Friday, November 30, 2007

What's It Like in Afghanistan? Read Here To Find Out...

Last June at a Red Sox game I sat next to a guy in the Canadian Armed Forces; Clay Cochrane was set to be deployed to Afghanistan and drove down to Fenway to treat himself to a Sox game before his departure.

He's been in Afghanistan now for five months and periodically sends "SITREPS" (Situation Reports) about his deployment. Lest you think it's just Americans defending peace around the world, here's his latest update...

I should start by saying that when I last signed off I believe that I said I will talk to you in a month; that was way back in September. Man I don't even remember September. I don't really remember October to tell you the truth.

But I heard that there is 5cm on its way to Ottawa today and that makes me very happy. Not because I am glad you guys are cold, but because when I left Quebec City it was mid summer, hot and humid. And that means that not only have weeks and months gone by, but entire seasons. There are now less than 25 shopping days till Christmas. I plan to write you once more before then. Famous last words.

Sometimes at my home unit back in Victoria I would look at the pace of activity (dive courses, training, exercises, live EOD missions, Assistance to Sea Training, PERs, budget and infrastructure meetings, Force Protection briefings for the ships, the Timmy's Telethon Paddle to Port Angeles, ect, and I used to say as the OPSO back then, man are we ever busy. And we were busy for sure.

We were then and are today very busy in all the units within the Canadian Forces, no question. In fact the units back home, a lot of them you can easily forget, they are dealing with an increased workload due to the 3,000 soldiers here in Afghanistan. Some/most of those units and Headquarters are directly supporting those soldiers in the war today and we often forget that. Busy, yep, I remember busy.

But this stuff over here isn't busy. I don't know the word for it, but it's not busy. It's like running a 400m race. I used to hate the 400m because it’s a sprint and I could never sprint all the way around the track, it just hurt too much. I usually puked after the race and came in dead last with guys not even out of breath looking down at me wondering what the hell I was doing on the ground.

This type of “busy” is well… It's more like a feeling. It's sort of like when you do finally get to sleep over here you can't wake up or don't want to, or it physically hurts to force yourself onto your feet sometimes. Then you shower and shave and say to yourself in the mirror, “Man, you skipped PT again today, not good dude.” When I do that if nobody is around in the latrine, I usually try to do my best Arnold Schwarzennegger voice and say: “Look at yourself Clayton, you look like such a little girly man. Get a grip!” Yes, wars also tend to make people with weak minds talk to themselves.

Busy, yeah that’s a word for it. It's a feeling of, “holy crap, I am up to 16 pending reports which take one hour each to finish and I have 3 more coming in today, that makes almost 20”. Then there is a phone call and you are off sorting out a sometimes very serious emergency situation where somebody's life may actually be in danger or worse. Then you make several other urgent calls to get helicopters and other types of help and then you find out that a whole two hours went by and your uniform is all sticky and uncomfortable and you realize that you've been sweating quite a bit in a perfectly well air conditioned space and its starting to dry and you feel really gross. Then you find out you just missed the General's O Group, but that's OK, because you had a good reason, you could always say: "I was busy."

So I am saying the reason I haven't written in a couple of months is just that, I have been what shall I call it? I'm thinking of Bill Murray in Caddyshack: "I was unavoidably detained."

Yes that's what it's been like these past few months, a kind of pace which just never lets up, at least not until your HLTA (military vernacular for a free vacation paid by Her Majesty). That is another reason you didn't here from me in October, I got two weeks of pure joy back in Victoria and it was easily the highlight of 2007 for me. And that's saying a lot, because 2007 was a good year, a very good year in fact.

I want to first tell a quick story about HLTA. In my "normal office job" back in Victoria I do a fair bit of travel. I don't know how many times I have been picked up by the family at the Victoria Airport or how many times I have been dropped off, but its a pretty big number over the years. When I get picked up, I always see three very happy little boys, Duncan now 11, Holden 8 and Carter 5 and I get very different types of hugs and kisses on every re-acquaintance.

Usually it's: "Hi Dad, missed you, what's in that bag? Is that a present for me?" or "Hi Daddy, we saw your plane land, where were you sitting, don't kiss me there are people looking." The usual. Not when I came home from HLTA in October.

Something had changed. When I came home all three of them ran at me, full sprint across the airport Arrivals area, and Duncan who is now a full up "Too Cool Pre-Teen" jumped up into my arms and wrapped his legs around my back and it felt like he would never let go. I had to let go of the hug first. Same thing with the other boys. Seeing that kind of reaction in a self-conscious eleven year old is something special. That was an experience I will never forget.

The remainder of my blessed two weeks of leave went uphill from there. It actually was so good, I noticed that one Sunday night we were out of milk at around 9:50 pm. I thought, excellent, we are out of milk. That's great! No problem, I'll just grab my keys and wallet and jump in the car and go to the store and buy some fresh milk. Beautiful, fresh cold delicious 2% milk.

Yes 2% white milk, not yellow dry powdered water, which smells like old eggs. Before I would have looked at the TV and my Sunday Night Football Game with Al Michaels and John Madden and with considerable resentment in my heart I would have gone out to get the damn milk. The other night I stood in the market and marveled at how glorious it is that we have a place to get fresh milk in the middle of the night.

It's funny when you live in a place like this, a couple of things happen, you really miss the things you hold dear for sure, but oddly enough you adjust to the “new normal” and that is even more bizarre. It's like a rocket attack for example. First couple of weeks here, I am diving off my cot and I’m on the dusty dirty ground (in my gitch) and lying there with my flak vest over my back and trying to find my helmet in the dark. (Sorry about that visual I must have just given most of you there). Take aspirin for headaches.

But a couple of nights ago, same thing…….WIZZZZZZZ ……..BOOOOOM! No joke, I just rolled over and thought, "900 meters North North West". And I don't say that to sound like some cool grizzled vet, because I am not, far from it. They still scare the crap out of me every time but sometimes you just have to get some sleep and tell the Taliban buzz off before you roll over and go back to your interrupted dream about Mary Jane Rosencrantz from High School.

By the way, I should qualify my last terminology. The soldiers use that term a lot over here: “Buzz off!” It can be down right Walt Disney like here at times.

So I promised myself I would write my next SITREP with some humor and hopefully I have a bit already, but I just have to take a moment right now to remember the three soldiers who we lost on this mission since I last wrote you. Without their sacrifice and the thousands before them, in Canada’s other conflicts, we wouldn’t be as free as we are today.

Corporal Nathan Hornburg.....Zhari District…...The Last Post....September 24th 2007

Corporal Nicolas Beauchamp...Panjwai District..The Last Post....November 16th 2007

Private Michel Levesque...Panjwai District…The Last Post…November 16th 2007

Three of the bravest young men you would have the honor to meet or know. And so too are the injured who I did not mention, may they all recover and live full and happy lives surrounded by those who love them. And may our latest three fallen brothers in arms rest peacefully and may their families look to their lives with only the warmest memories of these brave Canadian patriots.

I was thinking because someone in Victoria asked me recently to describe: "What's it like for you every day over there? Describe your normal day." Well that all depends really on where I am.

You see for me, unlike a lot of the others, I have two Aghanistans. Yeah, really, I see two totally different views of this war. One is safe and fairly comfortable but smells of feces constantly, well relatively comfortable and I can't stand this more safe locale, which probably sounds crazy. That’s the War in Afghanistan on Air Base (KAF), an air base that is miles away from most of the fighting.

It's an air base with 20,000 people and not one child. Women and men everywhere, but no kids. It’s like in that old Dick Van Dyke Disney movie, he’s in a city with no children. Sorry a city with no children, which smells like the Paris Subway System. We do get rocket attacks but the base is surprisingly full of civilian contractors, like Tim Horton’s staff for example. And I never go there by the way, which is even crazier. I just have no time, the line up is a minimum of 25 minutes. Brutal.

The other Afghanistan is dark and can be frightening at times. It’s “Outside the Wire” it's out on the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) or out in open country with the enemy. It’s a part of Afghanistan full of nothing but soldiers, mostly men, hard, brave men who have seen hard fighting and plenty of it.

There are some women but only a small handful and trust me they are just as tough and just as capable as any of the fellas I assure you. It is a place full of shocking black humor and language, which would make a Navy Mess Deck sound like a Christian Baptist Bible Study Hall. I actually learned out there not that long ago that you can use the “F” word as a verb, a noun, and an adjective and as a coordinate conjunction all in the same sentence. Incredible. And I’m in the Navy for crying out loud!

And it is a sad place too sometimes and has moments which seem totally insane and completely like nothing I would ever want anyone I love to come within 10,000 miles of ever even seeing or experiencing first hand.

Yet when you are “outside the wire” it has one thing which safe, smelly KAF doesn’t. It has kids. Young local boys mostly who will come into the FOBs and earn some money with their dad’s or uncles as they help us clean kitchens and keep things tidy. They are nice kids and they look at me and the other soldiers with such wonder whenever we speak to them. They are fascinated, many of them with the idea that we too have families and that we left our kids to come here so they could have a chance like my boys do back in Canada.

When I show them pictures of my kids they get it, you can see it in their eyes. It fascinates them and the adults as well to see pictures of my kids, sad little Canadian boys saying goodbye to their dad in Valcartier, Que, the day I left to come here. They get it; they see the look in my eyes and the eyes of my own boys through the magic of a digital camera. They see the sacrifice that others, not just the soldiers have made to help set them free from evil and oppression.

And so that is Afghanistan out on the FOBs, very different from the main Air Base. And I actually wish I was there right now. Is that crazy? And I don’t want to be there tonight because I’m some cowboy or have some bizarre wish to be shot or seek some type of sick glory. Not at all. In fact I can tell you first hand that getting shot at is only one thing: Bad. But I want to be there tonight only because my men are there and I am their Commander in the field.

I am responsible for each and every one of them. And that’s why I want to be with them when they go out on Operations tomorrow. I want to be there demonstrating without saying out loud, that I will not ask you to do something I would not be willing to do myself. And it's not hero crap either, it's how I really feel. I love those boys and I’d do anything for them.

Anyway, I’ll be heading out soon enough, there is no rush and I have a job to do here as well and its important that is gets done right. I have to always remember that, we are a team. And just like a hockey team, somebody has to stand behind the bench and call the plays and rotate the lines. That my role, I’m the coach in many ways. And it’s the job of the coach to take care of the players and help them win and that’s what I do here. But still I miss my troops.

I am the General's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer (EOD). If that sounds like I am bragging, trust me I'm not; I have to report through about half a dozen other Army Officers before the General even hears boo out of me. And because of the operational nature and sensitivity of what I do I am afraid I can’t give out a lot of details. Instead I will have to use a lot of analogies to describe my work.

But when my phone rings in the middle of the night and I grab my shoulder holster and run out of my tent to the Canadian Headquarters it can be pretty tough sometimes. Sometimes, not very often but sometimes, late at night that phone rings and at the other end in broken French-Canadian English is a young private: “Sir, is this Lieutenant Cokrain? Sir, they need you in the POC, there’s been an IED.” I walk in there sometimes at 2 in the morning and its all quiet but it seems like everybody and his uncle wants me to fix what's just happened and I can't. I often find it funny that those other 4 or 5 officers I have to report to before I go to “The Boss” are nowhere to be found.

Truth be told, it's not their fault, it's my job actually to start to call a lot of them and give them the information they need to make some pretty hard calls. But I tell you, when you are standing there and it feels like the whole world is on fire, it’s the most lonely and powerless feeling you can possibly imagine. You can make the calls you have to make, you can wake people up, move men and equipment to help but at the end of the day you feel like you have failed somehow. It's so bad sometimes, I can’t even really talk about it. I think maybe that’s why I write these SITREPS. I think it helps me somehow. I don’t know. I have to tell somebody about it. It’s hard.

I hate it when my phone rings, especially at night, because it means that something really bad has just happened. There are no exceptions; it’s always bad when that little piece of plastic and circuit boards and wires starts to ring at night. If I let it get to me and sometimes it does, I will tell myself a nasty story, which isn’t true. I will tell myself about how it also means that somewhere, somehow, I didn’t do my job well enough that day. I will tell myself that I have failed.

I am in an organization, (called a Squadron) over here, which is responsible for defending the entire force in our area from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). It’s the primary weapon the enemy use against our troops. I am Second in Command of the Squadron (which in the navy we would call that guy the XO). But trust me the term XO used in an army setting like this wore out its welcome about 1.5 seconds after I first offered it up as a possible nametag for me. So I try to give my boss and his boss and even “The Big Boss” the best possible advice and council I can muster each and every day. Sometimes I think its really working and some days not so good. It’s hard to always get it “right” every day. But luckily the good days way outstrip the bad ones.

In Afghanistan, my Explosive Disposal guys and my Investigators (it's usually my guys and not me anyway) jump out of helicopters or armored vehicles and do the exact same thing, minus the police tape. But unlike TV, its not beautiful Miami Beach Florida and everyone in the scene isn’t perfect looking like they belong in GQ Magazine. We are sometimes getting shot at by a bunch of terrorist clowns, usually with AK-47s, mortars, or rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). Sometimes it’s a combination of all of the above. And usually these terrorist idiots aren’t exactly too thrilled that we showed up in the first place. But once things settle down we go about our work.

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