Saturday, July 29, 2006

Canadians on the front lines of Afghanistan

I received an e-mail from a friend, Tom Barclay, in Ottawa. He, in turn, received it from a friend in the Canadian Armed Forces. In the e-mail was a description of combat written by a Canadian soldier fighting in Afghanistan.

Apparently the media in Canada has been hovering somewhere between ignoring and deriding the war in Afghanistan. (This is the implication I received through various links, admittedly from pro-military folks.) Canada isn't participating in Iraq, but has been participating in Afghanistan since December, 2001. If the Canadian media have been quiet about this, you wouldn't even know Canadians were in Afghanistan via the American news media if some Canadians hadn't been hurt there this week. As such, few people have heard of what is being called the Battle of Panjawai.

The Battle of Panjawai was the biggest ground engagement for the Canadian Forces since the Korean War. The original five day mission was supposed to last from July 7 until July 12, but it wasn't over for most soldiers until July 21. I only found this out from a blog; I couldn't find any mention of it in any media outlets.

Tom's e-mail forwarded on an e-mail from a Canadian Forces soldier to some friends. The soldier, named Andrew, wanted his story to get out so he asked folks to circulate it. It showed up on the Small Dead Animals blog originally. I've pulled it from there. I have not altered it in any way. I have added information, clearly shown as my own additions (I include my initials — AWG), to explain military and other terms for laymen.

This message originally appeared online here: http://www.smalldeadanimals.com/archives/004342.html

The other blog entry, which gave the dates of the battle and includes a short message from another Canadian in the battle, can be found here: http://cobalt545.livejournal.com/

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Battle of Panjawai and Beyond

Hey everybody! First off I apologize for the length of this email, as it contains two weeks worth of Afghanistan fun. I am doing well and brutally honest I have enjoyed this last couple of weeks. Seven years of training culminating in 14 action packed days. At first I wasn’t going to write a lot of detail about what happened, because some people might find it upsetting. However, when I got back to Kandahar Air Field (KAF) and read the deplorable media coverage that the largest operation Canadians have been involved in since Korea, I really felt I had to write it all down, to give you all (and hopefully everyone you talk to back in Canada) an appreciation for what we are really doing here in this “state of armed conflict” (lawyers say we can’t use the word “war”, I don’t know what the difference is except for it being far more politically correct.)

We received word while down at our Forward Operating Base (FOB) that we were going to be part of a full out three day (HA HA) Battle Group operation. [The Battle Group in Afghanistan is about 1,000 members strong, and made up primarily by the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. More information here. - AWG] This was going to be the largest operation Canada had undertaken since the Korean War. When we arrived back in KAF for orders we found out that we were rolling for Pashmul in the Panjawai District of Kandahar province. That was hard for my crew to hear, as that was the same town where Nichola had died and where Bombadier [Artillery rank equivalent to Corporal. - AWG] Chris Gauthier (a signaler in the party before I arrived) had been injured in an ambush. Participating in this attack were A, B and C Company (Coy.) Groups [A company has between 100 and 200 soldiers. A battalion consists of three infantry companies and some support units in Canadian army units. - AWG], both troops of artillery from A Battery [A battery has between 4 and 8 artillery pieces. - AWG], an Engineer squadron [An engineer squadron is roughly equivalent in size to an infantry battalion. - AWG], two Companies of Afghan National Army (plus all of their attached American Embedded Training Teams – ETT), as well as a huge lineup of American and British Fixed and Rotary wing aircraft ["Fixed wing" means fighter and bomber aircraft. "Rotary wing" means helicopters. - AWG]. Additionally, we had elements of the 2/87 US Infantry [2nd Battalion, 87th U.S. Infantry Regiment, part of the 10th Mountain Division. - AWG] and 3 Para [3rd Parachute Regiment. Equivalent to an American Airborne regiment. - AWG] from the UK conducting blocks to prevent the enemy from escaping. From an Artillery perspective beyond the two gun troops (each equipped with 2 x 155mm Howitzers and 4 x 81mm mortars) we had three Forward Observation Officers (FOO) and their parties [Artillery soldiers who serve on the front line with the infantry. They call in artillery and air strikes in support of the infantry. - AWG] as well as the Battery Commander and his party going in on the attack.

On the night of the 7th around 2200 hrs local C Company Group (with yours truly attached as their FOO) rolled for Pashmul. As we arrived closer to the objective area we saw the women and children pouring out of the town… not a good sign. We pushed on and about 3 km from our intended Line of Departure to start the operation we were ambushed by Taliban fighters. At around 0030hrs I had my head out of the turret crew commanding my LAV [Light Armoured Vehicle, an armoured personnel carrier (APC). Click here for more information. - AWG] with my night vision monocular on. Two RPG rounds thundered into the ground about 75m from my LAV. For about half a second I stared at them and thought, “huh, so that’s what an RPG looks like.” The sound of AK 7.62mm [Likely either an AK-47 or AK-74 assault rifle. - AWG] fire cracking all around the convoy snapped me back to reality and I quickly got down in the turret and we immediately began scanning for the enemy. They were on both sides of us adding to the “fog of war”. We eventually figured out where all of our friendlies were, and where to begin engaging. We let off about 20 rounds of Frangible 25mm [A type of ammunition. Click here for more information. - AWG] from our cannon at guys about a 100m away before we got a major jam in our link ejection chute. We went to our 7.62 coax machine gun [A "coax" machine gun is a "coaxial" machine gun, one that is mounted parallel to the main gun of a tank, APC, Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV). It aims where the main gun aims, and can be used for finding the range to a target. - AWG], and fired one round before it too jammed!! Boy was I pissed off. I went to jump up on the pintol mounted machine gun [A machine gun mounted on the top of the LAV's turret, which can be swung around. Since it's on the turret, the gunner has to expose himself to use it. - AWG], but as I stuck my head out of the LAV I realized the bad guys were still shooting at us and that the Canadian Engineers were firing High Explosive Incendiary 25mm rounds [A type of ammunition used primarily against light armour and personnel. A pretty nasty round; click here for more information. - AWG] from their cannon right over our front deck. I quickly popped back down realizing that was probably one of the stupider ideas I have ever had in my life J Eventually after much cursing and beating the crap out of the link ejection chute [Larger machine guns have bullets linked together in a belt. This chute is where the little link bits are chucked out of the machine gun. - AWG] with any blunt instrument we could find in the turret, we were back in the game. The first Troops in Contact (TIC) lasted about two hours. The radio nets were busier than I had ever heard before and we realized that A and B Coys. as well as Reconnaissance Platoon [A platoon designed primarily for scouting. - AWG] had all been hit simultaneously, showing a degree of coordination not seen before in Afghanistan. The feeling amongst the Company was that was probably it, as the enemy usually just conducted hit and run attacks. Boy, were we wrong! We continued to roll towards our Line of Departure and not five minutes later as we rolled around a corner, I saw B Coy. on our left flank get hit with a volley of about 20 RPGs [Rocket Propelled Grenade. They look nothing like grenades, and are actually anti-tank weapons. Click here for more information. - AWG] all bursting in the air over the LAVs. It was an unreal scene to describe. There was no doubt now that we were in a big fight.

We pushed into the town following the Company Commander behind the lead Platoon. This was not LAV friendly country. The entire area was covered in Grape fields, which due to the way they grow them are not passable to LAVs, and acres of Marijuana fields which due to irrigation caused the LAVs to get stuck. The streets were lined with mud compounds and mud walls just barely wide enough to get our cars through. After traveling about 300m our lead platoon came under attack from a grape drying hut in the middle of what can only be described as an urban built up area. The Company Commander then issued a quick set of frag orders and I was about to participate in my first ever Company attack. He signaled for me to dismount and follow him. It was an uncomfortable feeling dismounting from the turret, as the only way out is through the top of the turret. I was standing probably 15 feet high in the air with friendly and hostile rounds snapping and cracking in the air everywhere. Needless to say I got down quick. I went to the back of my LAV and banged on the door to signal we were dismounting. As the Master Bombardier opened the door he went pale as we were only 20m from where they had previously been ambushed and where Nich had died. Regardless, we soldiered on. We grabbed our radios and followed the Company Commander. We went into a compound that was actually the same one Howie Nelson had dropped a 1,000lb bomb on after the attack in May. We went up to a second story ledge on a mud wall, and the Company Commander pointed out a compound and said “can you hit that?” I lased the building and found out it was only 89m away. Back in Canada we never bring Artillery in much closer than a 1000m, so you can imagine what I was thinking. I sat down and did the math (those of you who know my mathematical skills are probably cringing right now!). I looked at him and said that in theory and mathematically we would be okay where we were, but I made him move one of the other Platoons back 150m. A funny story as I was doing the math, an American ETT Captain working with the ANA looked down at me and said “There are no ANA forward of us” I responded “Roger”, to which he said “good” fired three rounds and said “Got him”. I then realized that he had asked me a question and had not stated a fact (for some reason everyone seems to think that the FOO magically knows where all the friendlies are). Through all the gunfire I had missed the infliction in his voice. I looked at him and said, “Hey, I have no idea where your ANA are, you’re supposed to look after them!” Luckily it wasn’t a friendly he had shot at.

We started the Fire Mission with the first round landing about 350m from my position. The noise of Artillery whistling that close and exploding was almost deafening, the FOO course sure hadn’t prepared me for this! Master Bombardier and I debated the correction for a second and eventually agreed upon a Drop 200m, mostly because we needed to get rounds on that compound ASAP as we were taking heavy fire. The round came in and landed a bit left of the compound. We lased the impact and found out it was 105m from us. We gave a small correction and went into Fire For Effect with 50% Ground Burst and 50% Air Burst. [The FOO estimates the range and calls in a single round. He watches where it lands, makes a correction, and calls in another round. When he thinks the artillery unit has the round on the target, he calls in a Fire For Effect, which is a full artillery load. In modern combat the FOO rarely fires more than two or three ranging rounds. Ground bursts explode when they hit the ground. Air bursts, or proximity rounds, detonate a set height above the ground. - AWG] The rounds came in 85m from us, right on the compound. Truly I did not appreciate the sheer frightening and awe-inspiring nature of proximity (the air burst rounds). I then had the worst moment of my military career as one of the Sections began shouting “Check Fire, Check Fire!” ["Check Fire!" is the command to "stop firing". - AWG] on the net, followed quickly by their Platoon Commander saying they had casualties and to prepare for a 9 Line (air medical evacuation request). It turned out the two events were unrelated but for a while I thought I had injured or even worse killed a Canadian. In actuality the Section that called Check Firing was actually the furthest of anyone in the Company from the shells and had panicked (which led to a lot of ribbing and jokes from their buddies afterwards who had all been closer). The 9 Line was for an ANA soldier who had been struck 5 minutes before. However unfortunate, I was definitely relieved to here all that.

Day one carried on with several more small skirmishes and me moving from compound to compound to set up Observation Posts (OPs), from which I could support the Company’s movement. I never thought that in my career I would literally be kicking in doors and leading a three man stack, clearing room after room to get to my OPs.

We ended the day, which had seen us in contact for 12 straight hours, by sleeping beside our vehicle in full battle rattle for about an hour with sand fleas biting us. They are the single most ignorant and annoying bug ever. The next morning started off with what seemed like a benign task. We were to clear the grape fields to the south of our objective area. Intelligence said there was nobody there and this would only take us a couple of hours. About an hour into the clearing operation we came under contact from a heavily fortified compound. Unfortunately we had a young fellow killed early in the engagement when the infantry tried to storm the compound. They met fierce resistance, far greater than expected. (I didn’t know the young soldier personally, but do recall thinking how fearless he was a week earlier when I saw him running around the Brit compound with a Portuguese flag right after England had lost in the World Cup. I was impressed by his peers and friends and how professionally they carried on after his death.) After the attempted storming of the compound, the Company Commander came to me and said “right, we tried that the old fashioned way, now I want you to level that compound.” As I was coming up with a plan for how I would do this, we had a call sign I had never heard before check in. It was Mobway 51. Ends up he was a Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle armed with a hellfire missile. [For information on the Predator, click here. For information on the Hellfire missile, click here. - AWG] I don’t know how he knew we needed help or what frequency we were using, and frankly I don’t care, he was a blessing. When the Company Commander asked me what the safety distance for a hellfire was I literally had to go to the reference manual I carry (J Fires Manual) because I had never seen one before and had no idea what it actually could do. I told him the safety distance was 100m. To which he asked how far we were from the compound – the laser said 82m. We debated the ballistic strength of the mud wall beside us and in the end he decided to risk it. Nothing like seeing an entire Company in the fetal position pressed up against a mud wall! The hellfire came in and it was the loudest thing I have ever heard. Three distinct noises: the missile firing, it coming over our heads and the boom. For about 30 seconds we couldn’t see anything but a cloud of dust. Then when the dust settled the Platoons started hooting and hollering. The compound barely even looked the same. (At this point our embedded journalist Christie Blanchford [Actually, Christie Blatchford of the Globe and Mail. - AWG] from the Globe and Mail had enough and left us, can’t blame her I guess.) The Company again tried to clear the compound but still met resistance. So we lobbed in 18 artillery shells 82m from us (even closer than the day before) and then brought in two Apache Attack Helicopters [For more information, click here. - AWG]. On the second rocket attack (I actually have video of this) the pilot hit the target with his first rocket and the second one went long and landed just on the other side of the mud wall from us. It engulfed us in rocket exhaust, but thankfully no one was hurt. When the hellfire had gone off it had started a small building in the compound on fire and suddenly we started getting secondary explosions off of a weapons cache that was in it. Everything started exploding around us, and the two guys that had not listened to me to press up against the wall got hit with shrapnel, both in the legs. One was the Company Commander’s Signaler, a crazy Newf [A "Newf" is someone from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. - AWG], who was cracking jokes even with shrapnel in his leg. The medic dealt with him and I went over to the American ETT Captain who was only a few feet from me and began doing first aid on him. He looked liked he was going into shock, until his American Sergeant came up behind me and said “Shit Sir, that’s barely worth wearing a Purple Heart for!” I was surprised how much first aid I actually remembered, and the only difficult part was trying to cut off his pant leg because American combats are designed not to tear, making them particularly difficult to cut! In the end we took the compound and captured a high level Taliban leader who was found by the infantry hiding in a sewage culvert, begging for the shelling to stop. As well, we found a major weapons cache, which the engineers took great delight in blowing up. Unfortunately the assault had cost us one killed, two wounded, a Section commander had blown his knee throwing a grenade and four guys had gone down to extreme heat exhaustion. We found out though that this was a Taliban and Al Qaeda hot bed and that they had been reinforced by Chechen and Tajik fighters (which I guess means we really got a chance to take on Al Qaeda and not just the Taliban). [This surprised me. I didn't know Chechens were there. Western media tends to give Chechen rebels a neutral, even slightly positive, image because of the excesses of the Russian army fighting them. I hadn't realized the Chechens were fighting our forces in Afghanistan.]

Day three was uneventful for C Coy. and we prepared to go back to our FOB. Which would have been good because I had come down with a cold… not what I needed in combat (umm, I mean state of armed conflict!) Unfortunately that was not to be. A British Company from 3 Para had been isolated and surrounded by Taliban in the Helmand Province in the Sangin District Center. They were running out of food and were down to boiling river water. They had tried to air drop supplies but they ended up landing in a Taliban stronghold (thank you air force). C Coy. was tasked to conduct an immediate emergency resupply with our LAVs. We headed off to what can only be described as the Wild West. The Company (B Coy) of the Paras that was holding the District Center had lost four soldiers there and was being attacked 3 to 5 times a day. We rolled in there after a long and painful road move across the desert. When we arrived in Sangin the locals began throwing rocks and anything they could at us, this was not a friendly place. We pushed into the District Center, and during the last few hundred meters we began receiving mortar fire. They never taught me on my LAV Crew Commander course how to command a vehicle with all the hatches closed using periscopes in an urban environment. [When a tank or APC is "buttoned up", the only way to see out is through a series of periscopes. - AWG] I truly did it by sense of touch, meaning as we hit the wall to the left I would tell the driver to turn a little right!! We resupplied the Brits and unfortunately it turned dark and we couldn’t get out of there, so we had to spend the night. We were attacked with small arms RPGs and mortars three times that night, I still can’t believe that the Brits have spent over a month living there under those conditions. They are a proud unit and they were grateful but embarrassed that we had to come save the day. And as good Canadians we didn’t let them hear the end of being rescued by a bunch of colonials!!

We left Sangin again thinking we were headed home. We made it about 40km before we were called back to reinforce the District Center and help secure a helicopter landing site. As we sat there we received orders that we were now cut to the control of 3 Para for their upcoming operation north of Sangin. This was turning out to be the longest three day operation ever!!! Enroute we were engaged by an 82mm mortar from across a valley. I engaged them with our artillery, it felt a lot more like shooting in Shilo as they were 2.8km away as opposed to the 100m or less my previous engagements had been. We went round for round with them in what Rob, the Troop Commander firing the guns for us, called an indirect fire duel. In the end he said the score was Andrew 1 Taliban O and there is no worry of that mortar ever firing again. We rode all through the night (with my LAV on a flat tire) and arrived right as the Paras Air Assaulted onto the objective with Chinook helicopters [For more information on the Chinook, click here. - AWG]. There were helicopters everywhere. It was a hot landing zone and they took intense fire until we arrived with LAVs, and the enemy ran away. It was a different operation as we were used to a lot more intimate support tanks to shoot the Paras in. It was impressive to watch them though, they are unbelievable soldiers.

We left the operation about 25 hours later (still3 going on no sleep) and thought that for sure we were now done this “three day op”. But as we were withdrawing to secure the landing zone for the Brits (under fire from 107mm rockets and 82mm mortars) we received Frag orders to conduct a sensitive sight exploitation where the Division had just dropped two 1000lbs bombs. Good old C Coy. leading the charge again!

We drove to the sight and saw nothing but women and children fleeing the town. I thought, “here we go again.” Luckily this time I found a good position for observation with my LAV and did not have to go in on the attack. The Company quickly came under attack from what was later estimated as 100+ fighters. For about 15 minutes we lost communications with the Company Commander and a whole Section of infantry as they were basically overrun. The Section had last been seen going into a ditch that was subsequently hit with a volley of about 15 RPGs; I thought we had lost them all. I had Brit Apaches check in and they did an absolutely brilliant job at repelling the enemy. The only problem was I couldn’t understand a word the pilot was saying because of his accent! Luckily I had the Brit Liaison Officer riding in the back of my LAV. I ended up using him (a Major) as a very highly paid interpreter to help me out. After about an hour long fight the Company broke contact (but lived up to the nickname the soldiers had given us, “Contact C”) and we leveled several compounds with artillery. Somehow we escaped without a scratch, truly amazing.

We were again ordered back to the Sangin District Center with 3 Para and spent the next few days fighting with the Paras. For four days I did not get a chance to take off my Frag vest, helmet or change my socks, etc. We were attacked 2-3 times a day, and always repelled them decisively. I also discovered during this period that exchanging rations with the Brits is a really bad idea. Not only were they stuck in this miserable place but their food was absolutely horrible!

After saying our good byes to our Brit comrades (the enemy learnt their lesson and finally stopped attacking the place), we again prepared to go back home. Alas, it was not to be again. We were ordered South to take back to towns that the Taliban had just taken. Luckily this time after 11 straight days in contact, C Coy. was the Battle Group reserve. We headed to the British Provincial Reconstruction team (PRT). We rolled into the town to the strangest arrival yet. This was coalition country. The locals (unlike Kandahar and even more so in Sangin) were excited and happy to see us. We had kids offering us candy and water instead of begging. There were no Burkhas. The women were in colorful gowns with their faces exposed. The town was booming with shops everywhere and industry flourishing. We went to the PRT and it didn’t even seem real. I took off my helmet, Flak vest and I had a shower and changed my clothes for the first time in two weeks. I ate a huge fresh meal (until my stomach hurt), and then went and sat on the edge of a water fountain in garden and watched a beach volleyball game between the Brits and Estonians. I laughed as I had supper and watched the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) which was reporting that we had taken back the towns, but H Hour was still 2 hours away, so much for the element of surprise. After what we had been through it was hard to believe this place was in the same country. I slept that night (still on the ground beside my LAV because they did not have enough rooms) better than I think I have before in my life. The next couple of days were quiet for us as they did not need to commit us as the reserve. On day 14 of our 3 day op we conducted the 10 hour road move back to KAF, literally limping back as our cars were so beat up (mine was in the best shape in the entire Company and we had a broken differential … again).

Things look like they will be quieter for us now, and I will be home soon. Sad news from the home front, our little Yorkie, Howitzer, was in an accident the other day and didn’t make it. It won’t be the same going home without him, he truly was one of our kids (furkids!). We had three great years with him though and my only regret is that I wasn’t there to comfort Julianne who has been through so much lately. But she has some great friends their who have looked after her. To those of you who have been with her through this and the events of the last few months, I am forever indebted to you.

There are more stories I could tell of these last two weeks but this email has become long enough as it is and if I did that I would have no war stories (I mean state of armed conflict stories) to tell you when I get home. I will end by saying that I have truly enjoyed this experience. Combat is the ultimate test of an officer, and on several occasions I did things that I didn’t know I was capable of. I am so proud of my crew and the entire Company Group, we soldiered hard and long and showed the enemy that messing with Canadians is a really bad idea. We accomplished something in the last two weeks that Canadian soldiers have not done since Korea. The Afghan Government, elected by the Afghans, requested our assistance and we were able to help. We were the equal, if not superior of our allies in everything we did. I hope that I gave you all an appreciation of what these young brave men and women are doing over here, and even if the media can’t find the time or effort to report what we are doing and the difference we are making, hopefully you can pass it on. I will see all of you real soon. I hope all is well with all of you, and please keep the emails coming, I read every one and enjoy hearing from you, even if I cannot respond individually.

Take Care

Andrew

3 comments:

Michael Skeet said...

Very interesting account; thanks for posting it. With all due respect to the author, though, I think he's being unduly harsh on the Canadian media. The battle he describes was chronicled on an almost daily basis in The Globe and Mail, and this paper and the CBC seem to run Afghanistan-related stories on a daily basis. (A search on "Kandahar" in the CBC's website returns nearly 1,300 hits for a two-year period.) I can't speak for the rest of the media since I tend not to pay much attention to them, but the same search at the Toronto Star generated about 1,100 hits for the same period.

And I can't blame Blatchford for her departure from what sounds like a real hairball of a situation. I don't think I'd have wanted to stick around either.

Allan Goodall said...

I can't really comment, as I can't see Canadian media coverage. The battle was chronicled in The Globe and Mail. Was it covered in other papers, too?

The perception among soldiers is that they're doing good work — fighting the Taliban and Al Quaida — yet more television and newspaper coverage is given to protests against the war. Four or five positive articles starting on page five don't have the same impact as one article on the front page.

Of course, soldiers don't understand the newspaper business. They miss the fact that the first three letters in "newspaper" make up the word "new". Endless, similar stories don't make it into the papers; change does.

Still, if I were a soldier I'd be upset if the largest battle since the Korean War was given nary a mention by The Toronto Star, the nation's largest paper. (Not saying that the Star didn't cover it, just that I can't see it making as big a deal of it as The Globe and Mail.

By the way, how has The National Post covered the story? I see that The Post is now owned by CanWest Global, and that the paper is printed at The Star's Vaughan plant (which I toured when I started working for The Star). They used to be printed by The Hamilton Spectator, but The Star bought the Spectator while I was still there. There was some question where Conrad Black would get his paper printed, since he'd rather bite his own head off than pay The Star to print it. I see he got around that by selling the paper...

Anonymous said...

I have been very frustrated with the neews coverage of what's going on in Afghanistan. My dad is a Korean War Veteran. He has suffered his whole life because of it. I consider him to be a hero, however, he wishes that he would have died instead of all of the troops he lost. On top of that, it hurts him that Korea was forgotten. Now my son serves in Afghanistan. Not a Canadian, but an American. One of the times he was able to call me he started out by asking me if I had seen the news. I could tell something was wrong. I lied. I told him it was too early here and I hadn't had a chance. I had actually been infront of the tube all morning trying to read the fine print scrolling across the bottom, hoping to see something, anything. They don't seem to cover it, but on rare occasion you can see something roll by. That's one of those great 24 hour news channels. How demoralizing this will be and is to our soldiers. I used to find out what I needed on the internet. For some strange reason I can no longer access those web sites. Can't believe I found this. I want to scream. I want the war in Afghanistan to be more recognized.