The second time I nearly went to Afghanistan was in 2006. The third was in 2011.
In 2005 I was working at the University of Calgary, and a colleague who did some voluntary work with a United Nations agency contacted me. They were looking for someone to go to Kabul to deliver workshops to senior civil servants in the Faculty of Education, and it was thought that my profile would fit the bill. After all, I had recently completed a World Bank funded education reform project in Lebanon, and was in the ‘home stretch’ of the Kosovo Education Development Program. This 6 year program, 2001-2007, was funded by CIDA (now Global Affairs Canada) and implemented by a partnership between Universalia Consulting and the UofC.
So I spoke with the UN folks by e-mail and we established that November 2005 would be a good time for me to go to Kabul. Unfortunately various hiccups along the way meant that this trip was cancelled. In the new year we tried again, and tentatively arranged for me to travel to Kabul in May.
That same new year my eldest daughter, Nichola, deployed to Kabul as part of Operation Athena. She was a Captain in the 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. At first we thought we might be able to actually meet up in Kabul, which would have been rather cool. However, 1RCHA and the rest of the Canadian group were moved south, to Kandahar. No matter, we thought, perhaps we can still meet for coffee – Nichola was absolutely adamant that she would find a way to get to Kabul to see me if I was there. Getting the UN group together, however, was proving to be a problem.
As plans with the UN ebbed and flowed, so Nichola and her team were working with 1PPCLI on various operations ‘outside the wire’. On May 17, 2006, she was killed. On the day we had tentatively planned to meet for coffee I and the rest of the family was receiving her coffin at CFB Trenton.
A couple of years passed, and we moved to Prince Edward Island. In early 2011, my colleagues and I had the privilege of hosting Senator Romeo Dallaire to campus. We spoke about Nichola, whose story he knew well, and he asked me if I’d been to Kandahar yet. Apparently the Canadian Forces made arrangements for some family members of fallen soldiers to visit the base at Kandahar Airfield (KAF). No, I replied, I have never been invited. The following Monday I got a phone call, and a few weeks later Jason, Nichola’s husband, and I were on a government Airbus to Germany and, eventually, KAF.
We were only there for a few days, and of course the base had grown immeasurably since 2006. There were some places we could identify from her letters – the Green Bean Coffee Shop on the Boardwalk, the dusty baseball field, the sewage ponds. We saw the old barracks where she had stayed when she was in the camp between missions, and we looked out over the wire to the dusty hills beyond.
The Army treated us with respect, but they wouldn’t let us go outside the wire. We had a BBQ with the Chief of Defence Staff who was visiting, and met the Van Doux’s who were deployed to KAF at the time. We saw the hospital and the chapel, the airbase and the helicopters, the drones and the command centre. We even went to the Tim Horton’s walk-through. I recall the endless dust, and the full moon shining over the haze, and the sound of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) and Hummers grinding their way along. One evening the sirens wailed, and two rockets landed in an isolated area of the camp. We heard the ‘whumph’ of the explosions, but didn’t see anything.
There was a service at the memorial, one of the few things with meaning which was repatriated to Canada after the combat mission was ended. It has still not been placed on public display, but I hope it will be soon. Here were the names of the fallen, both Canadian and those allies who were deployed with them. Here was Nichola’s plaque.
But even as I walked around the base, my bright reflective sash tied to my waist so that trucks and armoured vehicles would see me through the murk; even as I looked at the small market where Afghan vendors sold carpets and jewelry; even as I stood and gazed at a small boy walking a herd of camels along a distant ridge; even there I did not feel I was in Afghanistan.
I wanted to go outside the wire, to talk to people without have a guard at my shoulder, to kick the stones and drink the tea of a village shura, to walk through the city and meet ‘regular’ Afghans. I couldn’t do that at KAF. I asked, but was politely refused, and had to settle for watching a line of LAVs wend their way through the dust to the gates, and the world outside the wire.
On the third day we took our flak jackets and out helmets back to the Quartermaster. I kept my yellow reflective sash, and wear it as a belt when walking the dog through the dark streets of a Charlottetown winter. We signed the visitors book, and shook hands all round. They drove us in a bus to the airport, and we waited patiently until everyone else had boarded the plane. Then we got on.
It was a huge C-17 Globemaster, packed with CF personnel going home on leave, or at the end of their deployment. There were rows of seats across the belly of the plane, but I had heard a whisper in my ear that the best place to sit was against the wall. So I found myself strapped in and sitting straight backed against the rough metal airframe, while all the other family members reclined in the soft chairs on the floor. The engines roared, the lights dimmed, and we took off in what I later found was something called an emergency extraction manoeuvre. Basically, we went straight up. Nose first.
I noted that all the people sitting along the wall beside me were Griffon helicopter pilots. We were shaken around a little but remained basically in one place. The seats in the middle of the plane, it transpired, were on some sort of rolling base, and started to slide backwards. Loud and urgent exclamations were heard, and arms waved madly as people tried to find support and stability. I watched with some amusement, silently thanking the old sergeant who had had a quiet word.
Once we were out of the range of possible rocket fire we levelled out. The lights came up, and people settled down. Box lunches were handed out, and some people slept. It had been an interesting visit to KAF, but I didn’t think I had been to Afghanistan.