How a bad day turned even worse for Canadian Troops in AFG

Red Shrek

War Hero
How a bad day turned so much worse
The weary members of Charles Company won't soon forget the events of Oct. 14 near Kandahar. CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD explains why


PANJWAI, AFGHANISTAN -- To the harrowing book the soldiers of Charles Company, 1st Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, are writing in southern Afghanistan comes another chapter, as terrible and as stirring as the others, but not yet told.

It is Charles Company that saw death and injury cut its numbers by a third in the battles that have raged off and on in the volatile district of Panjwai.

The company lost four men Sept. 3 and, with soldiers still reeling, was accidentally strafed the next day at Masum Ghar in a friendly-fire incident that saw Private Mark Graham killed and 38 others injured, including Major Matthew Sprague, the officer commanding, and much of the senior leadership.

No sooner had Charles arrived in Afghanistan in August, in other words, than they were in tatters.

Yet less than six weeks later, with most of their replacements not yet arrived from Canada and some soldiers on scheduled leave, the company was back in the lush river plain west of Kandahar where so much of their blood had been spilled.

The soldiers were protecting Canadian combat engineers as they built Route Summit, the road carved out of a narrow track straight through the grapevines and marijuana country that provided safe haven for the Taliban for too long.

It was an enormously stressful environment, with troops from 7 Platoon stationed midway on the eastern side of the 4½-kilometre road at a fortified position called Strong Point Centre. There, they baked under the sun and slept rough, always labouring under a threat that could, and in fact did, materialize at any time, in a variety of forms and sometimes under the soldiers' very noses -- as when a bomb turned up on a stretch of road the Canadians believed they had an eye on 24/7.

On Saturday, Oct. 14, Lieutenant Ray Corby, a compact 25-year-old from Fergus, Ont., had been commanding 9 Platoon for all of three weeks. He was moved in from a desk job at Kandahar Air Field as soldiers were shuffled up the ranks to fill the company's gaping holes.

He had taken over just as 2 Section -- a platoon is divided into three sections of about eight to 10 soldiers each -- headed off for leave.

The section had just returned to the job the day before, so Lt. Corby barely had a chance to say hello, and knew almost none of the soldiers. He had a few minutes to ask Sergeant Darcy Tedford how his leave was and whether he'd gone somewhere exotic.

"It was fantastic," Sgt. Tedford told him. He'd gone home to Canada to "spend time with my girls" -- his two daughters.

That night, Lt. Corby issued orders and, on the morning of the 14th, 9 Platoon went out on a clearance patrol through the grape fields, basically a rehearsal to work out the kinks with the Afghan National Army unit with which they were paired.

As they were returning to Strong Point Centre, the Afghan soldiers headed off, "and that is where the day started going bad," Lt. Corby says. His 1 Section had begun backing out their Light Armoured Vehicle when it hit an IED -- a huge bomb, even by the jaded standards of Charles Company.

"We were very lucky," Lt. Corby says. "The vehicle was damaged to the point where I was very surprised the driver was not killed or at least significantly injured, but he was fine."

Actually, everyone was, including the company's only remaining platoon warrant officer, Scott Robinson. (The other two -- Frank Mellish and Richard Nolan -- were lost Sept. 3.)

But when possible, soldiers who have been IEDed are sent back to the nearest base for a medical check and some down time, so the troops returned to Patrol Base Wilson, just a few kilometres away. The damage to their LAV was substantial, but, as Lt. Corby says, "Again, the LAV took it, no doubt saved lives that day."

The vehicle was recovered, and the rest of the platoon went into Strong Point Centre to relieve those who'd been holding the fort while they were gone. They resumed defensive positions -- soldiers up in the LAV turrets and one young fellow with a machine gun on the OP, the observation post, where a LAV couldn't get.

At the time, Lt. Corby had no idea who that soldier was.

About 90 minutes after the platoon returned, with Battle Group Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel Omer Lavoie having just wrapped up a brief on the IED and heading out the gate and down the road with his mobile tactical headquarters, all hell broke loose.

The Taliban, using what Lt. Corby calls "very disciplined fire," launched a simultaneous assault "basically on all the points where, from their vantage point, they'd be able to inflict casualties on our position" -- multiple rocket-propelled grenades, with their lethal sprays of shrapnel, and small-arms fire so heavy "you could hear them going over your head, see them skipping over the road."

He saw an RPG hit the turret of one LAV, but the cannon kept firing so he assumed the soldiers inside were okay; he saw at least one more hit the lone soldier on the OP on the hill, and feared the worst. He was wrong on both fronts.

He made three calls. His 3 Section was okay, returning fire; on the OP, he got no answer; 2 Section stunned him by saying "they were still taking fire, had two VSA [Vital Signs Absent] and three injured."

In perhaps the next hour, Lt. Corby -- without WO Robinson, the man to whom this junior officer would turn for his experience -- ran from position to position, sometimes with covering fire and once deliberately straight into enemy fire, around and about Strong Point Centre, and he saw then, in ways that humble him still, the sort of young soldiers he had.

Two section wanted a medic, but with two men VSA and the injured not critical, they needed medical supplies more. Rather than send his medic under fire and risk losing her, Lt. Corby ran to his headquarters LAV, grabbed a medical bag and ran to the OP. He yelled, got no response, and his heart sank.

The shade tarp was shredded by fire; empty disposable rocket launchers were scattered around the position.

"So who'd ever been up there had obviously put up quite a fight. I still didn't know who was on the OP at the time," he says.

"The second time I yelled, I saw this little head pop up, then a machine gun popped up and started firing again. I told him to provide me some covering fire, which he did, and I ran into the OP.

"I asked him what was going on and, seemingly unfazed, he explained to me where the enemy was firing from, explained where he had engaged -- it was absolutely crucial that he watch the eastern flank while we were getting contact from the west.

"What he did is, he would alternate firing at the enemy with one machine gun, to the west, as well as firing the rocket launchers, and then he'd turn his back to the enemy and watch to the east."

It was baby-faced Private Jess Larochelle, maybe 21 or 22, with perhaps two years, max, in the army.

"So all those RPGs were coming in, he was still firing," Lt. Corby says. "Nobody could have faulted him for seeking cover, but he'd obviously kept firing."

He asked Pte. Larochelle to cover him as he ran to 2 Section -- "he gave me excellent covering fire; I don't know if he was actually shooting enemy at the time, but it felt better." His voice thickens when he says, "That's when I realized the section commander had been killed." It was Sgt. Tedford.

A few seconds later, he saw the second dead soldier, Private Blake Neil Williamson, also fatally injured by RPG shrapnel. The same round injured three other soldiers -- Master Corporal Jeremy Leblanc, who took shrapnel to the back; Corporal Chris Dowhan, who suffered severe injuries to the back of his head and ear and who, although bleeding, was "already up and fighting again"; and Cpl. Chris Meace, also already back on his feet.

MCpl. Leblanc, with extra combat first-aid training, had bandaged up the two young corporals and was handing out the last of the ammunition, crawling up on the turret to try to repair the LAV's damaged cannon. Two young reservists from the Grey and Simcoe Foresters, Privates Ed Runyon-Lloyd of Owen Sound, Ont., and Chris Saumure of Barrie, Ont., carried extra ammo back to 2 Section under fire, then joined in the fighting themselves.

Pte. Saumure, the youngest member of the Battle Group, was then two weeks away from his 19th birthday, and too young still to buy a drink back home.

WO Robinson, meantime, having heard the platoon was in contact, grabbed a brand-new LAV and the rest of his section and headed down from Patrol Base Wilson to Strong Point Centre. The LAV could get only so close, so he ran the last 100 metres on foot.

CO Lavoie never left once the fighting broke out; he was intimately involved in that day, and even was dismounted -- out of his vehicle -- for a time.

The platoon was replaced the next day, and returned to Kandahar Air Field to begin immediately rehearsing how they would carry the coffins of Sgt. Tedford and Pte. Williamson.

Pte. Larochelle was one of those who carried Pte. Williamson in the ramp ceremony. Only then did he admit that he'd been injured in the RPG attack on the OP; he had fractured vertebrae in his back, and went home to Canada a few days later.

Charles Company remains in action, poised to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's ongoing Operation Baaz Tsuka in the Panjwai area.

As for Lt. Corby, he tried to get out of his scheduled leave but wasn't allowed to, and met his fiancée Amber MacKinnon in Thailand, where, he says, the young woman put him back together.

Asked if he ever cried, his young face almost crumples. "If I got my head turned and I'm not talking," he says, trying not to turn his head, "maybe I've got a few tears rolling."
What a tremendous display of bravery and stick-it grit.
However, it does show me just how near we are to a disaster out there where we lose a military post overrun by the enemy. The same number of cas in slightly different locations during the fire fight would have brought on such a situation.

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