada has recently leased several Leopard C2A6 Main Battle Tanks from Germany, and one of them was positioned about 70 metres up the side of the mountain. These solid, quality tanks carry the Rheinmetall L33 120mm main weapons, and when it fired a round at the enemy, it felt like someone had punched me in the gut. It was like the sound of Armageddon. I thought a mortar round had landed on top of me. It was bad enough to be on the sending end, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of a round – although that night several people found out how bad it could be.

When the shooting was done, the count was five dead enemy combatants – not even a nose bleed on Canada’s side.

Kris shares some Hagen Daaz ice cream with villagers.

The flight back took us over Kandahar City. I always thought that the city would be more modern. It’s becoming such a rare thing to see a place untouched by hamburger outlets and car dealerships, you forget that most of the world doesn’t have running water or electricity, let alone internet connections and fast food joints. And maybe, as Martha Stewart would say, “That’s a good thing.” Or maybe not.

I’ve been back in KAF for almost a week, doing engineering work inside an office and a workshop. The probability of being in a battle here is minimal and that definitely is a good thing, at least until I get my own weapon.

Lessons Learned
I am grateful for the experience of going out to the FOB. Everywhere I went in MSG, I saw signs of DLCSPM (Director, Land Command Systems Program Management) and the work that we’re doing. Each of the sentry outposts has a Combat Net Radio – the main VHF radio used by CF ground forces – as do all of the vehicles, including the new Leopards, the LAVs and the RG-31s. There is a Mobile Electronic Warfare Terminal – used to intercept and study enemy radio signals. Soldiers who ride out on patrol put their lives into our hands every time they engage the electronic countermeasures on their vehicles (these devices jam radio signals that the insurgents use to trigger road-side bombs and IEDs). Battle commanders rely on our networks to get them instant information to make decisions that affect the outcome of everything that goes on – from how many troops to send out, to what route they need to take, to how many sentries to post.

Our handprints are everywhere over here, and lives depend on the work we do.

Putting aside the politics of war, there are issues that are far larger than most of us can comprehend. Personally, from first hand experience, I’m convinced that we are doing good work here. But if you’re ever tempted to think that your job in headquarters is boring or has no meaning, you need to know that really excellent people depend on the work that you do to keep them alive. This is not flag waving or some empty platitude – this is real, this is fact – I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen soldiers come back from patrol in one piece because of the Grace of God and the good work that we do back at home. Please keep it up.
“Kandahar Kris” returned from Afghanistan safe and sound, but with a new perspective on Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.
© FrontLine Defence 2007