The shock waves of the flesh-ripping, metal-twisting blast that devastated so many Canadian lives on a quiet, rural road in southern Afghanistan 10 years ago still ripple with a force that’s palpable.
They live on in the heartache of an empty chair at a Christmas dinner, in the phantom pain of a missing limb, in the guilt of a survivor.
For Sgt. Jimmy Collins, who watched the disaster unfold, the blast seemed to tear the very fabric of time.
“It’s as fresh as yesterday,” Collins, 39, says from Kamloops, B.C. “Some days, you’ll have a good day and it’ll all seem like it was a movie or something. Most days, it’s exactly the same.”
On the afternoon of Dec. 30, 2009, as Canadians at home prepared to ring in the New Year, two light armoured vehicles – each carrying 10 people – rumbled out of Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City.
It was a routine patrol – fly the Canadian flag, chat with locals – until the trailing vehicle, Call Sign 4-2 Charlie, hit a remote-controlled improvised explosive device.
By the time of the explosion, the American-led war on the Taliban in Afghanistan had entered its ninth year. Canadian troops had become increasingly drawn into a dangerous combat role in the dust of southern Afghanistan as they tried to suppress a stubborn insurgency hostile to the international military presence.
The Canadian strategy was simple – create a secure environment that would allow civil society to take root and reconstruction to take place. Some soldiers provided muscle, while others acted as armed diplomats trying to persuade Afghans that Canada was there to help, not conquer.
Collins watched from his position of air sentry in the lead vehicle, Call Sign 4-2 Alpha, as the 20-tonne Charlie carrying eight soldiers and two civilians bucked through the air, its gun-turret blown off, and landed upside down metres away.
Four soldiers died that day – Sgt. Kirk Taylor, 28, Sgt. George Miok, 28, Pte. Garrett Chidley, 21, and Cpl. Zachery McCormack – as did Michelle Lang, 34, of Calgary, the only Canadian journalist killed during the Afghanistan mission.
Four other wounded soldiers survived along with Bushra Saeed-Khan, a 25-year-old foreign affairs official who had been chatting with Lang in the back of the LAV when the blast tore their lives apart.
“A part of me feels like it just happened yesterday and I’m still kind of living through the shock,” says Saeed-Khan, who was grievously wounded in the blast. “Then a part of me feels like – especially with my daughter – that it was another lifetime ago.”
About 18 months after the deadly blast, Canada’s combat mission in Kandahar – with its steady stream of dead and wounded – came to an end.
The war effort, which was never much popular at home despite unwavering support for the troops, has faded from public consciousness. Crowded overpasses where Canadians stood, sometimes for hours, waiting to pay respects to yet another passing casket have long been empty.
“The general populace has already forgotten about it,” Collins says. “It was something that popped up on the news every now and again even when it was full swing.”
Military brass did do their best to get reporters on the ground in an effort to engage Canadians at home, he says.
“We got one of the reporters killed. That’s why they were trying to be so careful.”
Over the years, Lang has been memorialized by various plaques and the naming of Lang Bay in remote northeastern Saskatchewan.
Still, the ache of having lost their daughter is sharp for her parents Art and Sandra Lang, who live in Vancouver. The arrival of grandchildren has only partially filled the void – especially since their seven-year-old granddaughter looks strikingly like the aunt she’ll never know.
“We miss her every day,” Art Lang says. “I think a lot about her missed opportunity – for children, for great news stories.”
“As a mother, I really miss her companionship,” Sandra Lang says. “Journalists need to be at war sites because they need that oversight. Just wish it hadn’t been my daughter.”
This summer, a secret dedication at National Defence’s headquarters in Ottawa for a memorial repatriated from Kandahar upset those who felt the military itself had forgotten their pain. A hurriedly organized “rededication” in August soothed some of the hurt.
The Langs, whose daughter’s plaque is on the memorial, were there. As was Saeed-Khan and her family, although she had initially been left off the invitation list.
“There is always that fear that all this will be in vain and people won’t remember the costs and the lessons learned,” Saeed-Khan says.
Some of those in Alpha and Charlie that day have pursued their military careers. For others, adjusting to peacetime after the gritty, adrenalin rush of a kinetic military at war proved tricky.
“After you’ve seen places like that and you come home, you really do feel like an outsider,” says Collins, who was medically released from the Canadian Armed Forces in December 2016.
As soon as the ramp ceremonies were over, everyone went back to work. There was little time to grieve, no time to process.
Collins says he never did find much help in dealing with the demons that came home with him. The nightmares, the fear, the guilt.
“Volo put it the best: ‘It’s like a shard of glass in your brain’,” Collins says, citing Cpl. Fedor Volochtchick whose jaw was cracked, vertebrae broken, and buttocks partly torn off in the blast. “It’s always there. It’s not going to go away.”
His injuries forced Volochtchick, 31, out of the military in 2013, throwing a wrench into the kind of kinetic career he thought would be his. Instead, he did a degree in psychology and plans on a Masters in counselling. In the interim, he paints and is hoping to teach art therapy as a way for first-responders to cope with trauma.
“Basically, your old self is just gone,” Volochtchick says. “You have to figure out what you can salvage and what you have to rebuild. It’s like a part of you died and a new part was born.”
For Saeed-Khan, coming home meant a stream of painful surgeries for injuries both obvious and hidden. There were years of fighting for compensation even as she was relearning how to walk on an artificial limb and mostly salvaged leg.
Ultimately, she returned to the foreign affairs work she loved, determined to prove she could be as effective as her pre-injured self would have been.
Still, she found herself battling heart-pounding panic attacks triggered by confined spaces or darkness that could last for hours. At times, she would wake up confused, screaming and shaking. Dealing with a disability left her depressed.
“I’m still learning how to deal with the consequences of what happened,” Saeed-Khan says. “Then there’s the guilt of feeling that you shouldn’t be complaining because you survived.”
Collins, who made the patrol’s routing call, knows all about guilt. It doesn’t matter that the insurgents’ sophisticated explosive device was almost impossible to detect.
“It’s what I’ve been doing for 10 years. What if I did this? What if I did that? Knowing full well in hindsight it doesn’t change anything,” Collins says. “That’s the shitty thing about survivor’s guilt: It doesn’t choose who was right or wrong.”
Cpl. Stu Shier, 30, who was also a 4-2 Alpha air sentry, performed life-saving work on, and comforted, the badly injured Saeed-Khan. He understands what Collins went through.
“For the longest time, he felt that he needed to take a lot of it on his shoulders,” said Shier, a Calgary firefighter since 2015 who recently left the military. “He’s finally starting to realize: That’s just war.”
When he can, Jimmy Collins does close protection for a client he declines to identify. He is engaged and hopes to get married in the New Year.
“Nobody ever thought that would happen,” Shier quips.
Collins, who returned to his Rocky Rangers reserve regiment after two deployments in Afghanistan, rarely gets to spend time with his former comrades. In July, he did see Brad Quast and Barrett Fraser – both also wounded in the blast – and Volochtchick.
“It still hurts to see them. They’re still hurting,” Collins says. “That night, after seeing them, I just wanted to go straight back to Kandahar and lay waste to some people – but that’s a nice day dream.”
For his part, Fraser, 37, of Edmonton, admits the past decade has been a long struggle that has only recently begun easing. There were a series of surgeries on his badly damaged feet and nose, and ultimately a medical release in October 2014.
“It was pretty brutal. It felt like an identity,” he says of leaving the military. “I was kind of left on my own not knowing where to go. I was kind of lost.”
Then, too, there were the nightmares, a failed relationship, difficulties finding help, drinking.
“My picture is not as pretty as some of the other guys,” Barrett allows. “I haven’t really done much of anything in the last 10 years.”
He now has a “beautiful lady” and the road ahead finally seems brighter and straighter.
Collins and Saeed-Khan have also kept in touch. The blast has forged a bond between the soldier and the civilian. He was there in May 2012 in Ottawa when she married Adil Khan, the boyfriend she had left in Canada when she went to Kandahar.
Her parents, Neelam and Amjad Saeed, who supported her long road to recovery to the point of exhaustion, once said life would never be the same. The situation, Amjad Saeed said, was “heartbreaking every minute.” But Saeed-Khan was determined to overcome the obstacles.
“I always think of Michelle Lang’s fiancée,” she says. “I’m sure he wishes that he could do these things, even with someone who was injured. Or the parents. Better have them there in pieces than not at all, right?”
One year ago, on December 18, Saeed-Khan gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Two failed pregnancies had left her despairing that Afghanistan had cost her motherhood.
“She’s just been such a blessing to us that it also made us realize how shitty the last few years have been,” Saeed-Khan said.
By the end of Canada’s 12-year mission in Afghanistan, 159 soldiers were dead – most killed by improvised explosive devices, some died by suicide. Thousands of others were injured, either physically or psychologically. Seven civilians, including Lang, also died.
Inevitably, the question arises: Was it worth it? The answer is seldom a simple yes or no.
“That’s a very complicated, fairly loaded question, Shier says. ”No, it wasn’t worth it because of loss of life. That being said, it was worth it because we went in with good intentions. It showed that when Canada is called, Canadians will step up and they’re a force to be reckoned with.“ For Saeed-Khan, the price she paid has been extortionate. In retrospect, she wouldn’t have gone, wouldn’t have left the camp that day, wouldn’t have taken the risk.
“I have my reservations about how the mission went,” she says. “I did what I thought was best at the time. I sincerely wanted to do my part to help. Looking back, I can say I tried.”
Fraser is more blunt: “I believe it was just for nothing,” he says. “The whole Afghan war was a political movement. There was nothing there to accomplish.”
Still, he says, he has no regrets as it was the first time in his life he truly felt a “sense of belonging.”
For others, it’s easier in a sense to avoid delving too deeply into whether it was worthwhile.
“I don’t want to choose to believe that our effort was for nothing and people over there died for nothing,” Volochtchick says.
For the survivors of Call Sign 4-2 Charlie, new relationships, families or careers have helped salve the hurts. The anger, if not the scars, has largely dissipated.
“It’s still one of those things that helped to shape me,” Shier says. “It will always be there – but it’s going on 10 years now; I’ve had time to come to terms with it, move past the guilt of surviving.”
Collins, who believes the war in Afghanistan was lost, says learning to talk about his experience has been key to his elusive quest for inner peace. “If you keep it in, it’ll … destroy you,” he says.
Saeed-Khan no longer takes pains to hide her prosthetic. But a book she thought she might be writing by now is still just a notion. She’s just not yet ready to crawl back into the choking gloom of a shattered, bloodied LAV.
“I would much rather make my daughter giggle,” she says.
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