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Major Hale deploys to Afghanistan

Maj Hale at a briefing in Afghanistan

It is hard to believe that Capt Rob Ryan approached me about the possibility to heading over to Afghanistan as part of the Op ATTENTION Roto 1 or Canadian Contribution Training Mission – Afghanistan (CCTM-A) back in early October 2011. After a little discussion with my better half and some serious considerations, after all this would be my 8th overseas deployment, I decided that I would put my name forward for a While So Employed (WSE) LCol Position. There were a wide variety of LCol positions available and in the end I was nominated for the position of ANA Executive Fielding Development at Camp Eggers, Kabul Afghanistan.

Pre-deployment training commenced in Gagetown on 7 November 2011, but I did not arrive until 14 November due to work conflicts. I have to be honest and we lucked out in the pre-deployment training… the snow did not hit us until just before the first phase of training ended on 9 December. The training covered all the normal administrative clearances and it was frustrating to complete the departure paperwork multiple times. But we also covered weapons training from the C7, C9, C6, to 9mm pistol and grenades. A great deal of time was spent on Standard and Combat First Aid, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and language training. One cannot forget doing the BFT in a snowstorm. There was a short break over Christmas and then everyone reported back to Gagetown on 16 January 2012 to complete the final portion of pre-deployment training. I was also joined by Major Duane Hickson who had volunteered for deployment just before Christmas. Duane actually reported to Gagetown on 9 January and in one week covered what had taken us a month. The January training concentrated on cultural awareness, language and security force capacity building. Some pers also completed the TCCC. However we finally escaped from Gagetown on 4 February with a good idea of what chalks we would be on for the Relief in Place with Roto 0.

I will not bore you with details about embarkation leave, except to say that it was busy with family and doing your best to ensure that everything was covered when you would be away for the next 8 months. 22 February was the big day and my wife drove me down to Trenton to the catch the flight from Trenton to Kabul. Duane was already in Trenton, since he has family in the area. Let’s just say it was a long flight with 5 stops. Arrival in Kabul went well and we were quickly issued weapons, ammunition, ballistic plates, First Aid equipment and of course went thru another admin clearance. We finally arrived in Camp Eggers on the evening of 25 Feb. Settled into transient quarters and of course the next day involved another round of admin clearances, except this time it was the US system vice Canadian.

Camp Eggers is located in the center of Kabul in an area affectionately called the GREEN ZONE. I refer to the GREEN ZONE as a target rich environment. Since it is in the centre of the city, it contains most of the Embassies, Presidential Palace, Afghan Ministry of Defence, ISAF HQ and Eggers. During my last tour, the Taliban would lob in a couple of rockets every now and then, since you know that you will hit something. This tour there were no rockets fired at the Green Zone, but there were a couple of attacks aimed at the area. In my mind the worst was on 9 September when a teenaged Suicide bomber killed a number of Afghan children. The children are the innocent ones and they sold scarves and bracelets to us as walked from Eggers to ISAF or the Ministry of Defence. More on this at the end of the article

Life at Eggers was quite comfortable compared to tours completed by previous Lorne Scots and other soldiers in Kandahar. The working environment was much more of an office seating vice field. Our role was to provide advice and assistance to senior Afghan Army and Police officials. I was the Chief of Staff for the Ministerial Advisory Group within Deputy Commander Army (DCOM A). We had a total of 160 advisors within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Afghan National Army General Staff (ANA GS). The majority of people do not realize that these are two separate and distinct areas of operations. MoD is responsible for civilian oversight, policy development, finances and strategy; while ANA GS were responsible for day-to-day operations and fighting of the ANA. Advisors worked in a 2 or 3 person team, especially since two US advisors had been killed at the Ministry of Interior on 25 February 2012. So needless to say Force Protection was a very hot topic when we arrived at Eggers.

Maj Hale and Maj Hickson in Afghanistan

There is no easy way to make a COS’s duties sound sexy and exciting. My responsibilities ranged from ensuring that all necessary reports were submitted in a timely fashion, that administrative support was provided, refresher and advisor training were conducted as required to keeping track of everyone’s whereabouts when they were off camp. Keep track of everyone was the most important as was proven when the Haqqani network seized three construction sites within Kabul and starting lobbing RPGs into the local area. One of the sites was just outside the GREEN ZONE on 15 April. The funny thing was that I was a hosting a group of Americans from the US Dept of Defence Inspector General’s Office and the looks on their faces when the Brigadier’s Close Protection Detail came into the office and suggested that we move away from the windows and into the basement was priceless. They had never expected that they would be under fire within the first 24 hours on the ground. I spent the next couple of hours confirming where all the advisors were located. In the end, nine advisors were at MoD and they spent the night there. It reinforced that you always carry bug-out gear, have a charged cell phone and keep others advised of your plans. The Afghan Security Forces took responsibility for securing the three construction sites and within 18 hours had killed all the insurgents and things went back to normal. I personally think that the response was well done and effective. The following photo of Major Duane Hickson was taken just after we were told that you could leave the bunkers, PPE was still required since the odd RPG rounds were still being fired over the camp. Duane told me that the Brit RSM did not have a sense of humour when he saw them having a smoke.

Duane’s duties were dramatically different from mine. He was responsible for ANA course scheduling and training of feeder courses for the Kandaks. I know that at time he was frustrated with duplication of efforts, lack of soldiers reporting for courses and the tendency for the Afghans to do what they wanted vice what the International Community wanted. Regardless of the frustrations it was a necessary job that contributed to the training and fielding of numerous Kandaks. Duane knows a lot more about Engineer training now than he did before he deployed.

The tour like many had its up and downs. The challenges of dealing with large group of International officers with multiple tours and a wide variety of training was worthwhile. We may not have had the same approach to all the problems, but everyone worked together to improve things within Afghanistan. We also had some fun times ranging from Commonwealth Day to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Canada Day and the Terry Fox run where we raised $8,700. The teamwork and friendships made will last a lifetime.

To finish off on serious note, the following was written by a fellow soldier wrote about the suicide strike outside Eggers on 9 September 2012. I cannot say it any better.

A beautiful little girl, Parwana (which means butterfly in Dari), would hold my hand on the way into work and declare that she was my “body guard”. Impressive for someone who barely stood 36 inches, probably not many more pounds, ratty hair, and wore the most charming dusty smile you’ve ever seen. As a big brother of 4 younger sisters, you can’t help but attach yourself to this type of embrace and familiarity between otherwise distant strangers.

More importantly, you attach yourself to the innocence that has been missing for generations in a war torn country. You attach yourself to the idea of hope and a future in these young children, many who speak at least three or four languages, and are desperately trying to improve their quality of life by selling trinkets to the visitors. These children, my body guards and surrogate brothers & sisters, would make sure I was safe as I walked to work and greeted me happily as I returned in the evening to my temporary home in Kabul.

Parwana was a little pistol of energy and delight. She and her sisters Samir and Khorshid were as loud, rambunctious, and tough as any other kid on the street; and could thrash as good as any boy on a skateboard! It was such a great sight and sound to absorb each night after walking off of base.

Passing out the skateboards my brother sent and watching the amazement experienced by these kids was the highlight of an otherwise disparaging deployment. It was a glimmer of hope and true joy in a city that has experienced far too many atrocities…

Atrocities like those that happened on September 9, 2012. It was Massoud Day, a national holiday in Afghanistan marking the day of martyrdom for the famous Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was a mighty mujahidin during the Afghan resistance to the Russians and ardently opposed the Taliban. On that morning, several of the aforementioned children stood outside of the base, waiting to greet other individuals, like me, who resided off base. It is a heavily secured area, with constant presence of Afghan National Security Forces… yet that did not matter.

It was the alarms raised by a few tiny voices, their shouts at the guards that something terrible was underway, which initiated another horrific example of the enemy we are fighting in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. A young suicide bomber, 13 years of age integrated himself amongst the other children, waiting for ISAF personnel to leave the base. When the little ones who normally greet their friends with smiles realized the boy was wearing an explosive laden vest, they screamed for help… Parwana, always the consummate eight year old bodyguard, warned of danger with her very last breath…

The children could have remained quiet. They could have walked away from a danger and allowed those of us who frequent their paths to meet a demise of unspeakable pain. Instead, the little bodyguards alerted the foreigners of danger; they sacrificed everything to save strangers that had become their friends, their surrogate big brothers and sisters. And as such, six of their little bodies lay sprawled across an Afghan street, four more rushed to a hospital with life threatening injuries; a radicalized teenager, brainwashed in a perverse religion among them, reaping his martyrdom while his masters continue on to a new recruit.

These little strangers, tiny butterflies of innocence, placed the lives of strangers above their own. They sacrificed their lives because, in their own way, they were scared of what this wanton individual would do to those for whom they cared.

When politicians cower, when leaders behind thick walls plot retreat, when bureaucrats sip tea over extravagant dinners behind embassy security, others, like Parwana, Khorshid, and Samir take up arms against those who would destroy this country. May we all have the courage of an eight year old, someday… For the sake of a better Afghanistan”

I enjoyed my tour in Afghanistan with all its challenges and long work hours. It was a rewarding experience and I am glad that I went. It was also my last deployment, after 8 tours it is time to let other go overseas.

Air Son Ar Duthchais

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