In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

More of my Experience in Afghanistan

Posted 6/9/2008 by Grant Mitchell

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I was in Afghanistan with members of the Senate Committee on Defense and Security in March. We spent 4 days there. Part of the visit involved spending a day and a night at the Provincial Reconstruction Team base just outside of Kandahar City. This is the base from which many different “social work” initiatives are undertaken, including teams of military “social workers” who go door to door in the city asking residents what they might do to help improve their lives. They identify projects like drilling water wells and then teams of military engineers follow up and drill them. This is also the base from which a Canadian corrections officer, a woman, works in her effort to help improve the prison in Kandahar. Canadian police officers were also in the middle of setting up a school for training Afghan National Police officers.

We were very interested in seeing development projects first hand and it was in the process of returning from visiting two of them that we had one of the most intense experiences of our visit.

We travelled outside the wire that day in an armored convoy of two LAVs, one at the front and one at the end of the convoy, with three Nyalas in between. The LAVs are the large green tank like vehicle that we have seen so often on the news with a heavy machinegun on top requiring the gunner to be exposed out the top of the LAV. The Nyala is a brown, large jeep like vehicle with a remote controlled heavy machine gun on top.

I was seated in the third Nyala along with two other Senators and a team of soldiers. The Senators sat on the left side of the vehicle facing out the right side with our backs to the left side. One soldier sat at the back with a heavy machine gun ready to be thrust out a firing portal. I sat facing another who was seated facing forward on the right side of the vehicle. He operated the remote controlled machine gun. He had a monitor which showed where he was pointing the gun at any given moment. The driver and the commander sat up front.

We were cramped, strapped into our seats, surrounded by military equipment and sweating profusely in what must have been 35 degree heat compounded by our flak jackets and helmets. The Nyala was supposed to be air conditioned and there was something that looked like the top of a plastic water bottles behind our heads that emitted a stream of cooler air that was overwhelmed by the heat in the vehicle.

We moved quickly and efficiently through the streets of Kandahar, the heavily armored and therefore very heavy Nyala bouncing and swaying as we travelled along sometimes very rough roads, grateful for the should straps that pinioned us to the seats. We could see people and dilapidated shops as we sped by. Some of the young children waved.

The intensity of the soldiers’ vigilance was riveting. Repeatedly, the driver and commander called out to the gunner, identifying possible suicide bomber threats: “Do you see the blue truck? Have you got the blue truck? Have you got the blue truck?” And the response: “I got it. I got it.” And he would turn the remote controlled heavy machine gun on the top of the vehicle toward what could be a bomb laden truck.  It would appear on his TV monitor. Then, on to the next approaching vehicle: “Do you see the white car? Got the white car?” Response: “I got it”. Then, his attention was being drawn to a boy on a bicycle – no way to know what was and was not a threat. And so would go the routine, always at a high level of intensity and at the utmost level of alert.

I asked the young soldier who controlled the roof top machine gun how could shooting at an approaching suicide bomber vehicle make any difference given how close they could get so quickly. He said even a half meter difference in proximity to the Nyala once a bomb exploded could make the difference between life and death for those in the vehicle. Just that distance could dampen the amount of force that would ultimately be transmitted by the blast into the chassis of the vehicle and through to its occupants.

And, then, suddenly we stopped. I looked ahead, past the two Nyalas ahead of us to see the first LAV pull across the road to block any on coming traffic. Soldiers were out of the LAVs and setting up a perimeter immediately in response to what was later described as an “escalation of force order.” One soldier hefted a spike belt from the first LAV and began moving to the back of the convoy to lay it across the road behind the LAV to stop any would-be bombers from driving up from behind as the soldiers assessed the situation. Two soldiers stood about 50 meters behind the LAV facing out with rifles at the ready. Our gunner swung the remote controlled machine gun back and forth and up and down searching for any signs of danger.

There was a large truck parked at the side of the road beside the convoy and now within the area defined by the LAV that had pulled across the road. Our attention went to it immediately, but it turned out not to be the issue. Instead, when we turned to look back, we saw the problem. There was a taxi, stopped in its tracks by warning fire from the LAV at the back of the convoy. A tire had apparently been shot out. In the process of going around what might be called a traffic circle, the taxi had somehow become “wedged” between our Nyala and the last LAV. It had begun to look like a possible suicide bomber. There are signs on the military vehicles making it clear that no one should approach them. When one does, even someone on foot or on a bicycle, nerves become taut. The LAV gunner had fired a well placed warning shot and had brought things to a grinding halt.

Several soldiers approached the taxi and its several occupants slowly. Eventually, after ascertaining that there was no threat, they struck up a conversation with the driver and arranged for him to visit the PRT base to discuss compensation for the damage with the base legal officer. Care is taken to make reparations when something like this happens.

We got back to base, hot, tired and tense. The soldiers often do this several times a day.

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