Sunday, December 24, 2006


A Christmas in Kandahar

A Christmas in Kandahar
Charla Jones/Toronto Star
Canadian coalition soldiers rest within the dirt walls of a vineyard in the village of Musham in Panjwaii district. The soldiers overtook the Taliban stronghold, Musham, on Dec. 23. Although the operation was deemed successful, members of the Taliban are presumed to continue to live within these areas.

PATROL BASE WILSON, Afghanistan–Sudden as a desert sunrise, Christmas came calling for the stouthearted men of Battery E.

One moment, they were firing 5.56-mm automatic-rifle rounds on a practice range adjoining their base here in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. The next thing they knew, Santa Claus had come and gone – several days early and a long, long way from home.

"Well, I'll be darned" – or words to that effect – said Bombardier Josh Erling, 24, of Ottawa, as he stared wide-eyed at the stacks of elaborately wrapped boxes heaped upon his camp cot in the tent he shares with the other members of his small artillery unit. "I don't know where to start."

He wasn't alone.

The other cots in the tent were all in a similar state, buried beneath mounds of Christmas bounty, when only an hour or so earlier they were merely army-issue camp cots, plain and simple, burdened with nothing more remarkable than army-issue sleeping bags.

But, on their return from rifle practice on the 35-metre firing range set up behind this Canadian-run forward-operating base in southern Afghanistan, the artillerymen of Battery E suddenly found themselves confronted by something that looked an awful lot like Christmas. Presents – lots and lots of presents, all packed and sealed and dispatched to Afghanistan by family and friends back home in Canada.

"This is awesome," exulted Bombardier Ed Hoszko, 23, also from Ottawa.

Like the others, he hovered near the tent's low entrance, peering inside as if it contained the world's largest and most brightly illuminated Christmas trees, surrounded by heaps of the planet's largest conglomeration of gifts.

And then, for a short while, these youngsters on the cusp of manhood seemed to remember themselves.

For a brief time, they tried to be nonchalant, tried to act as if this were no big deal, as if they were a group of typically jaded, world-weary adults, for whom the prospect of tearing open bundles and boxes containing treasures from loved ones back home were just another mindless chore in a long list of mindless daily chores, something that could wait for, oh, some other day – such as, let us say, tomorrow.

But they weren't fooling anybody, much less themselves. Pretty soon the Canadian troops in this particular tent had reverted to a rambunctious state any impartial observer would immediately identify as "boyhood."

Making straight for their respective cots, they proceeded to burrow through these surprise stashes of Christmas loot, even though the big day had yet to formally arrive.

"I'm gonna have to do one package a day," said Erling, in what might have been a fit of conscience.

But he was kidding himself.

Like the others in Battery E – like any youngster anywhere in the world faced with such an overwhelming temptation – he just dove straight in and kept right on going, all the while keeping up a running commentary on his progress through this unexpected abundance.

"It's a scarf!" he announced at one point, and later: "Truffles!"

The members of Battery E of the Royal Canadian Regiment are among roughly 2,400 Canadian military personnel currently stationed in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar in order to battle Taliban insurgents.

After ruling the country from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban are waging a campaign of intimidation and terror aimed at driving foreign troops from the land and perhaps one day restoring their radical and intolerant brand of religion-based rule.

Officially an artillery battery, Erling and his confreres shipped out to Afghanistan several months ago to engage in their specialty – the operation of unmanned small drone aircraft for the purposes of reconnaissance and espionage.

Unfortunately, as soon as they got here, they discovered there were some technical problems with their Israeli-built drones, problems yet to be resolved.

So the airplanes are grounded now at Kandahar Air Field, and the officers, enlisted men, and gentlemen of Battery E have been dispatched to this small forward-operating base located a two-hour drive to the west, where they have been assigned to security detail.

It doesn't sound very glamorous, and maybe it isn't, but none of them seems to be grumbling at his fate.

"This troop has been spectacular," said Master Bombardier Rick Atkinson, 37, who commands the battery. He was diligently dismantling and oiling his C-7 rifle while his much younger charges swooned over their gifts.

"This troop is every troop leader's dream. Everybody gets along."

But it isn't easy being halfway around the world at Christmastime and that is as great a challenge for Atkinson's charges as it is for all the other Canadian soldiers now about to celebrate a familiar holiday in less than familiar surroundings.

"The 25th will be a hard day, especially for the ones with kids," said Atkinson. "There'll be all sorts of jokes, weird jokes, just to put up a wall of humour." He shrugged. "That's normal, though."

No doubt tomorrow will have its wistful interludes for many of the Canadians stationed in Afghanistan, but you wouldn't necessarily know it by talking to some of them.

"The closer you get to Christmas, the more it feels like just another day," said Corp. Kathy Chase, originally from Fredericton, who was pulling sentry duty the other day on a rooftop at Patrol Base Wilson. In fact, she said, she doesn't like to be reminded of the date. "Sometimes, when Christmas carols come on (over military-band channels), you feel you just want to shoot the radio."

Corp. Alex Poirier of Montreal, who is single and does not have children, said he actually prefers the idea of spending the festive season in a distant land.

"In Quebec, I know what's going to happen every year," he said. "Here, I don't know what to expect."

If that's a brave front he's putting up, it could all come tumbling down pretty quickly, just as it did for the members of Battery E the other day, when they suddenly stumbled upon their gift-laden cots.

Take Bombardier Chris Tietz, the sole reservist in the unit and, at 44, roughly twice the age of most of his mates.

"Ah ... family, " he declared with a sigh as he pored over a photo album sent him by his wife, whom he finally got around to marrying, just three weeks before shipping out for Kandahar. The couple have two young children. He turned another page and shook his head. "Wow."

Later, he shuffled about the tent, sharing the homemade fudge tarts sent to him from Simcoe, Ont., by his mother.

"Come on," he urged his fellow artillerymen. "You've got to have fudge at Christmastime."

Another beneficiary of the early arrival of Father Christmas at Patrol Base Wilson was none other than the camp mascot, a two-month old, mixed-breed puppy, also named Wilson, whose moniker, like that of the base itself, commemorates Master Corporal Timothy Wilson of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, one of the 44 Canadian combat fatalities suffered in Afghanistan since 2002.

Wilson, the puppy, has the run of the base but chooses to spend almost all of his time with the members of Battery E.

Hoskzo's wife in Ottawa hadn't forgotten to send gifts of a canine nature, including a red dog-sweater, a burgundy dog-hoodie, a supply of kibble, as well as other treats suitable for an Afghan-born but now thoroughly Canadianized mutt.

By now, Hoszko had opened most of his presents. He headed out to a small, canvas-roofed alcove that adjoined the tent, where he fired up a camp stove and proceeded to cook an impromptu brunch of almost pure cholesterol – scrambled eggs and fried potatoes – for himself and his mates.

Meanwhile, the other members of Battery E huddled on their cots and poked through their spoils.

"Hey," said a surprised Tietz, who normally earns his livelihood making drywall in Hagersville, Ont.

"I still have stuff I haven't opened yet!"

Music to any youngster's ears – or to any soldier's.
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