Reluctantly, silently, Sergeant Jimmy Collins lifts his sleeve.
There, tattooed on the inside of his wrist along with images of a palm tree and a maple leaf, are the initials of five fellow Canadians - victims of one wrenching instant of violence on a muddy road in Afghanistan one year ago today.
Garrett Chidley. George Miok. Zachery McCormack. Kirk Taylor. Michelle Lang.
On Dec. 30, 2009, as Canadians at home basked in the glow of the festive season, two light armoured vehicles - Alpha and Charlie - rumbled out of camp at about 2 p.m., each carrying 10 people. Their story - largely untold before now - still keeps Sgt. Collins awake at night.
"It's the first thing I think about in the morning," he says. "It's the last thing I think about before I go to bed."
The Charlie contingent consists of Private Chidley, Sergeant Miok, Corporal McCormack, Sgt. Taylor, Cpl. Barrett Fraser, Warrant Officer Troy MacGillivray, Cpl. Brad Quast and Cpl. Fedor Volochtchik. It also includes two civilians: Ms. Lang, a Calgary Herald reporter, and Bushra Saeed, a policy analyst from Ottawa.
Leading the two-vehicle convoy aboard Alpha are Master Corporal Matt Chinn, Cpl. Steve Tees, Cpl. Taylor Lewis, Cpl. Veronique Girard-Dallaire, Cpl. Regan Yee, Cpl. Adam Naslund and Cpl. Adam Elfner. Sgt. Collins and Cpl. Stuart Shier serve as Alpha's air sentries, keeping eyes to the sides and rear of the rolling vehicle.
The patrol stops twice to talk to locals. With the help of an interpreter, Sgt. Taylor asks questions of elders and their fellow villagers while Ms. Saeed, then 25, a newcomer to the Afghanistan assignment, writes down the answers. Ms. Lang, 34, also in-country for the first time, scribbles notes and takes photos. Crowds soon gather, making the soldiers edgy. Ms. Saeed feels uncomfortable as children rush over and begin pressing up to her.
The two women are clearly civilians, making them high-value targets in the eyes of any enemy informants who may be lurking in the crowd. It would be easy to note which vehicle they are in and relay the information to their waiting attackers.
"A lot of people think [insurgents]just do random things," Cpl. Shier says. "No. They think things through."
On the way back to the base, the patrol encounter a massive traffic jam. It would mean hours of waiting for the road to reopen, leaving the convoy exposed. Sgt. Collins and Cpl. Shier exchange knowing glances.
"We just had bad vibes," Cpl. Shier recalls. "And you know what? Turns out we should have had bad vibes."
Sgt. Collins, Alpha's section commander, turns the convoy around and heads back towards the same muddy path they'd searched just hours earlier.
"It was my call to turn around and drive back down that road," he says. "I broke one of my major rules: Never take the same way out as in."
'It's a K-kill'
The platoon known as Call Sign 4-2 is comprised mostly of reservists from the Calgary Highlanders, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the King's Own Calgary Regiment. Unlike regular-force "career" soldiers, they had put their civilian lives on hold to volunteer for the mission, passing a strict selection process before enduring six months of full-time work-up training.
They arrived in the Afghan theatre in the fall of 2009, and were soon "outside the wire" of Camp Nathan Smith, patrolling the surrounding streets of Kandahar city to show NATO's presence, assess the area for threats and determine the needs and moods of the locals.
The 80 or so Canadian civilians at the base rarely ventured out, a consequence of the 2006 suicide bombing that killed diplomat Glyn Berry. But that was changing, recalls Ben Rowswell, who became Canada's most senior civilian representative in Kandahar province in September 2009.
"We were often criticized for never leaving the wire," Mr. Rowswell says. "It was the government's intention to deploy civilians to do what only civilians can do."
Ms. Saeed was assigned to shadow Sgt. Taylor, a specialist in civilian-military co-operation whose job was to visit with local villagers to find out what was on their minds. Research was also the goal for Ms. Lang, who had been in-country just two weeks and was hoping for a firsthand look at a dismounted military operation.