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The last time I saw Captain John Croucher, the big lug was standing in the moonlight outside the patrol house at Gumbad north of Kandahar, talking about the improvised explosive device, or IED, strike that had exploded between two vehicles in his convoy.

Capt. Croucher was but four cars away, and even so felt the percussion, and the shock, and saw the enormous crater left behind.

But, as he said then with considerable pride, that day he left with 38 guys, and with 38 he returned to the mud-walled compound that Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry then called home.

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At 33, powerfully built, handsome and confident, Capt. Croucher seemed invincible.

Today, he is in Edmonton, only recently out of the University of Alberta Hospital, with nursing care for his daily bandage changes and his fiancée at his side for comfort.

He is one of a nearly invisible group -- Canadian soldiers who are wounded here, sometimes gravely, but about whom little is known, usually not even their names.

Their numbers are significant enough that though I have spent a total of less than two months in Afghanistan on two separate visits, I personally know two others who have been seriously hurt, including one man who lost both legs in a blast and another whose ankles were shattered.

Badly injured in an IED attack on May 25 -- the third to hit Alpha's second platoon, or the 1-2 as it's called -- Capt. Croucher has gone through eight surgeries at three different hospitals in three different countries, first here in Afghanistan at the sophisticated Canadian-led base hospital at Kandahar Air Field, then at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and finally in Canada at the U of A.

With a broken fibula and tibia, first- and second-degree burns from ankle to hip on his right leg and on his hand, a smashed right ankle and heel and a large puncture wound from shrapnel, he pines for only one thing: to return to his men.

"The thought that I've left my men haunts me," he told The Globe and Mail yesterday in an exclusive interview conducted via e-mail.

"There are times when I'd sell my soul to be back there with them."

Even at the moment of the remote-control-detonated explosion, which effectively demolished the LAV, or light armoured vehicle, and sent black smoke billowing into the air, Capt. Croucher's first thoughts were for his crew.

"I remember the initial shock of the explosion," he wrote, "knowing immediately it was an IED strike. My first words as I saw both smoke and fire below me in the turret [he was the only one of the eight-man crew who was standing with his head and upper body out of the vehicle] 'Oh shit, oh shit.'

"With my body still in the turret, I immediately checked on the gunner. Thank God, seat belt off, he was making his way out through the top. I then focused on getting myself out when I started feeling the fire burning my legs.

"My first push with my arms immediately told me that I was getting no help from my legs. I pushed myself out and onto the back deck of the LAV.

"I was on fire, the right side of my body from toes to mid-body was on fire.

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"I tried patting myself out when I noticed that my right hand was burned extremely badly. I was having no luck putting myself out, and knowing that the guys were on the ground, I rolled myself off the car, falling to the ground some eight feet, where the guys noticed me and started to put out the fire.

"The pain was incredible but the crew had a stretcher beside me in no time.

"Within seconds I was rushed back to the safety of cover behind a G-wagon, all the way demanding to know how many guys were hurt, very concerned about these numbers and the possibilities as I watched the vehicle go up in flames."

The checks confirmed that everyone else was okay, non-life-threatening injuries only.

"Myself, I took the worst of it," Capt. Croucher said, "but that's the way every commander would want it: Keep the men safe."

In his almost five months in Afghanistan, convoys leaving or arriving at the Gumbad patrol house -- since relocated -- were IEDed six times. The blast from which Capt. Croucher barely escaped with his life came at the end of a sweep through the Shinkay valley that saw soldiers deliberately looking for IEDs in an effort to make sure the roads were safe.

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The convoy was just short of the patrol house, on a road that had been cleared and pronounced secure just days before, when the bomb went off. Yet virtually every day, or more than once a day, the Canadians left to patrol the unforgiving terrain nearby, equal parts boulder-strewn mountains and dried-up river beds called wadis.

"Patrolling is a necessary evil, and IEDs are always on our mind," Capt. Croucher said. "Most guys deal with it day by day. Talking about it with their peers makes it easier. Guys know that their next trip out might find an IED.

"However, even though there have been six within the last five months, we have done hundreds of patrols. So long as we never get complacent, chances are we won't see one or we see it before we hit it.

"The anxiety for me is not just worrying about me, it's compounded with the thought of keeping every one in that patrol as safe as possible. Losing a soldier is a platoon commander's worst nightmare. You can't worry all the time or you're bound to make a mistake and do something stupid.

"We all sought comfort in knowing and believing what we were doing was right, and needed."

Capt. Croucher was, he said, lucky in the beginning, because while he was constantly dreaming through a haze of painkillers about the incident, "it was never in a nightmarish fashion.

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"It was always like a self-evaluation," and though he didn't elaborate, my hunch is that he was running through a sort of checklist, making sure he hadn't missed anything. "It wasn't until almost a month later that I started having intense dreams about it, nothing I had any control over.

"As tough as a man is," he said, "any sort of traumatic experience can leave a man scarred psychologically."

Just recently, he saw television footage from the brutal, three-day battle -- in which Alpha Company was heavily involved -- at Pashmul west of Kandahar city last weekend.

"Troops in a firefight," he said, "and I wanted to be there so much. TV news, as much as it has become a comfort, acts sort of like salt to my wounds."

There's a verse from an old song by the Kinks that captures what I wish for the man from Fredericton, N.B., last seen under a big pale moon at Gumbad. It goes like this: "Here's wishing you the bluest sky, and hoping something better comes tomorrow. Hoping all the verses rhyme, and the very best of choruses to follow all the doubt and sadness. I know that better things are on the way."

cblatchford@globeandmail.com

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