Letters from Kandahar: A Personal Transformation
Hello. My name is Mike. I am currently a student in Dawson's 3D Animation and CGI program. I am also a part time soldier, who was deployed with the Canadian Armed Forces to Afghanistan in 2009 and in 2012.
Between those two deployments, I experienced many personal transformations––from the excitement of a new place and new experiences all the way to the exhaustion, mental and physical, that living and working in a combat zone brings; also, one could say, I went from a certain naivete to the realization of harsh reality.
I believe that sharing my experience with my fellow students is important as I think I bring a fairly unique perspective to the student body; an experience that a rare few, who might have seen conflict in their lives before coming to Dawson, could also speak to. Just as one cannot have light without darkness, I think that hearing of conflict and hardship makes us take note of our comfort and privileges. I believe as well that the general perception of what the student body imagines when they hear the word Veteran, is perhaps of an older man, wearing a legion jacket pinned with medals and selling poppies for Remembrance Day in the local mall. However, given the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia as well as Afghanistan, a new generation of Canadian Veterans now exist. Although they are much younger than those from WWII and Korea, I believe that their experiences and stories are no less valuable to pass on to the current generation.
During both deployments, I sent email updates home to friends and family, as an attempt at keeping those folks informed of what I was up to. I wanted them to know what it was like: my joys as well as my hardships. I spent a fair amount of time writing them, editing them to get them just right, before sending them. It is some of these emails, from 2009 and 2012, and the transformations evident between them, that I would like to share with you.
But first, a bit more context: I'm a somewhat older student, having finished a DEC in Fine Arts and a Bachelor's in Film Animation. I hail from a middle class family of European immigrants from the West Island of Montreal. I had a happy upbringing and comfortable life. In 1998 I made the decision to join the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve with the Canadian Grenadier Guards, one of many infantry regiments in Montreal, and for the next 10 years I worked as a part time citizen soldier to pay for my schooling and because I really did enjoy the work. It presented me with a challenge, camaraderie as well as a sense of pride. I continue to this day for much of the same reasons.
In late 2007, after having completed my University degree I was presented with an opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan. Of the many different reasons I chose to take advantage of this opportunity, the two that stand out the most for me are the following. Firstly, after having done training for 10 years of my career, I wanted to do the job for real. I wanted to see what it was all about, for better of for worse, and it certainly didn't disappoint. Secondly, coming from a family of European immigrants who were born during WWII, I feel that, had young Canadians, like myself, not volunteered during that conflict that the world, as well as my family's story, would have been far different. Given the opportunities my family has had in this country I believe that volunteering to go to Afghanistan was my little part to pay that back.
So I deployed to Afghanistan, Kandahar Province, in March of 2009, and my official job title was: Psychological Operations Operator. It is a fancy word for talking to the locals and through various means trying to convince them that we were not the bad guys. Think of it as: we were the human point of contact for the local population to talk to.
I came back to Canada in October 2009 and had, as have many in my shoes, the difficult task of reintegrating into Western Society. I took a bit more time than I anticipated and some would even say that you never truly come back home. Someone once told me that all of us brought home a piece of Afghanistan and that in exchange we all had to leave a piece of ourselves there. I believe that isn't necessarily far from the truth. What solidified that truth in my mind however, was the ease with which I transitioned back into my second deployment in late 2012. It felt far more comfortable than I had anticipated. Whether that is a good or a bad thing has yet to be seen.
So without further ado, I bid you a safe journey.
Date: Sat, 28 Mar 2009 22:53:29 -0600
Subject: Week 2.....
Hello again ladies and gents!
I have been here another week! The second one to be precise. Nothing extremely exciting to report but I got to do some interesting things however!
The whole team had the opportunity to go to Tarnak Farm this week. You might remember this place as the tragic scene where an American bombed a Canadian live fire exercise a few years ago. Well the place still serves its purpose as a live fire range. So we went out there and got to shoot pretty much every weapon that we have. I'll be honest here, there were piles and piles of ammo and we went through most of it. It also served to zero our weapons. I think all of you would be glad to know that my weapon fires where I aim it now.
On the actual job side of things, I got to interview a few people to become interpreters yesterday. The whole experience was positive and you can tell that the guys who apply for these jobs are truly brave individuals. They come out with us with no weapon, and only body armor, risk their lives either through directly being shot at or their families being harassed if their identities were ever to be found out. Truly courageous individuals, but not all of them great interpreters. Out of the eight that we interviewed we only chose one that had what we were looking for. As a side note we stayed at the placement agency for lunch which turned out to be a beef stew that tasted just like my grandmothers goulash, with nain bread and rice. It was truly delicious. Now I'm nervously waiting to see if I get gastro. Only time will tell.
The weather here has been pretty mild again, considering it rained 3 times and everything here promptly turned to mud again. Last night it was cold enough I had to put a sweater on. Again I'm sure I'll be begging for this kind of weather come the July heat.
So that's about it folks. Nothing terribly exciting yet. But I did appreciate all those who wrote me this week, your e-mail's were much appreciated and please keep them coming.
Till next time, cheers!
Date: Wed, 19 Aug 2009 00:27:17 +0430
Subject: Week whatever update....
Hello once again faithful readers of my on and off updates!
My sincere apologies for the gap in my updates, but there is a good reason for it. For the last little while I have been on what can be considered one of the many front lines in this infinitely complex war. It might not be what one would traditionally consider a front line, with the non-stop shooting and the bombing, although there is quite a lot of that here as well. No, this is the front line of what will hopefully one day be a pacified, peaceful southern Afghanistan. A place where, regular people will feel safe from Taliban influence, terror and intimidation. Well that is the hope at least.
But as they say: “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet” and in our last push forward a few omelets have been made for sure. In the operation that led to the occupation and construction of a new platoon house, I have seen, heard, smelt and felt what war has become. I have witnessed bad things happen to people on both sides of this conflict and so far I can confirm for you, faithful reader, that I will be very content if I come home and live a normal, uneventful life. I have seen and heard the awesome destructive power that man has harnessed in his never ending struggle to conquer other men. By far the most terrifying of these powers is the artillery. The sheer scope of the sounds that come from shells falling 200 meters away or closer cannot be done justice with a mere written description. One has to experience it to believe it. What is more frightful though is the fact that there is a little voice in the back of your head that tells you that you can never be sure that the round will be on target or on you, until the moment it hits its intended destination. Just a little unnerving it is.
As well, I have seen what the weapons we carry can do to the human body when properly used and I have also witnessed what happens when we get hit by one of their mines and I am a bit unsettled at my reaction to it. Whether it be years of watching violence in film or having seen pictures in the past, I find myself oddly desensitized by the sight of it. I am unsure as of yet, if this makes me a bad person or not. I guess only time will tell.
What I do know however is that the village we have moved into was literally a ghost town when we entered on the first day and that in subsequent days villagers have started to come back to work in their fields. This is a promising sight since there hasn’t been a civilian presence here in about a year. It is encouraging to see but again here, only time will tell what our presence here will produce in tangible results. For now though, I take comfort in the fact that at least the people that lived here, cautiously return to the farms that have served to support their families for many years and hopefully one day, they will return to their homes and carry on with a normal life.
For an in depth look at what I’ve been up to and that I can’t directly tell you about here are two articles for you:
In this one, I was there, and I helped take care of the mortar team. I can’t see the pictures from this computer, but Lisa tells me there are pictures that show a guys sorting through some papers with a flashlight with blue rubber gloves on. That guy is me.
In this one, I spent a lot of time in all three places that he mentions in the article doing my job talking to Afghans with all that comes from doing that. Look up the term COIN as a military acronym and it will fill you in. I was 20 meters behind the guy that stepped on the mine.
So there is my pensive little slice of life here in the big sandbox. But enough of that. This is a new beginning, yet again, for me in that it is a whole new village with a whole new set of faces and places. So far, when we finally cleared the village and moved into the compound, I have faced the hardest days of work of my life. Between filling sandbags, cutting trees and knocking down walls, three days of backbreaking exhaustive work in the excruciating heat has led to a relatively comfortable living area for us all. I have a place to sleep, eat and work, all made of mud but still comfortable. Food is mostly rations but every once in a while so far we have had the pleasure of having some very motivated Afghan police cook for us. So far so good, I have not gotten sick but I’ll keep you all posted if I come home with a tape worm.
Apart from that, I am happy in the place that I am. Sure it has no modern amenities, other than a few fridges (cold water is a must around here), showers are taken using water from the wadi (Afghan for dirty, cesspool, irrigation ditch/ sewer) and the meal plan is repetitive. But I have a lot of freedoms none the less. I have a supportive unit that I am attached to that is really into what I do and how I do it. They give a lot of leeway in the way I do my thing and take my advice when dealing with the locals. I have none of the hassles that I spoke of in earlier updates. Sure life is a little harder and dirtier out there, but I am happy with the way things are going. I also keep telling myself that there are a lot of guys over here right now that have it a lot worse than I do.
So here is the rundown of this week's lessons learned:
Absolutely, essentially, no matter what the fuck else is happening, look where the fuck you put your feet in the country!
Circular logic doesn’t work on Afghans. Their logic is screwy at best and anarchic at worst!
Dust in Afghanistan. Don’t fight it, it will win every time. Instead come to terms with the fact that the moon dust here will literally get into every nook and cranny of everything you own, eat, drink and have on your body. It just is, so get used to it.
Inhaling burn pit exhaust while stuck in an Observation post at 4 in the morning is not the most glorious moment in my career. (Remember what we do with those poo bags I told you about a few posts back, yeah… I’ll let your imagination do the rest)
Well folks till next time, take care and I hope to heard from you,
Date: Fri, 4 Sep 2009 16:56:07 +0430
Subject: Week whatever update 2.0
Week whatever update v.2.0
Greetings faithful readers to version 2.0 of whatever week it is. I would have liked to call this one: “The slow grind”. As many of you who know me might think that there is some sexual innuendo undertone to that title, but really, it reflects the way that most guys here feel.
What do I mean by this? As I sit here writing this, there are 50 days until my inevitable arrival home with, well I lost track of how many days I have been here, behind me. That is until the army will eventually change the date (as it always manages to do). As well, as a side note, I have noticed that I cannot be late for a timing that I am given by the army, however the army is allowed to miss as many timings as it pleases without repercussions. I find this behavior highly irregular and possibly an observation that is worthy of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as well as the formation of a governmental commission on wasteful management of time within the Canadian Forces. But I digress.
Where was I? Oh yes… The Slow Grind. This signifies the relentless grinding down of soldiers under the jackboot of combat operations in an operational environment. The endless hours spent peering into the vast emptiness that surrounds us, day and night, on observation posts. The eventual sleep deprivation caused by patrols that leave before dawn combined with the inability to sleep comfortably before midnight due to the heat. The countless hours patrolling though the fields, villages and ruins with all the equipment needed for combat on your shoulders. The lack of fresh foods and the constant issues that come up whilst communally living in a cramped and Spartan living space. Oh, and before I forget, the dust. The endless supply of talcum powder fine dust that we inhale, eat and find all over everything that we own.
All of these combined in the long run, wear down on us. Daydreams of a long shower, flush toilets and food that crunches with freshness invade the thoughts of many, myself included. All of the things that we as North Americans take for granted and are not possible out here come to mind as well. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t have it bad here, not by a long shot. All that a human needs to survive is accounted for and then some. But the quality of life is by far not what we are accustomed to at home. As well the choice of our daily wardrobe can be described as, repetitive.
I for one, will be very glad to sleep in a bed that was designed to hold 4 people and not one designed with the statistically average height and width of a human male in mind, with a piece of stretched nylon fabric as my lumbar support and made of aluminum tubing. I long for a heavenly mattress made of individually wrapped coils that hugs me every time I lie down on it, with a pillow that is bigger than that of my current one, which can be compressed down into the size of a can of Coke and quite frankly smells of mung. (Yes I do wash it in case you are wondering). Getting a full night of uninterrupted sleep would be a nice change as well.
The taste of a goldenly toasted Shishtaouk at 3 am after a night out drinking elusively swishes around in my mouth. The taste of an ice cold beer on a hot and humid day teases my taste buds. The overwhelmingly warm feeling of a sip of single malt Scotch, old enough to be my brother, going down smooth and the pleasantly chemical exhale that wafts through your sinuses afterwards tantalizes my senses. The simple pleasure of a home cooked meal and the company of other people than those you have seen morning noon and night for the last month, becomes a desire and not just a given.
I guess what I’m getting at folks, is that the end of this little adventure is in sight. Thoughts of home, family and friends and a return to a normal life finally seem within reach. Simple things like going out, to do whatever you want, whenever you want to, seem that much closer to becoming a reality but still too far to be tangible. I think the day that I know I leave the little mud hut that we have been in for the last month, for good, is when I will truly start being homesick and all the things I need to do, to get home, will seem long, trivial and painful.
I have also started thinking about my return to the world. I am grateful that I took a lot of pictures here as I am convinced that when I come out of whatever doorway will represent the last barrier to my return home, all this will seem like the craziest dream I’ve ever had. Take for example, the place that I’m writing this update. It is a small, simple room, on the roof of the compound we occupy. To someone who passes it in a few years it will only be just that, a small 2nd floor room. To me, it is the place that a Taliban mortar team used to correct their fire while I was in the last village and the same people, who we cut down in an ambush as they rode their motorcycles to come attack us again. As a testament to their time here, the names of their fallen comrades are scrawled in white chalk on the rudimentary mud bricks that make up its walls. It is now the place where I have spent countless hours at night, sitting in front of the dim glow of my computer screen, writing my reports with the sound of encrypted radio traffic humming in the background as a soundtrack. When the hell am I ever going to have a crazy story like that to describe a place? Seriously?
Another reason I am glad that I have taken a lot of pictures here, is so that I can try to explain to you, faithful readers, what my experience here has been like. As they say pictures are worth a thousand words and I believe that it would take me a very long time indeed, to describe to you all the things I have seen here. With that though in mind I will leave you this week as this update is taking on grander proportions than I anticipated.
Lessons learned this week:
If you’re an M203 gunner always carry smoke rounds as you never know when you’ll need to mark a building 300 meters away, so that some very polite attack helicopter pilot can disassemble it for you one 40mm rocket at a time. (Video to follow when I get home)
Just because your arsenal has a GPS guided artillery round that can turn 90 degrees in mid air, is accurate to 1 meter, costs 160 000$ (per round), is named after King Arthur’s mythical sword and is the wet dream of your FOO (army acronym, look it up) doesn’t necessarily mean it will explode on impact… or ever for that matter… twice.
I currently reside in the Bordeaux of Afghanistan, or so I’m told. Apparently the grapes that come from here are better than anyone else’s. All I know is that when moving through the 7 foot deep ditches they use to grow the fuckers I have never encountered mud that sticks more to my boots and climbed up faces that Sir Edmund Hillary would think twice about. It’s a seriously shitty time.
Thanks again to those that reply to my update with what’s going on in their lives, it is much appreciated and always good for morale. As well, a special thanks goes out to all of you who have sent me packages. Their contents are a welcome respite to army food and shows that, although I am far physically, I am not far in your thoughts. Thanks again guys!
On that note, stop sending them because they will not reach me before the end of my time here. I just don’t want them to go to waste is all. Just take the money that you would have spent on sending me a package and use it to buy me a beer when I get home instead.
Till next time,
Date: Fri, Nov 9, 2012 at 9:39 PM
Subject: Week Whatever Update v. 1.0
Greetings and salutations faithful readers! As many of you know, last time I was on a business trip to this part of the world I, wrote an update on the various happenings that I had seen or been part of, as well as general observations on my particular predicament. Well the time has come yet again faithful readers, that I begin this tradition again. If this is your first rodeo with my updates, then sit back, relax, pour yourself a nice glass of your spirit of choice, and be prepared to be dazzled by my random verbose musings. For you seasoned pro’s out there, you can expect the same shitty truck stop, foul mouthed banter that you have come to expect, nay love, when reading my little updates.
So without further adieu, here we go!
So just over two weeks ago I got on a plane. The end……
Just kidding, so just over two weeks ago I embarked on my little business trip version 2.0. Perhaps it’s because I had a general idea of what was in store during the trip or maybe because I knew that I was probably not going to get shot at/rocketed in my first few days here, but I wasn’t nervous. We made 3 stopovers, in what can only be described as the scenic route to our final destination. One in Europe, one in the Mediterranean and one in a place that I’m sure NASA would love to test their Mars Rover’s in. Nothing really noteworthy to point out along the way. The various flight crews kept us fed, fat and happy with their “single serving” meal and I had my “single serving friends” (any Fight Club fans out there?). Of some concern however was the disproportion of the amount going in vice the amount coming out, if you know what I mean. All in all it took over 24 hours for us to get to our final destination.
So doors open, the local flavor slowly starts creeping into the plane and…. Yup, just the way I remember it! Smells like someone is burning poo/garbage/probably worse than the two previous options. Different place, same smell. So, some unpacking of cargo skids and issuing of weapons, ammunition and ballistic plates happens and then….. 5 hour wait for my convoy to pick us up to take us to the base through which everyone transits. No problems. So about three quarters of a pack of smokes later, convoy shows up, we get briefed, I get into one of the combat vehicles and off we go. Now I have to say this out loud here folks; I know that there are those in the audience that probably don’t want to hear this, but here goes anyways.
So by this time it’s 3 in the morning, I’m fully bombed up on ammo and I have my all too familiar combat gear on, riding in the back of a combat vehicle looking out at the abandoned streets of the city….. then it hits me. Like a cartoon anvil loosed by the coyote himself. I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t afraid and it kind of felt like meeting an old friend. A very distinct familiarity and dare I say it, it kind of felt like coming home. I feel comfortable; I’m at ease, no real care in the world. There is no other way to describe what I felt at that moment, than: I was in my element.
Now surely the parallel between my last time here and my current circumstances end there, but for just a few minutes, there was a warm fuzzy feeling inside me that said: “This is where you belong”. The scene of kitting up, and going on a foot patrol or getting into a vehicle to go do some interesting things that I had lived day in and day out of my last tour all came back to me. My normal changed back. It’s kind of strange I know, but it reminded me later on of something someone had told me before I left. They had told me that I had unfinished business here and that it was pretty apparent. Well I guess I do have some unfinished business that needed taking care of; maybe I do have some unresolved issues from my last time here. Maybe I should go see someone about it when I get home.
So long story short, we get to our transit shack, that can best be described as what my mind’s eye would see when the word “Opium Den” were flashed on a screen in front of me, and for the next two days we get more things issued to us, some more death by power point and our paperwork sorted out. Finally on the third day we load our stuff up and head out to our final destination. Sunny Camp ALAMO!
Now I know what you’re thinking: “The name sake doesn’t bode well for us”. Well let me assure you that it’s all good. Compared to my last time here (eating out of a bag, then a few hours later making a deposit in a bag, sleeping in the corner of a dusty mud compound and taking showers with water from the sewage ditch, (Oh….. and all the shooting and the exploding) this place is a veritable five star establishment. Twenty four hour kitchen, fresh food (that can be found between the mostly deep fried everything else), actual bed, hot showers, indoor plumbing, internet, telephone and a really well equipped gym! Not to mention the coffee shop, the depanneur and the embroidery shop!
I keep telling the guys that I hear complaining already that no matter what they think of the place, it could be so very much worse. Usually though, this is their first rodeo here and god only knows what they expected, but I know for a fact that this is as good as it gets. I think that I will have a good time here. It’s not part of my job, but I make a point of saying good morning to everyone that I come across, because in a place like this, every morning veritably is a good morning.
Things I leaned this week:
By some miracle my time driving a fork lift in the lumber yard in Point St-Charles is coming in handy since I have to drive and all terrain forklift here as part of my job. I guess everything happens for a reason.
The American supply chain is complicated.
The Canadian bureaucracy is even worse.
Paperwork! It's going to win this war!
Alas, I actually am responsible for tending to the patch of grass here.
Doing the Insanity™ workout at 6000 feet is not as easy as it sounds. P.S. down to 190lbs.
That’s it for me this time dear audience, find below pictures of my general appearance these days and pictures of my room.
Next time: What I actually do around here! (If you find out, please let me know!)
As usual, this e-mail or pictures are not for public consumption so please don’t pass it on. If you enjoy hearing about what I’m up to with your busy lives, then think how happy I would be hearing from you guys! (There is only so much I can glean from Facebook stalking all of you in my spare time) No matter how mundane you think it might be, don’t hesitate to fire an e-mail my way. For those of you with gmail video chat or Skype I can do video conversations as well. Just let me know! (please do as there is a 9.5 hour time difference between you and I and it takes a little scheduling)