Sailors in the sandbox

Crowsnest - Spring 2014 / April 24, 2014

A flag lowering ceremony in Kabul March 12 marked the end of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. After more than 12 years, the largest deployment of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel since the Second World War has drawn to a close.

While Afghanistan is a land-locked country, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was heavily involved in this mission as its ships patrolled the Arabian Sea region and its sailors participated in everything from staff positions in Kabul to combat operations in Panjwai.

The following article was written at the height of the war in Afghanistan by an RCN clearance diver, whose name is withheld for security reasons, and whose powerful first-hand account of an individual mission is a reminder that the RCN stood together with more than 40,000 members of the CAF in the fight against terrorism.

AFGHANISTAN – In the early morning of August 3, 2006, radios at our bedsides crackle off our call sign; we have to report to the Tactical Operations Centre (TOC). The massive tent sleeping a few hundred army engineers is still in a slumber as we pop to our feet and grab our battle rattle. We head to our vehicle without talking; no need to wake up others – their day will start soon enough.

We have been in-theatre for almost six months and rolling out in the darkness to respond to improvised explosive device (IED) hits has become a normal activity. We roll our Bison light-armoured vehicle (LAV) down to the TOC to receive orders. We are told a Canadian has been killed in an IED strike, and the ground is not secure. We are detailed into a convoy of Canadian infantry who are acting as the Quick Reaction Force (QRF).

We regularly deploy outside the wire with Canadian and Romanian QRFs, and also with British convoys. As long as we have professional gun fighters to get us to the IED site, we are content. Since our two-vehicle IED response team is made up of two RCN clearance diver bomb technicians, one Canadian Army bomb technician, two navy signalmen for our radio equipment and army drivers, we are a highly effective group for disposing of IEDs. However, we enjoy the security of professional soldiers escorting us and providing security while we are focused on the job at hand: taking IEDs apart.

The IED strike is in Panjwai district, wild country that we have worked in before. As we clear the main gate we pull over to meet our interpreter. We load our side-arms, rifles and vehicle-mounted C6, a 7.62 mm machine gun. This is our standard roll out, to this point.

It is a dark ride to Panjwai, about an hour northwest of Kandahar Airfield. We drive though the city, which is always intense. Many describe Afghanistan as a 360-degree war, meaning you can expect contact from any direction at any time. We are always ready, searching for possible hidden IEDs ahead of us, shooters alongside rooftops, or cars that seem suspicious, possible car bombs.

We arrive in Panjwai incident free, with the sun just up, and we are met by a sergeant-major who calmly briefs us on the situation. We are in a wide riverbed with fields on the sides, about 500 metres of open ground, with one road crossing the open ground and heading into a tree line on the far side. We hear gunfire at our perimeter, but no shots are being fired at us.

There is already one casualty – his LAV is disabled and stuck out in the open on the road. There are at least three IEDs on that road, and an extended line of combat vehicles is about 250 metres back facing the enemy tree line. On the far left of the tree line is a white school house in the vicinity of the gunfire. Taking this school house, which has Taliban hiding inside, is apparently the mission of the troops we are now assisting.

We pull up so we are on the far right flank of the line of combat vehicles, and start planning. The first-aid materials are spread around the ground from the response to the earlier IED attack; a sobering sight. Any one of these IEDs or the post-blast (the vast area where massive and diverse evidences must be searched, collected and transferred for analysis) is a full job; now we have four jobs to deal with in a live-fire situation.

We quickly split the team, giving the driver the post-blast drawing responsibility, while each bomb tech dismounts for reconnaissance of the IEDs. I pick the further one, which is located in the far tree line. We have some dismounted infantry hunkered down close by against a mud wall for cover, so I have some security in the area.

On my way forward I find a new command wire, some small copper wire running alongside the road. I investigate this and discover a fourth live IED under a small bridge. I then continue forward to my original IED task. Once I get “eyes on”, I realize the dismounted infantry are less than 40 feet from a command wire initiated IED. The command wire is running through the mud wall into enemy controlled ground. With six months experience on the ground in Afghanistan it is a quick decision to immediately take control of that IED. 

I head back to our vehicle to gather tools for the IED under the small bridge. As I enter the vehicle, we come under direct fire. I immediately run to the front of the vehicle, with three teammates behind me. As I get to the front, I take a knee for a solid firing position, and search for a target. My three teammates do the same.

As soon as the fourth is on his knee, an enemy round zips over our heads and hits our vehicle. The enemy has us sighted, but they are hidden in the tree line. We quickly take up firing positions inside our vehicle, so we will have increased cover and firepower with our C6. A rocket-propelled grenade misses our second vehicle by mere metres.

The temperature is hovering around 40C and with our battle rattle, guys are dropping from heat exhaustion. At this point the crew commanders from both explosive ordnance disposal vehicles are affected by heat stress. We return fire from within our vehicle, yelling suspect target positions over our internal radio. Our external radio system has gone dead, as is the norm. I recall dropping down from my firing position yelling “changing mags” as I reloaded, and thinking, “I never thought I would ever say that in combat, I’m a sailor!”

The intense firefight goes on for about an hour. We watch several of our brothers-in-arms being carried off the field, we assume wounded, but with a busted radio it would not be until later we found out they were killed.

When the firefight slows, we take a breather and try to get some food and water in, knowing it is going to be a long day. The rotation of our tour replacements is beginning, and we have a chief diver friend who is out with us in the forensic role. Although they are 100 metres behind us, slightly safer, it is still a hectic day for his first time outside the wire. Even with all this going on, we lighten our mood with some jokes about how he must be feeling on his first day in combat.

We then have another navy diver, known to us as Lieutenant (Navy) Rolex from the forensic team, come forward to our position. He tells us that the officer-in-charge is asking for a situation report on the IEDs over the radio, but cannot reach us. After the unserviceable radio brief, we prioritize the leftover IEDs in the “no man’s land” in front of us. There is one that I can reach on foot to finish off, but will need close-in security while I work, since we will be forward of all other positions. Lt(N) Rolex says he will move forward with me. We use a heavily armoured vehicle, the Cougar, to get us a little closer.

We both pop out of the Cougar and sprint forward. I get to the priority IED, and go to work as Lt(N) Rolex keeps an eye out, and then we sprint back to the cover our vehicles, yelling “get down!” to the gunner in a nearby hatch, and “danger close” as my disposal charge burns down. We now get the order to back up – time to roll out and head back to base.

We know we could get hit on the way out, since there is only one route in. It is almost standard operating procedure for the insurgents to hit us on the way out. As we organize the clean-up of the battle field and break into multiple convoys, the first convoy heads out.

Within minutes we hear a huge explosion about a mile away. We know our first convoy has been attacked. It is a suicide driver in a car bomb. He picks a busy market area to attack our first convoy. The bomber detonates too early to kill any Canadians, but he kills 21 innocent civilians. As we drive out, the first convoy is already gone, and the market area is destroyed. It is a tense ride back, totally dehydrated from a long vicious day of combat in extreme heat.

As I try to stand as rear sentry for our vehicle, my legs are like rubber and I have to use my arms to hold myself in position. When we roll up to our base, we unload our weapons, as normal. But this was no normal day, and our heads are spinning. We have lost four of our brothers-in-arms, and many more are wounded. Regardless, we clean our vehicle, prep it for our next call, and go for some food and rest, waiting with our crackling radios.