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Shared in accordance with the "fair dealing" provisions, Section 29, of the Copyright Act.


Intense clashes with Taliban temper troops' steely spirit

Christie Blatchford, Globe & Mail, 24 Jul 06


KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- War, the British singer Edwin Starr barked three decades ago in a song that became a pop hit at the tail end of the peace-loving Sixties, "What is it good for?" Mr. Starr's answer was, "Absolutely nothing."


There is a group of about 600 Canadian soldiers who have just emerged from weeks of battle who might beg to differ -- not that war is good, not that it cannot smash your spirit as surely as it can your body, but that it can also be instructive, formative, important.


Two days ago, war had Lieutenant-Colonel John Conrad, the gentle commander of the National Support Element, which is the military's moniker for the logistical folks who keep the whole machine humming, doing the only kind thing he could do for a dead comrade.


Lt.-Col. Conrad was loading a body bag for the first time in his life.


Out with his soldiers on a convoy -- he tries to go once a week to demonstrate his firm belief that "their lives are no cheaper than mine" -- he was travelling in a 10-tonne diesel truck when, with an alarmingly small pop compared to the fireball that arose, the Bison eight metres in front of him suddenly blew up, killing Corporals Francisco Gomez and Jason Patrick Warren and wounding eight other Canadians.


An hour later, a little farther down the road from the western outskirts of Kandahar City along Highway 1, a suicide bomber walked on foot into an enormous crowd of Afghans who had gathered, as onlookers do everywhere, to watch the drama.


It was a bloodbath, with eight local people killed and 30 injured, many seriously.


Lt.-Col. Conrad helped move 44-year-old Cpl. Gomez, "a fine soldier from all I've been told, and deeply experienced," out of the driver's seat and out the back.


"Those poor kids," he said with a shudder last night. "We were sitting ducks. It's like when you sit on a chair, and it breaks, there's no way to get up gracefully.


"All I could do was give him a pat on the shoulder as they zippered the thing up."


On July 8, war had Corporal Danger Adams -- whose real first name is Robert, though no one uses it -- celebrating his 23rd birthday in the village of Pashmul when a 500-pound coalition bomb was dropped just five metres from him.


When his friends from the platoon found him, Danger was precariously balanced on the lip of the edge of the blast crater. They knew he was all right when he yelled, "Jesus Christ, that was loud!" Then his ears started to bleed and he fell unconscious and they carried him out. He doesn't remember the copter ride back to the combat hospital at Kandahar Air Field, but the headaches have stopped and he is desperate to get back with the rest of A Company, 1st Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.


On that same Sunday, war saw Corporal Gord Creelman, a 35-year-old medic with 1 Field Ambulance out of Edmonton, work desperately on the body of Corporal Tony Boneca, shot in the neck as he headed upstairs to clear a compound in the battle of Pashmul.


Cpl. Creelman knew Cpl. Boneca was dead, but he refused to quit, because "I wanted to be able to look his mother in the eye and tell her I did everything I could to save her son." Until then, he had been the "Teflon man" of the medical corps, the only one who had not been in an incident. He said he was never calmer in his whole career.


On June 7, war saw Corporal Jim (Reggie) Sinclair, a 36-year-old reservist with the Royal Regina Rifles, fly to Scotland from Afghanistan on scheduled leave. He was to have been gone three weeks.


After two, he flew to Dubai, joking that he had to leave Scotland because his relatives there were stealing sheep, and began begging the Regimental Sergeant Major in charge of leave to let him go back early.


"I missed being here," he said yesterday. "Besides, my liver couldn't handle it. I was drinking like I was going to the electric chair."


The RSM found Cpl. Sinclair a seat, and back he went, just in time for the battle of Pashmul and the 500-pound bomb and the amazing journey of the Patricias here.


War, some time in the last week or so, saw 12 members of A Company's reconnaissance, or recce, platoon somewhere in British-controlled Helmand Province, moving on foot through a known Taliban haven.


It was 4:30 in the morning, and the muezzin was just calling the faithful to prayer as they moved through the village.


Recce is the pointy edge of the pointy edge, the first men sent ahead to scout and find the enemy, though, as its commander, Captain John Hamilton of Norwood, Ont., joked last night, "We had more luck having them find us": Not for nothing are the recce boys called the "bullet magnets."


Trying to cross a small bridge, with half their men stranded on the far side, recce found themselves in the most significant fight of their tour. Outnumbered two to one, with between 25 and 40 Taliban attacking them with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire from three sides, "They had us by the balls," Capt. Hamilton said.


They called for help -- A Company commander Major Kirk Gallinger said he heard in Capt. Hamilton's voice "that we ought not to linger"--and the second platoon, the 1-2 as it's called, came roaring to the rescue in their light armoured vehicles.


But for 20 minutes, Capt. Hamilton said, recce were on their own, and managed not only to fight off the Taliban but even gain, as Sergeant William MacDonald said, 45 metres of ground and "pull everyone to the other side of the bridge."


They had five confirmed kills -- meaning they saw the bodies -- and believe the Taliban may have succeeded in dragging away another five.


"Aside from my kids being born," Capt. Hamilton said of this tour, "that was the best experience of my life. I love the men."


About a week ago, war saw Captain Kevin Schamuhn, commander of Alpha's 1 Platoon and the man who was standing beside Captain Trevor Greene when he took an axe to the head last March, walk into the smouldering ruin of a school, white as so many are in this country, to see broken desks, children's drawings burned, chalk boards broken.


This was at Naway-e-Bara-Kzaye, a village in Helmand Province the Taliban had boasted of "controlling," that control consisting of viciousness and the burning of books.


"It also ignited something in me," Capt. Schamuhn said. "The pictures of the children in there -- on what I think were I.D. sheets, with names and a one-inch photo of each child.


"Those kids can't do anything about it, but we can.


"It makes it easier," he said softly, "to fight them."


Capt. Schamuhn doesn't plan on making the army a career. He wants to work in the international relief field. "I see the military scope of influence in the world as limited," he said. "It's politics by other means, plain and simple. . . . I don't want to continue doing that. It's something I support, something I believe in, but my focus is that I don't want to be overcome with evil, I want to overcome evil with good. And I can't do that with a gun in my hand; well, I can, but it's a lot harder."


But for all that, what he saw in his men was goodness. "Those guys in Korea, in pictures of guys from the Second World War, they're not RoboCop, they're not John Wayne. They're some guy who looks completely exhausted."


Capt. Schamuhn has a picture of himself that his wife saw first. "The look on my face was so intense, so focused, she said it was like seeing almost a different person in my body." When he finally saw the same picture, "I felt the same thing . . . who is that?"


He grinned when I told him about Anne Irwin, a former soldier turned anthropologist at the University of Calgary who has been travelling with the battalion.


Prof. Irwin tells a story of how, when she first came to the unit and the troops asked her what she was doing, she said, "I'm here to study tribal culture."


"Oh," they would invariably reply, "you mean the Afghans."


"No," she would say, "I mean the Patricias."


In more than two weeks in the field moving over 400 kilometres of the most volatile parts of this complex country, the Patricias were in more than 35 major gun battles that inflicted at least 100 Taliban casualties, destroyed nine ammunition caches, seized opium paste and heroin worth as much as $15-million, discovered jihadi propaganda specifically targeting Canadians as the enemy, dismantled two significant bomb-making factories, discovered and blew up six improvised explosive devices along the route and established an Afghan government presence in six districts in the remote heartland of Taliban strength.


And in the midst of all this -- extreme exhilaration and unbearable sorrow, loneliness and unsettling numbness, body bags and gentleness -- they found one another. There is another answer to Edwin Starr's question.


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