2003

Driving Not for the Faint of Heart in Kabul – Courtesy of The Star Phoenix

Master Corporal Maurice Boire, 27 October 2003

The next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam on Idylwyld, spare a thought for Canadian soldiers driving in Kabul, where cars are so full of decorations that there’s no room left on the windscreens for the drivers to peer through.

Under the Taliban, all privately owned motor vehicles were forbidden. Only taxis were allowed, and they operated under strict regulations, right down to what colour they could be (yellow). There could be no decorations on the vehicles and definitely no women drivers. Since the fall of the Taliban, people have been allowed to own vehicles and they decorate them with gay abandon. The result is there’s often little room left for viewing the road. As for the rules of the road, if there are any, we haven’t witnessed them being followed. Imagine 22nd Street and Idylwyld Drive at 5 p.m. Now imagine the traffic lights don’t work and an inexperienced traffic cop is directing traffic. Now imagine there’s a celebration taking place in front of Centennial Auditorium that closes the block without notice.

I was trapped in a situation like that here in Kabul. The streets are similar but the reaction was definitely not. From my vantage point in the crew commanders hatch of the Bison, vehicles started crossing the median and driving down the wrong side of the road, heading straight into the oncoming traffic. The intersection ended up with eight cars on each side of the road facing each other in a gridlock. We moved maybe 40 metres over the next two hours.

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The celebration happened to be ANA soldiers celebrating the standing up of the Kabul Garrison. Some of the soldiers noticed us and started moving towards us. This made us just a little nervous but, after all, these soldiers were supposed to be our friends. Using hand signals, they asked if we wanted to get through the traffic, and I gave them the thumbs up. They started yelling at drivers, making every one back up inches at a time until they managed to clear a path wide enough for our armoured vehicle to make it through. The they guided us out onto a major roadway going back to Camp Warehouse.

My vehicle has been in some minor fender benders. The first time, we clipped a “dangly ball” on a cart that ended up smashing our mirror. The second was between a gravel truck and our Bison. He decided he preferred our lane to his own and we ended up colliding side-on-side. Between both vehicles, there might have been $12 worth of damage.

I felt sorry for the driver as I got out of my vehicle and walked toward him to do the paperwork. I had my helmet on, headset and boom mike, flak vest, tactical vest, sunglasses and was placing a magazine in my weapon as I went over. I’m sure he thought I was going to shoot him.

As anyone here in Kabul will tell you, the mines and the rockets are not the only things you have to look out for.

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Loneliness a Soldier’s Constant Companion – courtesy of the Star Phoenix

Master Corporal Maurice Boire, December 1, 2003

Have you ever been in a crowd yet felt totally alone?

Loneliness is something all soldiers experience. At the Canadian extension to Camp Warehouse in Kabul, we have nearly 450 soldiers and civilians living and working in close proximity. My living quarters are 10 by five metres in a Quonset-style tent shared by eight people. Yet, at times, I feel alone.

People deal with loneliness in different ways. Some watch the news or a movie, play cards, or work on projects they would never have time for in Canada.

I take photographs. I’ve taken over 40 rolls of film and countless digital images. I’ll sit for two or three hours in one spot just to take 10 pictures of the night sky. I wander around taking photos of everything I can see to improve my abilities as a photographer. Yet at times I still feel alone.

The loneliest time is at night when the lights go out. We can’t lean over and kiss our spouses goodnight or tuck the kids in into bed. I often lie awake wondering how my wife and kids are doing. Is there enough money in the account to get them through to the next pay? I try to phone them twice a week, and my extended family once a week. The phone is a tease. We only have 35 minutes each week to call Canada and we’re supposed to stay under 15 minutes a call so everyone gets a chance. I usually call just before going to bed, which gives me new things to think about as I fall asleep. After the call I always feel a little depressed, isolated and withdrawn. I never want to say goodbye and often say it four or more times before finally hanging up.

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Christmas is always a hard time to be away from the family. This tour, I’m one of the lucky ones who will be coming home for Christmas. War torn countries are a great palce for bargains but not a great place to pick up Christmas presents. I suppose I could get a burka to show people. But it wouldn’t make a good gift for my mother – and if I want to live, I wouldn’t give it to my wife!

Being away during this time sucks no matter how you look at it. To add more stress to an already stressful time, Islamist fundamentalists love to attack during these religious holidays. Yet the biggest threats are depression, the feeling of isolation and loneliness. In Rwanda, we had one soldier kill himself Christmas morning while he was on security patrol. We never did find out why, but it made for a lousy Christmas.

We joke around about being convicts because we have fortified walls with guard towers and wire fences around our camp, and we have to get permission to leave. This increases the sense of isolation as you can only see as far as the wall. Fortunately I get to leave camp every once in a while to see other parts of the city. Most people are confined to the camp and may never leave its confines unless going home.

Every time we leave camp, we put ourselves in harm’s way. The threat is ever-present. We`re always watching for signs of attack or ambush when we`re on the road. We search our vehicles for improvised explosive devises or magnetic mines. These are real threats, but we’re trained to deal with them.

One good thing about being home is getting to choose what you eat. On tour we’re limited to what is prepared for us. We can’t make something else just because we don’t like the choices. But actually the food is pretty great, and I don’t have to prepare it or clean up after we dine. We always shave fresh fruit and vegetables and the salads are incredible. I have to stay away from the dessert tray, or else I’d be 300 pounds leaving here. Needless to say, the cooks are well looked upon.

Over the last 10 years, the military has taken great interest in improving the living conditions of its deployed soldiers. Money is set aside to help set up clubs and Internet cafes. Canadian TV and radio are piped in, sports equipment is brought in and events like the Terry Fox Run are organized.

I’m lucky to belong to a troop where I have a few close friends. This helped especially when we lost two of our own with a mine strike. We help keep each other’s spirits up and encourage each other when we feel down.

Our leaders have recognized that helping soldiers fix problems they’re having in Canada makes their performance in theater that much better. Technology has also improved the way we live overseas. E-mail means we can keep abreast of what the family is doing and, unlike the phone, it’s not limited by time. It allows me to share pictures with my family and to solve any problems they encounter almost immediately.

I don’t want to give the impression that we’re a sombre bunch while we’re away, because for the most part we’re busy getting the job done and don’t have time to dwell on our problems. We also see the rewards of our commitment here first-hand.

The people we leave back home – the spouses, the children, the parents – they’re the ones who deserve the praise. They’re the ones asked to fill the boots of two parents or are left to worry about their parent being in a “war country” (as my youngest puts it) or about their child living with constant danger. The commitment they put in is under-valued and the nation owes them a debt of gratitude.

I know I do.

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Major Mark Bossi – 48th Highlanders of Canada

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“Daddy … can I tell you something?”

When I returned from Afghanistan my son was four years old (in my mind, I thought it had worked out relatively well for him – at his tender age he wasn’t really able to tell time, much less “count the days” on a calendar – his comprehension was limited to the seasons, and I’d “only” missed fall and winter with him)

I’d mailed home postcards and e-mailed photographs of things I thought might interest him – my task overseas was “Civil-Military Co-operation” (CIMIC), therefore I was able to show him the children we were helping as well as the sights we saw (without dwelling too much on the dangers, weapons or destruction surrounding us).  I realized it had made an impression on him when he suggested we mail some toys back to the children he’d seen in my pictures, and I was so proud of his desire to share with those less fortunate than him.

When I finally came home (and my jet lag wore off) we were enjoying the simple things in life such as walking down city streets without needing body armour or loaded weapons, and jumping in our truck and driving around wherever and whenever we pleased.  He loved to wear my balmoral, with the 48th Highlanders cap badge squarely in the centre of his forehead (instead of over the ear, where the rest of us wear it … chuckle)

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He was still that beautiful age when we’d hold hands while crossing the street, and he wouldn’t let go even after we’d reached the safety of the sidewalk.  Life was good.

Walking along, holding hands, he delighted in asking me “Daddy … can I tell you something?” (it was akin to telling each other a secret, but had evolved into a game)

After I’d answered “yes” and leaned down to listen to him he’d hold my hand even tighter and often say “Daddy … I LOVE you!” (then I’d scoop him up and we’d hug each other ferociously, resulting in much giggling – life doesn’t get much better than that …)

One day we were driving along in our old truck (it was so old it didn’t have an air bag, thus he could ride up front next to me where I could keep an eye on him).  He was belted into his booster seat and had his feet curled up onto the truck seat, watching the scenery go by while I concentrated on navigating the busy city streets.

This time he asked me his usual “Daddy … can I tell you something?” then in the tiniest little child’s voice he said “You know when you were in Afghanistan? … I wanted to go with you.” (you see, he had wanted to help me play with all those Afghan children).

Life doesn’t get any better than that.

 

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