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.
En route, Call Sign 4-2 stopped to scour a section of the muddy dirt path ahead of them for any signs of makeshift bombs. If the area looked familiar, it should have - the soldiers had been there just days earlier, responding to a small IED not far down the road. On neither occasion did they discover anything to give them pause.
Experts who later examined the scene said the soldiers likely never would have found the tremendous peril buried beneath their feet - several hundred pounds of homemade explosive, linked to a remote initiator by a command wire the length of a football field. It might have been there for several weeks.
That assessment would come as cold comfort to the survivors.
"We should have found it," Cpl. Shier says. "Maybe, if we'd tried a little bit harder, done something a little bit different, things might have been different."
The first time the patrol passes through, MCpl. Chinn sees a group of children in the distance, some of them making odd gestures. At first, he thinks nothing of it. Later, however, a realization will dawn: They appeared to be covering their ears.
After the stops to talk to locals, the LAVs lurch down the road at about 30 kilometres an hour, and Sgt. Collins surveys the landscape and soon recognizes the terrain. He knows the stories about convoys hitting IEDs on roads cleared just hours earlier. So he gets on the radio to Sgt. Miok, whose head he can see poking out from Charlie's hatch as it follows some 20 metres behind, and recommends stopping to perform another search.
Sgt. Miok, feigning exasperation, responds with an expletive. Sgt. Collins looks at his close friend and good-naturedly gives him the finger. Sgt. Miok returns the gesture.
In the next instant, the affable 28-year-old schoolteacher from Edmonton is dead.
The 20-tonne armour-plated assault vehicle lifts into the air like a toy. It appears to buckle in the middle as it begins to come apart. The turret, perfectly level, is spinning in the air toward Alpha. A soldier's lower body follows behind like a wet towel.
"I saw the dirt come out. I saw the tires blow off," Sgt. Collins recalls. "I saw the grey explosion. I saw chunks of men come out."
Dirt, shrapnel and debris shower down on the surviving vehicle. It sounds like heavy rain. Alpha's electronic optical system swivels to the rear. The monitor shows only blinding haze.
"Shit! Shit! Shit! We got hit!" Sgt. Collins shouts into his radio.
MCpl. Chinn, Alpha's 36-year-old crew commander, hopes the blast has only crippled Charlie's mobility. "Is it an M-kill?" he asks.
Sgt. Collins knows it's far worse. "It's a K-kill," he radios back.
Acutely aware of the risk of a second bomb or ambush, Sgt. Collins is momentarily paralyzed with fear. He has just seen his friend and comrade blown apart. Right now, he is certain of only one thing: He does not want to die like that.
Eyes wide and hearts thumping, Sgt. Collins and Cpl. Shier head slowly toward the crippled vehicle, eyes wide and hearts thumping. Sgt. Collins peers inside, and lets out a profanity. It looks like something out of a Friday the 13th movie.
Enclosed in the steel cocoon of the light armoured vehicle, Ms. Saeed had been sitting across from and chatting amicably with Ms. Lang, the Calgary reporter. The day's outing would likely yield three stories, Ms. Lang had been saying.
She did not finish her sentence.
The sound an IED makes when it explodes is nothing like the rich, orchestral expressions of Hollywood's special-effects industry. Ms. Saeed later describes it as "a deafening loud sound, like a very big crack. … Just the loudest sound I had ever heard. Nothing that loud can be good."
Then, suddenly, the sound is gone, replaced by an eerie quiet. Ms. Saeed finds herself lying flat on her back.
It is dark. She is pinned. Her heart is pounding violently. She is having trouble breathing. She fears she is being buried alive. She wiggles her fingers. She moves her arms. She feels her face, brushing away choking debris. Determined not to panic, she takes a deep breath. It dawns on her she is not dead.
Ms. Saeed twists herself on to her side. She can see silhouettes in the interior gloom. They are not moving. Convinced she is the only one alive, she begins trying to drag herself toward the back of the vehicle, its heavy steel ramp blown open by the blast.
Her rummaging hands find body parts - one of them a severed leg with a seemingly familiar boot.
"I vividly remember moving a leg and thinking that it was mine," she says. "After that, I knew something horrible had happened."
She is more terrified at the thought of being taken hostage, tortured, raped and slowly killed at the hands of insurgents. She spots Sgt. Collins peering inside the vehicle and begins to scream.
"Help me, help me," she cries. "Get me out of here."
Triage and tribulations
One minute, Cpl. Quast had been sitting shoulder to shoulder with Ms. Saeed, his mind drifting idly. He looked across at Cpl. Fraser, who was beside Ms. Lang with his head resting on the butt of his rifle. The next thing he remembers is a loud thump - a heavy, percussive bass sound.
"I didn't know up from down, left from right," he recalls. "Then, all of a sudden, I was on a pile of bodies on the ceiling in the back of the LAV, looking out the back of the upside-down vehicle."
A woman's screams pierce the silence.
"The medic is in the other vehicle," Cpl. Quast answers. "They are coming to help us as soon as they can."
As he crawls free, Cpl. Quast surveys the scene. Lying a few feet away is Cpl. Volochtchik, who was blown clear. He has three broken vertebrae, he has a broken and dislocated shoulder, and a piece of his buttocks has been torn off. His jaw is cracked; his teeth are broken.
"Fedor, Fedor," Cpl. Quast calls. He gets no answer.
Pain - "the most intense pain that I have ever felt in my life," Cpl. Quast later calls it - forces him to take off his boot to make room for the rapid swelling. "I could see the bones pushing out of the skin."
A couple of metres away, Cpl. Fraser has learned the hard way the dangers of using a rifle as a headrest: As the blast propelled him out the rear hatch, it rammed the butt of the weapon into his face, shattering his nose. "I just remember a loud snap or crack," he recalls, "and a feeling of getting sucked up to the ceiling."
Cpl. Yee should have been in Charlie, his regular vehicle. But the 27-year-old reservist was moved to Alpha to make space for Ms. Saeed and Ms. Lang. It was from Alpha that Cpl. Yee had watched the two women shadow Sgt. Taylor, noting the crowds forming around them.
Now, he finds himself edging down Alpha's ramp with the medic to go see if anyone in Charlie is still alive.
Cpl. Yee spots three men on a low roof a few hundred metres away. He radios Sgt. Collins, who is pondering whether to open fire on the trio when he sees a bewildered Cpl. Volochtchik, half-sitting in a depression on the road and waving his pistol wildly.
Sgt. Collins barks an order at Cpl. Shier to relieve Cpl. Volochtchik of his sidearm. He looks back at the roof. The men have disappeared.
Cpl. Yee is hoping against hope that Charlie has withstood the blast, which has left a massive crater in the road. But as he approaches the wreckage, his heart sinks. The vehicle is on its roof, its nose buried in the soft earth. The wheels have been blown off and there's a gaping hole in the undercarriage. Diesel fuel is spilling into the debris-strewn mud.
Sgt. Taylor is clearly in bad shape. There's little visible blood, but he is ghostly pale and barely conscious. The deformities in his lower legs are obvious. He is able to move one arm. He clutches at one of Cpl. Yee's legs. Cpl. Yee looks down and catches a glimpse of Sgt. Taylor's cloudy eyes.
"I don't want to lose my legs," Sgt. Taylor murmurs.
"Medevac's on the way," Cpl. Yee offers. "You're going to be fine."
The sound of Sgt. Taylor's voice surprises Cpl. Elfner, who is nearby. "I thought he was dead." Not until Sgt. Taylor is back at Kandahar Air Field will the trauma surgeons declare him so.
Meanwhile, Ms. Saeed tries in vain to claw her way out of the vehicle. Cpl. Girard-Dallaire, the medic, drags her from the wreckage in one swift yank. Cpl. Naslund carries the petite policy analyst to a nearby casualty collection point as Cpl. Shier helps to steady her lifeless legs. Ms. Saeed remains convinced one of her limbs is still lying in the wreckage.
"Go back and grab my leg. Grab my leg," she screams.
"You're fine, you're fine, your legs are on," comes the response.
"No, no, don't lie to me. I know it's off, but it's okay. Just get my leg. I know it's off. Just get my leg."
Finally, to placate her, someone says: "Okay, we have it."
Ms. Saeed's pants are bloody, her jelly-like lower limbs swollen and dark. Sgt. Collins does not think she will make it.
At the casualty collection point, Ms. Saeed lies back. To avoid looking at her lower body, she gazes at the sky. She thinks about her family, fears how they will take the news. She has broken her promise to not get hurt.
Cpl. Shier, who has training in combat casualty care, comes over. He is convinced her legs are done for. "I was feeling her legs to try to find bone to put the tourniquets around but didn't find any," he later says. "That's why I just rammed them up into her crotch as far as the tourniquets would go."
The blinding pain of the life-saving treatment comes as a shock to Ms. Saeed. Then, suddenly, all she wants is a hug. She takes hold of Cpl. Shier's arm, lifts herself slightly, and for a few seconds presses herself close to him. He pats her reassuringly before returning to the carnage.
Sgt. Collins, smoke grenade in hand, is scanning the sky for reinforcements. After what seems like an eternity, the first U.S. Black Hawk helicopter throbs into view. He pulls hard on the detonating string to trigger a plume of colourful, high-visibility smoke.
Instead, the string snaps. "Can this day get any fucking worse?" he says to himself.
Ms. Saeed can see bodies around her, but recognizes no faces. She thinks again of her family. The din of an arriving helicopter brings with it one thought: "I get to go home now."
The members of 4-2 Bravo help to secure the area and carry the victims to the choppers, which sink to their bellies in the mud of a freshly tilled field. Night is approaching. The temperature is falling.
It is ghastly work. "I stood for hours with the rest of my unit in a field filled with their scattered remains," says Cpl. Brian Cadiz, with 4-2 Bravo. "Their blood stained my gloves and soaked through the mud into my boots."
Ms. Lang is found semi-suspended in the back of the shattered LAV. She died instantly, the bomb detonating almost directly beneath her. After nine years of combat, she is the sole Canadian journalist killed in Afghanistan, and the second Canadian civilian after Mr. Berry to die as part of the Afghan mission.
The quiet betrayal
In 1972, a youthfully adventurous Art and Sandra Lang travelled through a vastly different Afghanistan. It was seven years removed from a Soviet invasion that would trigger a blood-soaked downward spiral to ruination and a new war - one that would lure the Vancouver couple's journalist daughter to her death four decades later.
"She told us a year before she went," Sandra Lang says. "Gradually, I got used to the idea. I wasn't actually as worried as I should have been."
Adds her husband: "We [now]belong to a very exclusive club - one that you don't want to belong to."
Two days after the blast, members of Call Sign 4-2 are preparing for the ramp ceremony, during which they'll shoulder the caskets of their dead comrades into a waiting military transport. Cpl. Yee is getting a haircut.
He overhears a Canadian Forces officer talking about the tragedy. The inexperienced reservists had brought the disaster on themselves by failing to check the road properly, the officer suggests.
"I looked right at him and gave him this dirty evil glare, like an animal would before it pounces," he recalls. "The officer just shut his mouth after that."
The explosion did more than cause death and destruction. It also marked a massive intelligence failure that cast a long shadow across Canada's difficult nine-year struggle to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
The bomb was probably an open secret among the locals, and yet none of them said a thing. It was a wrenching betrayal of a fragile trust.
Four days after the blast, Call Sign 4-2 was back on the job. But they no longer patrolled District 2, the area where Charlie had been hit. Commanders feared emotions were still running too high.
Within days of the explosion, rumours surfaced that special forces soldiers had gone in and killed those responsible and, within a few weeks, taken out an IED factory.
No one with Joint Task Force 2, Canada's shadowy special operations force, would confirm the reports.
In late 2008, the Department of National Defence chose to stop publicizing battlefield injuries, in a stepped-up effort to deny mission intelligence to the Taliban. As a result of this - one of multiple restrictions that bind reporters who embed with the Canadian Forces there - precious little is known about many of the wounded.
In the tragic blast last year, Brad Quast got off relatively lightly. His shin was fractured. His ankle was dislocated and broken, and one foot was so badly damaged, the surgeon described what she saw as "bone salad."
Today, he hobbles around with a cane. In his dress uniform, he looks the stereotypical war veteran, except for the almost absurd incongruence of his youth. "I get a lot of weird looks," he says. "Especially when using a handicapped parking space."
His plans to join a police force or work for correctional services are on hold, and he thinks often about what happened. Sometimes there are nightmares. "I'm angry this happened to us," he says. "There's nothing to prepare you for actually getting blown up. You hear about stuff like this happening, but you never expect it to happen to you."
Barrett Fraser, another aspiring police officer, suffered a damaged back and shoulder and lacerations to his face, but his feet took the brunt of the damage, requiring more than a dozen separate surgical procedures. His dead colleagues, he says, were "like brothers" to him. "Losing them was pretty disturbing."
Fedor Volochtchik is back on his feet, mostly. His bolted-together shoulder still bothers him. He thinks about what happened almost every day. "It's like a splinter in your mind," he says. "It's always there."
Troy MacGillivray struggles with an artificial heel. He worries what will happen once the Army deems him well enough to end the contract that keeps him going now.
The blast left virtually no part of Ms. Saeed's body unscathed. Her right leg has been amputated at the knee, while her shredded lower left leg needed extensive rebuilding.
She manages a few hours daily at home with her family and fiancé, but life is still a regimen of physiotherapy and learning basic skills, such as walking with one leg. Two months ago, surgeons finally sewed her core muscles back together. There's more surgery to come. When she can focus on her future, she frets. Will she ever snowboard again or go for a hike in the hills? How will she raise children?
"I don't want to lie and pretend like I'm very optimistic or happy about this situation," she says.
Despite their ordeal, most of the surviving soldiers say they would jump at a chance to go back - either to finish their aborted tours, or to be back with comrades doing work they feel is valuable, even if it is so far from home.
"It seems more like a sense of duty now to the fallen," Cpl. Volochtchik says. "I just have to go back there at one point. Even if it is 60 years down the road, I want to go there and see."
Not Matt Chinn. For all the effort and good intentions, for all the sweat, blood and tears, he says, Canadian soldiers appear to be achieving little of lasting value. Ask him if he'd go back and he's unequivocal.
"What, are you drunk?" he says, incredulous. "As of Dec. 31, I wanted nothing more than to go home."
For Ms. Saeed, one question lingers: Would the bomb have gone off had it not been for her and Ms. Lang? "I always think about the fact that if I wasn't there, maybe they wouldn't have triggered it," she says. "I don't like thinking about that too much."
Other questions remain, too: Who decided on that sunny winter afternoon to proceed with the attack? Was the traffic jam staged to force the patrol to turn back? Whose finger was on the trigger?
For Cpl. Shier, looking for answers is a mug's game.
"You can second-guess everything that you do over there," he says. "[But]the place is so messed up, you just have to accept it."
The Canadian Press
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