I deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in late January of 2006. I went from the icy cold of home at -30 degrees Celsius to +30 in Kandahar in a matter of a few days. The temperature differential seems extreme and it would almost double by the time I left. It proved to be minute in comparison to the changes I would undergo as a young man of 21 in the face of War, abject poverty, extreme human suffering, and coming face to face with evil and pure hatred.
To describe what it was like to be on deployment in Afghanistan is best started by talking about what I was sent there to do. My trade in the Army was as a Signals Operator. This means I operated and maintained communications equipment in all their various shapes and forms, from Satellite Phones to the Combat radios. It may not seem like it, but a mission can hinge on what information comes through to the people who have to know where the danger is. That was my job.
I was attached to a unit that ran patrols throughout Kandahar city and its environs as well as worked as the radio operator in the nerve centre of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar city. What that means is some days I was the voice on the other end of the radio for everyone deployed OTW (outside the wire), and on others I was one of the voices calling in from OTW. Being outside the wire is a dangerous place, but I found out later, trauma can get you no matter where you are.
I was very lucky on my tour; I was never shot at, blown up or physically damaged while on patrol. The only blood I shed was due to a massive nosebleed from the dry desert air. This fact is what rooted and locked me into the belief that “I am fine” once I returned home.
I learned about trauma while on the Veterans Transition Program. It can enter your body and mind through your 5 senses, and that includes your ears. You don’t have to be shot at to be “not okay.”
There is one day of my tour which stands out above all others in my mind when I go “back”, 03 Aug 2006. That is the day that 4 Canadian soldiers died and another 10 soldiers were injured.
I wasn’t injured in a way you could see, and I lived to come home again, but I was every bit a part of it and I carry it still. As a Signals Operator, I was the voice at the other end of the radio. I was the person every one OTW had to rely on for critical information and contact to Headquarters. People outside the wire needed help, and that was my job.
What happened next is not something I am ready to describe in detail yet. For the purpose of explaining the scene, I say this; there were several critical incidents that led to these 14 casualties. Two Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) were detonated. In addition there were several Canadian Infantry call signs under attack.
What it comes down to is this. We were getting urgent requests for emergency medical evacuations. These were real people, soldiers who were badly hurt and needed to be brought back inside the wire. Military protocol is such that when a Landing Zone is receiving sustained enemy fire, the Med Evac birds will not deploy to pick up casualties. I had to tell these men that nobody was coming for them while their brothers died in their arms. As their life source poured from their bodies and they slowly and painfully breathed their last breaths, I was the one denying them any hope of survival.
While these incidents were transpiring I was also speaking with aircraft who were dropping munitions onto enemy positions. Attack helicopters, bombers and fixed wing aircraft were coming from everywhere to help us clear the enemy out of their firing positions. The wounded had to be extracted quickly. I was transmitting grid coordinates from call sign to call sign. Any error means certain death for Canadian troops, and still I had to deny increasingly frantic requests from those needing the help we were trying to deliver. I worked many hours that day and so many of the finer details are lost in memory, hidden in a dense fog, impenetrable to cognition.
I shut part of myself off that day, any sort of emotional reaction would have interfered with my effectiveness in accomplishing my job. Those feelings would have risked the loss of more lives in a day that had already cost so much of my countrymen’s blood.
This emotional switch happened subconsciously, that is to say, beyond my registering it having happened at all. I remember being asked if I was “OK” at the end of my shift, a quick and curt “Of course I am” was my reply. I see now very clearly that I was not “OK”, and haven’t been for the past 8 years.
What happened to me has, and will continue to affect my life for the remainder of my days. I am often asked if I regret volunteering to deploy to Afghanistan. The answer is a resounding NO! I love this country and am proud of my service to her. This life experience is one that I hold very close to my heart; it has entwined itself into the very fabric of my existence. The pain I carry is mine to hold and feel, the scars left on my soul remind me on a daily basis that to suffer is to live.
Without suffering there would be no concept of joy, the harder the suffering, the higher the capacity to feel joy. There is a military adage that goes something like “Pain just lets you know you are still alive”, on this basis alone I am very much alive and thankful that I don’t ever have to question it. Without this suffering I would not have the drive to help my brothers and sisters in arms see that life can continue, and that one can flourish and thrive after these horrible experiences. I can viscerally feel the pain of another who is similarly afflicted with these invisible scars.
I carry with me this pain, but also hope. Hope for thousands upon thousands of men and women who suffer every day and do not know that through that all-encompassing blackness there is a light for them. The torch is being carried by your brothers and sisters in arms, we are here and we know what lies ahead. The battle you must face will be the hardest fought of your life but it is also the most rewarding, the battle for your Self. I had to return to that hot summer day in Kandahar to reclaim what I had lost, to find the pieces of myself that I had left behind. I did not have to face my own personal Hell alone, I had my brothers with me and they knew exactly where I was going and what I had to do. You do not have to face it alone either, this battle will be fought side by side with those of us who have faced our demons and continue to do so every day. It won’t ever be easy but taking the easy road isn’t what got us here in the first place.
I will end with a quote from Carl G. Jung. Reading his work as I continue the journey I started at the Veterans Transition Program has helped me to see that life IS worth living.
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.”
Carl G. Jung
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