I don’t. Not at all. That’s because I know that the worst of the usual suspects will twist this in vile and sickening ways. But I don’t see myself as having much choice, since it’s out already.
Our soldiers are the finest and the bravest on the face of God’s Earth, bar none. I say that. I believe that. And I God damned well stand by that.
But the truth of the matter is that not every man is cut out for combat. Some men are born to be soldiers, some are made into soldiers, and some can never be soldiers, no matter how hard they try. And no, I’m not going to make some bullshit glib crack about how “there is nothing so exhillerating as being shot at and missed,” if for no other reason than that there’s nothing that sucks so much as being shot at and hit.
The point is, not every man can bear the stress of combat. We are not immune to this reality.
The Globe & Mail’s Christie Blatchford has penned a story of one man who, in earlier days, would have himself staring down the barrels of men from his own unit as an officer asked him if he wanted a blindfold. Men in his unit describe it as desertion. I call it cowardice in the face of the enemy.
The following is Christie’s story in its entirety. I’ve trimmed it a bit for size (substituting “NATO” for “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” and such) but apart from that, the story is just as she wrote it. And before anybody thinks about sending Christie any poisoned-pen letters, bear in mind that I don’t like what I see here either but it’s a journalist’s job to tell the story and she seems to do it fairly. Bear that in mind.
THE AFGHAN MISSION: EXCLUSIVE REPORT
Did he abandon his troops?
Nearly all members of Charles Company have distinguished themselves under fire. But one veteran noncommissioned officer is not included in that honourable group
FOB ZETTELMEYER, AFGHANISTAN — When Major Matthew Sprague says he is tempted to put in his whole company for awards or commendations, he isn’t kidding.
So many of the officers, NCOs and ordinary grunts of the 1st RCR’s C Co, which Major Sprague commands, have distinguished themselves under fire here in southern Afghanistan — particularly on two terrible days in September, when the company was first attacked with shocking ferocity by the Taliban, and then, still reeling from the four men lost that morning, accidentally strafed in a friendly-fire incident that killed another and injured 38 the very next day — that separating the ordinarily brave from the ridiculously courageous is difficult if not impossible.
But there is one man not included in that honourable group.
In several recent interviews, during which he properly sang the praises of his troops, Major Sprague didn’t even mention his name. Asked directly about him yesterday, he would not discuss the soldier except to say tersely that he is now out of the army and that the alleged incident that led to his leaving is “in the past, as far as I’m concerned.”
The Globe and Mail has learned the man is a veteran NCO who is alleged to have deserted his troops while they were under fire Sept. 3 and was later sent home to Canada.
The Globe has decided not to use the soldier’s name, in large measure because even those who feel most betrayed are loath to see him criticized publicly.
“He left me there to die,” MCpl Ward Engley of C’s 8 platoon said yesterday in a brief, blunt interview conducted in the back of a LAV that was taking him to the base at nearby Masum Ghar and then to Kandahar Air Field for emergency dental treatment.
He said the NCO was “hiding behind a wall” and wouldn’t come out long enough to give him the radio when he asked for it.
“Our grenades were duds,” MCpl. Engley said, contempt colouring his voice, “and we were running low on ammo, but he couldn’t even hand me the radio.”
MCpl. Engley is not the only soldier to characterize what happened that morning as desertion.
It was described the same way by three other soldiers interviewed by The Globe, including two of those who were pinned down by heavy fire when the NCO is alleged to have left his post, and the 25-year-old officer who commands 8 platoon.
In army language, MCpl. Engley said, what the NCO did was “shit the bed hard.”
The offensive against the notorious White School — a known Taliban stronghold in the volatile Panjwai area since last summer, when the 1st PPCLI suffered casualties there — was part of the kickoff to Operation Medusa, the massive, Canadian-led NATO campaign.
While ultimately deemed a major success, with as many as 1,000 Taliban claimed killed and senior NATO commanders singing its praises in speeches, Medusa was arguably a bit of a cock-up from the get-go.
Originally, battle orders called for three days of heavy bombing and artillery, plus 18 air strikes on Taliban commanders identified as “high-value targets,” before the soldiers of C Co were to move into the area, then lush with three-metre-tall marijuana fields and nearly impenetrable.
But at the last minute, after intelligence supposedly reported no signs of the enemy, the bombings and air strikes were called off. The soldiers were ordered to cross the Arghandab River early on the morning of Sept. 3.
“Our orders came in saying there would be three days of bombarding the shit out of it, and then they cancelled all that and then we rolled in at 7 in the morning,” said Pte Will Needham, a 22-year-old from Toronto. “. . . We rolled in, drove right into an ambush site, and it was told to us the night before that this grid was basically an ambush site.”
Originally, in fact, the troops were supposed to cross the river on foot — “dismounted,” as they call it — because it was thought their LAVs would be unable to cross. But those orders, too, disappeared, with combat engineers making “breaches” across the river for the vehicles.
As described by Lt Jeremy Hiltz, the 8 platoon boss, MCpl. Engley, Pte. Needham and Pte. Travis Rawls, a 31-year-old from 8 platoon, the scene as they first crossed the river was eerie — as still “as when I’m skydiving,” MCpl. Engley said.
“We knew, deep down inside,” Lt. Hiltz told The Globe. “We knew they [the Taliban] were there. . . . But it’s still quiet, and there’s no indication that anything’s wrong, except for guys are looking at each other, there’s that feeling.
“But I think at that point, we’re still pretty young and I think a lot of guys didn’t recognize it.”
The troops of 8 platoon dismounted, and what greeted them were the leaflets that had been dropped from the air before the start of Op Medusa — pamphlets warning the Taliban, and civilians in the area, that NATO forces were coming.
MCpl. Engley’s section was ordered to secure a big ditch, he said, and it was from there that “all of a sudden, the whole world exploded around us” — RPGs, mortars, rounds from lethal 81 mm recoilless rifles, machine-gun fire coming at the soldiers from what seemed like all directions.
It wasn’t until more than a week later, when the Canadians actually secured the area around the White School, that they realized the enormity of what they had been up against, Lt. Hiltz said.
The Taliban had “trench lines, ditches, bunkers, firing holes. I mean, they were firing from trees, firing from pot fields, explosions were coming from pot fields looked like mortars but they were actually RPGs impacting at ground level. They were watching our antennas go by and firing from pot fields,” from as close as 100 metres.
MCpl. Engley’s section, meantime, was ordered to leave the ditch and do a room-by-room search of four small mud-walled buildings near the White School.
It was there, Pte. Needham said, that “we pretty much got pinned down by RPGs and small-arms fire, which was coming mostly from the south.”
Pte. Rawls said it was at that point the NCO is alleged to have claimed to be hit, then left them behind, saying he was off to get them support.
“I didn’t have a fucking clue he was even gone, he wasn’t really the command-and-control leader,” Pte. Needham snapped.
Lt. Hiltz was equally blunt: He “basically deserted, left the section while a couple of guys were pinned down.”
Ptes Needham and Rawls were on the right side of one building, two reservists were on the left, and other members of the section were spread out throughout the little compound, all of them “putting down fire.”
They couldn’t tell where the enemy fire was originating from, couldn’t even tell if they were receiving friendly fire from other platoons. It was very confusing, Pte. Rawls said, and they couldn’t raise anyone on the radio to tell them where they were trapped, or find out where the other platoons were located.
On top of that, a 225-kg bomb was dropped almost on top of the section. “Basically, it was being called right on top of us,” Pte. Rawls said. But the bomb either malfunctioned or its GPS system rendered it inert, as it is supposed to if it goes off target.
When the order to withdraw eventually came from Major Sprague, the soldiers were too far from their LAV to retreat safely. In the end, the section was pinned down for two to three hours.
It was Sgt Graeme Ferrier, driving up and down the line looking for stragglers, who found them. They were the last out to safety, and only afterward did they learn that their beloved warrant officer, Frank Mellish, his fellow warrant Rick Nolan, combat engineer Sgt Shane Stachnik and Pte. Needham’s former roommate and best friend, Pte. Will Cushley, had been killed.
Their section has since been rebuilt with replacements from CFB Petawawa, but as Pte. Rawls said, “They arrived after all of that. When we arrived, same as everybody who gets here, you train as infanteer and you want to come and get in on the action and you get into it like that, and it’s a mess like that, and you don’t want to ever see it again.
“They don’t know what that’s like yet. If they find that out, probably when they lose a friend.”
And Pte. Needham said, “That’s the only way you really realize . . . I knew it was going to be bad, but I never thought someone I knew would get killed. I never knew it would be like this. Like September was the worst month ever, we lost a lot of good people. I didn’t think it would be this bad.
“And it was.”
He continued, “We had been on ground in this country for three weeks. Most people hadn’t been in a firefight. We’d been ambushed once and fired twice, but it was a lot of inexperienced men going into a huge combat situation . . . it was overwhelming for a bunch of people who didn’t have the experience. That’s what it comes down to, I guess.”
Both Privates Needham and Rawls said that if they stay in the army, they will switch units because of the “incompetence” they’ve seen here.
Coming to Afghanistan, Pte. Rawls said, the big concern was “about everyone around you. Are they gonna do their job? And are you?”
They have their answers now.