Friday, January 23, 2009

Patrol, pt.1 - headed to Double K

I'd almost forgotten what oh-dark-thirty looked like, slack and idle civvie that I am now. And even when I was in, I was never the morning type.

But I wanted to get some groceries in my gate before the 0600 O-group for the patrol Laroche and I had been attached to got started, so I dragged my carcass to the Camp Nathan Smith mess and scarfed something back. Guys complained about the monotony of the food, but I found it pretty tasty and the portions were more than ample.

Back to the block for my Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) - helmet, ballistic eyewear, and flak vest with armour plate front and back. I paused just long enough on the gravel to look up at the sky for a moment. With no ambient artificial light at all from Kandahar City, the moon and stars were particularly spectacular.

Then it was off to orders. Sgt Towers was leading this morning's patrol out of the KPRT. I had been making a point of striking conversations with soldiers as much as I could, but I gave Towers his space - the three troops lost on December 13th were his guys.

The format was reassuringly familiar, but with wall-sized maps on the table and walls, and a huge whiteboard filled with information, it was far more detailed than the Field Message Pad scrawlings I remembered, huddled around a red light on one knee. Of course, my memories were of a bunch of Officer Cadets training in the woods on exercise. This was The Real Fucking Thing, with experienced, hardened, professional soldiers who knew all too well the reality that they were headed into, so the plan was the best they could devise.

I found it a bit odd that the Sergeant was going to be leading a patrol with three Warrant Officers and a Major on it, but it was explained to me that Maj Vance White the PAffO was just there to babysit us journos (spit), WO Barry Bastow was CIMIC (Civil-Military Cooperation), and WO Eric Dagenais was SET (Specialist Engineering Team). It seems the third Warrant, WO Keith Dubé from the Force Protection Company (mostly from Golf Coy of 2RCR, but with a healthy sprinkling of reservists) was giving the Sergeant a leadership opportunity. That was quite the reminder for me of just how professional our military is: the CF never stops developing leaders, even in he middle of a war zone.

The mission had two main objectives. The first was to do a village assessment at Double K, a collection of mud walls and muddier fields whose unpronounceable name was, as you might expect, made up of two words that started with a K. While other forces may have entered the tiny hamlet before the CF arrived in Kandahar, this would be the first visit by Canadian troops. The second part of the mission would be to attend the weekly shura at Dand District Centre, a fortified administrative compound that served as the seat of government for the district. And then, of course, to get home in one piece - that's a given.

We rolled out a little while before sunrise: two LAV's in front, one RG-31, callsign Zulu Forty-Nine Bravo with the two media types (spit) in the middle, and another LAV bringing up the rear. The intent was to be at the village when the sun crested the horizon, to surprise them a bit, and make sure they nobody could surprise us with something unpleasant. Of course, as all soldiers know, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. And in Kandahar, one of the enemies is the terrain.

The right side of the "road" - more a dirt track than anything - collapsed under the wheels of the first LAV, and we had to back out behind it. The RG set up covering one direction down the road, the rear LAV set up covering the other direction, and the other LAV hooked up a tow cable and started pulling. By the time we were out of the muck, the sun was up. So much for the planned surprise.

We continued on to the village. The condensation on the windows of the RG was finally beginning to fade, and I could look out the window, instead of staring at the gunner's remote video screen. The machine gun on the top of the vehicle is operated from inside the vehicle, and the soldier manning it has to stare at the screen and aim it by joystick. I get motion sick pretty easily, so that job would have had me puking before long. But with nothing else to look at other than Vance's ugly mug, it was all I could do to keep my eyes off the roving images on the video screen.

The soldiers I was with were ambivalent about the RG-31. Great blast protection, they said, but unreliable as hell. That's the kiss of death for them: you need to be able to count on your kit not to go NS all the time. Still, we had no trouble with it on our patrol, and my delicate stomach appreciated having some blast-resistant windows to look out.

Upon our arrival at Double K, Jean and I waited in the vehicle while the soldiers did their 5's and 20's, then hopped down and started walking with the troops over the frost-covered mud to the outskirts of the village. We were looking for "pattern of life" indicators - do the locals look like they're nervous about something, or are they curious about us? Are there kids around? Is an elder coming out to meet us? This time, the approach went well. I was told that if the pattern of life had set anybody's Spidey Sense tingling, we probably wouldn't have gone into the village at all.

Once the Force Protection troops were satisfied, it was time for WO Bastow and WO Dagenais to take over.

CIMIC positions are generally staffed by reservists, and Barry Bastow is no exception. This towering man with a shock of ginger hair under his helmet hails originally from Newfoundland - surprise, surprise, a Newf in the Army! - but works as a Halifax firefighter in civilian life. CIMIC acts as the bridge between the Afghan civilians, and the CF chain of command. With the help of his interpreter, or Terp, Bastow was going to bring the Afghan elder's concerns and priorities to the attention of his commander at the KPRT. At the same time, he was going to reinforce in the mind of the elder that the way to get things done in the village was to go through the local shura representative, who would bring that agenda to the attention of the Dand District Leader. If you don't reinforce the utility of local governance and civil society, it will never take proper root.

As the engineer on the team, WO Dagenais' job was to make the technical assessments of how to do what needed doing. There are thirteen engineers in the SET team, all capable of working independently, and all attached to the KPRT. They're extremely gripped.

We checked out a well that had been dug previous to Canada's arrival in the province, and discovered it was broken. Whether through poor construction, or through ignorance on the part of the Afghans as to how to operate and maintain it, nobody could tell, but it needed fixing. That's an easy one to do.

Then we headed into the village proper. Most villages in southern Afghanistan are made up of a collection of family compounds with open areas for livestock and roofed shelter for the family. The compounds are surrounded by bulletproof mud walls, which makes each village like a small fortress. Oh, the 25mm cannon on the LAV can punch holes in the walls if necessary, but once dismounted troops are inside, it's a bit of a rat-maze. The pucker factor can get quite high, I'm told. I wasn't scared - perhaps too stupid or ignorant to be scared - but surrounded as I was by serious, well-led and well-armed troops, all I felt was incredible curiosity and a heightened sense of alterness as we filed into the hamlet.

You'll notice a thin trench leading down the middle of the mud road in the video above. That's the sewage system for the town. Needless to say, that was project number two - pun intended - for the CIMIC and SET guys: laying gravel down to make that road more passable and sanitary.

The one road through the village was only a few hundred metres long, and ended at a T with a small irrigation channel that separated the village proper with another set of fields. The village elder told WO Bastow through the Terp that dredging the irrigation ditch would be extremely helpful to the farmers.

This is a more involved project, as the trench runs from one village to the next, quite a long way. That's something that might require CIDA money. But Bastow took down the man's concern, told him it was a bigger project that might require more time and effort to gain approval and get done, and said he'd bring it up with his bosses. He then told the elder that the well and road would be easier projects to attack first, and so would get taken care of quickly.

That done, we retraced our steps to the entrance where we'd started, with the crowd of Afghan villagers we'd attracted from the beginning tagging along. The Afghans have the most fascinating faces. Old men, FAG's (Fighting Age Guys), and young children - all look directly into the camera in such a frank and disarming way. I could have photographed them all day.

We marched back across the mud fields, which the melting frost had made treacherous. Our Terp was walking and talking with WO Bastow, took one wrong step, and ended up flat on his back in the mud. He popped back up, more embarrassed than hurt, but after than, I took particular care in how I placed my weight with each step back to the RV. Not everyone took the lesson: just as we were at the vehicles, our trusty PAffO Vance slipped coming up a slope, and went facedown hard into the mud. Nearly ate his mag. It looked painful, at least to the ego. Once I had determined he was OK, it was open season for the razzing, though.

Before we mounted back up, I asked the Warrant for a brief summary of what we'd accomplished in the village. He graciously complied with my request.

After kicking as much mud off our boots as we could (and Vance trying to wash it out of his teeth), it was back into the RG, and off to Dand District Centre for the weekly shura.

* * * * *

Part 2 of this story...

* * * * *

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Blogger membrain said...

This is really superb reporting and far better than most I've seen from embeds with the Canadian Forces.

The quality of the photojournalism is superb. Some of the photos are National Geographic quality. And the videos really round it all up.

Thanks so much.

1:38 p.m., January 23, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

...i second that about your photo's and coverage. Appreciate the video's, makes the point closer to home. I can't believe how flat and treeless that country is, how do people survive there? Can you take some shots of the country side?

Keep up the great work!

11:43 a.m., January 24, 2009  
Blogger Revnant Dream said...

This is real reporting, not CBC trash. Or the rest of the MSM for that matter.

6:17 p.m., January 24, 2009  
Blogger Raphael Alexander said...

Just amazing work. Every MSM outlet should be reporting about this embed and putting links to the Torch.

8:38 p.m., January 25, 2009  
Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/27/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

9:41 a.m., January 27, 2009  

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