3 August 2006
–“Blackest day of my life. Four perfect men lost, seven others injured. . . . The day will be marked by acts of heroism– some witnessed, some described to me. I will have to tell the story someday, when I can do so without choking up.”
–from Ian Hope
to Christie Blatchford
Saturday 8/5/2006 1:40 p.m.
By July 2006, Task Force Orion was a killing machine.
Named for the conspicuous constellation of stars known as the Hunter, Orion was the Canadian battle group made up of the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Edmonton; a company from the 2nd Battalion and a battery of gunners from 1st Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, both based in Shilo, Manitoba; and combat engineers.
Even into the early spring, the soldiers of Roto 1, as the sevenmonth tour in Kandahar Province was called, had confronted many tests that tax a soldier’s resolve and ingenuity. But they had yet to face fullfledged combat.
The troops were being blown up regularly, killed and maimed by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) planted by an enemy who went unseen and largely uncaught.
They met endless groups of village elders, and older Afghan men who appointed themselves elders, in countless shuras, or consultations. Most of these were peaceful, if occasionally galling, because the soldiers suspected, and in a few cases damn well knew, that some of the same men laying bombs by night or with certain knowledge of who was doing so would sit cross-legged with them by day, swilling glass after glass of chai tea and nodding agreeably.
The Canadians patrolled on foot and in armoured vehicles and spent long stretches exploring territory, climbing stony hills, searching caves, and living rough far away from the huge base at Kandahar Air Field (KAF) or the little strong points they periodically called home.
“We were basically introducing ourselves–we’re not the Soviets, we’re not the Americans,” Chief Warrant Officer Randy Northrup, the Patricias’ Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), says of their long, slow start. “We were pissing in our corners. Our mantra was, Go do something, in case he just don’t know who his daddy is.”
I spent four or five days in March 2006 out with Alpha Company’s 3 Platoon, and the only nerve-racking moment came as we were climbing to 6200 feet and a boulder gave way under Captain Sean Ivanko, who was checking out a far-flung cave. He dropped several heart-stopping feet before nimbly grabbing on to another chunk of rock.
Things were so quiet in those days, even pastoral where we were, that I remember wondering to myself, in that remarkably condescending and vainglorious manner journalists the world over have perfected, if the Patricias weren’t playing soldier and maybe laying it on a little thick for my benefit.
In any case, for all that they dared, tried to tantalize, and practically begged the enemy to reveal himself, in those early months he did not.
LieutenantColonel Ian Hope, the Patricias’ commanding officer, remembers that they’d receive intelligence that the Taliban were in a particular area. “Where are they?” “Everywhere.” “What villages?” “All of them.” “When?” “Every day.” “What about the mountains?” “In the mountains too.”
The Taliban almost certainly were there, probably much of the time, but this was their turf, and they alone would decide when the battle was on. “They weren’t ready to fight,” Hope says. “They weren’t ready to fight until sometime in April.”
Because the Patricias were then operating on their own as a Canadian battalion, the considerable fighting they did in late spring and early summer of 2006 received scant attention.
But fight they did, spending weeks in contact–which means in contact with the enemy–and meeting the Taliban in the first of what would add up to more than fifty significant and fierce engagements.
Jon Hamilton, the then twenty-nine-year-old captain of the reconnaissance or recce platoon, first fired his weapon on February 4 in his initial week on the ground in Afghanistan during the operational handover from American troops. At that time, the event was so startling he was quizzed about it.
“I remember actually sitting down with the colonel and the operations officer and they were going, like, ‘Okay, what the hell’s going on here, Jon?’ I was like, ‘I fired my weapon in support of coalition troops. I don’t understand what the problem is here.’”
Hamilton believes he was the first Canadian soldier on the tour to fire a shot, and suspects that as soon as word of it got back home, which in our age means almost instantaneously, military bureaucrats in Ottawa had their knickers in a knot. “Now,” he says, “that seems so stupid . . . so insignificant compared to what lay ahead.”
By the end of July, Hamilton, his two dozen men, and the rest of the battalion were battle-hardened and so inured to the roar of combat that they were lighting up smokes and cracking jokes with rounds raining down on them.
“This is the kind of stuff you get used to,” Hamilton says. “And it’s not complacency or laziness. It’s just the shit that happens in battle, it’s the human mind protecting itself from going insane or something. It’s the way soldiers are.”
For recce, July 4 was the turning point.
Hamilton’s platoon was doing a route reconnaissance near the spot where he’d first fired his weapon months earlier, about 160 kilometres north of Kandahar city and sufficiently far north of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Martello that they were out of the comfort zone, and range, of their enormous artillery guns. They had the usual Afghan complement– the always present “Afghan face” of every mission, though Hope says in retrospect that the only Afghan face they saw consistently on their operations was that of the Taliban. With recce in this instance were some Afghan National Police (ANP), the leastloved element of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
En route, the small convoy found a village road blocked off with rocks at both ends. Hamilton stopped to question the village elder and was told the Taliban had been there during the night.
“Why would they block off the road?” he asked himself. “Is there somebody high up here? They know we’re gonna stop, they need to slow us, and that gives them time to bugger off. That’s kind of what we were led to believe.”
Guard up, moving single file, their little group of G-Wagons– recce travelled the whole tour in these versatile Jeep-like boxes, the least protected of Canada’s otherwise armed-to-the-teeth fleet–was just cresting a small rise when Sergeant Jeff Schnurr, the 3 section commander, looked off to the right.
The army has a formal procedure for the sighting of enemy, just as it has a formal procedure, or form, for every eventuality and every thing. That’s both why it works and why it can make smart men crazy. This particular procedure is called a fire control order, and it’s supposed to be done the same way every time–something like, “Contact, reference hill 600 metres left.”
But what Schnurr barked to his light machine gunner Corporal Jimmy Funk was, “Jim, they’re on the right! Fuck ’em up!”
“The old expression, Catch somebody with their pants down,” Hamilton says, “well, literally, that’s what we did. These guys were obviously armed, they had the chest rigs on [brassiere-like systems of straps and pouches for carrying ammunition], and they were having their lunch by the river. And they were undressed–you know, shoes off and everything.”
Hamilton, Schnurr, Sergeants Willy MacDonald and Mars Janek, and about three others moved in on foot, while the rest of the platoon remained with the G-Wagons, gunners spinning around the turrets as the Taliban began to return fire.
“These guys didn’t have a chance,” Hamilton says. “We just wiped them out. And I can remember seeing half a dozen of ’em and looking through a scope and shooting and watching guys drop. I thought, Jesus, this is a turkey shoot, these guys are done. There’s got to be at least six bodies down there. I look over at Willy, and we just kind of looked at each other and I just gave the order to cease fire. Because we had clearly won the firefight.”
The Taliban is respected, however reluctantly, for retrieving their dead and wounded as scrupulously as the Canadians do; their practice is to maintain harassing fire just long enough to pick up their fallen comrades. And that’s what they did, buying themselves time until they could run out through a wadi, one of the dried-up riverbeds that are far more common than actual rivers in the south.
It wasn’t long before Hamilton and MacDonald were down by the stream. They found clothes everywhere, the remains of the men’s lunch, shoes, five or six AK-47s and a Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG), but only one dead body, a young man of seventeen or eighteen at most, his chest rig full of bullet holes.
Hamilton was infuriated. He’d seen men falling with his own eyes through his scope, and so had MacDonald. Besides, “I know the difference between troops making shit up and not, and I know my guys just aren’t like that. And I know myself, I watched this guy drop, where the hell is he? I told Willy, ‘We only found one, where the fuck are they?’ And he [said], ‘I dunno, man.’”
Then they spotted a blood trail, and what Hamilton had learned in an advanced reconnaissance course taught at Gagetown, New Brunswick, was suddenly useful. When he took the course, he remembers, he’d thought, “What the hell, this is World War II stuff, tracking Germans through the hills. What a waste of time. I knew so much then.”
So they followed the trail, about 300 metres from the actual contact itself. “We picked it up, we lost it, we picked it up, we lost it, and sure enough, we come up to a bush and there’s a guy lying underneath and an ANP guy is pointing at him.”
The injured man was older than the dead teen, maybe twenty-five, and he was bleeding from a round that had entered his buttocks and exited through the front of his leg.
Hamilton’s head filled with memories of lost friends and colleagues–particularly Captain John Croucher, seriously wounded in a May 25 IED strike–and, with adrenalin from the firefight still flooding through him, he was enraged.
“Willy had to calm me because I was pissed,” he says. Looking at the wounded man, “I said, ‘Why the fuck should I pass you up?’ And I was telling him this through my interpreter, and I said, ‘If I was under the bush there, bleeding, and you came across me, what would you do to me?’
“And he said, ‘Oh, I’d take you back to my compound and heal you up,’ and I said, ‘That’s bullshit.’
“And I know it, because about two days earlier, out in Helmand Province [the British AO, or Area of Operation], they caught two Brits and they basically beheaded one of them and dragged the other behind the truck, so I know what they do to people they catch.
“And I said, ‘That’s bullshit. Because I’m better than you, because we’re better than you, I will heal you up and patch you up and take you back.’”
Hamilton had with him a medic, who did tend to the man’s wounds–good thing, too, because it took about three hours before a Black Hawk landed to take the Talib to the base hospital at KAF.
While they were waiting for the chopper, the platoon rounded up the captured weapons, but had to retrieve them from the ANP because they had found the injured man first and “had already scrounged everything off the guy, so it was just a complete waste of any possible intelligence that was on him. But those pricks had already rifled through him. I managed to claw back the weapons from them, and I gave them the RPG and then was told we’re not allowed to give them RPGs and it was a fight to get it back. You almost have to punch them out to get stuff back from them.”
That was Hamilton’s first real firefight as a commander, and it was an all-round success.
“I don’t pretend to be Rommel or anything like that,” he says. “It’s just the conditions were right: We managed to surprise them, I had the terrain advantage with that high ridge there, and for once–probably the only time–we probably outnumbered them. And had superior firepower, all those things that as a commander, in the perfect war, in a perfect battle, you want to have checked off in your box.”
And, thanks to Schnurr’s giddy announcement, recce came up with what Hope later called “the best fire control order I have ever heard. We preach ‘effects-based planning’ so as to determine the clear definition of what exact effect it is that we want to produce upon the enemy,” he said in an email. “Clearly, throughout the tour, I wanted to ‘fuck ’em up’ more often than not, but I am too educated to articulate with such clarity an exact meaning.”
From July 4 onward, Hamilton says, “anyone who even messed with us, and they picked on us because we looked smaller and weak, we just hammered the crap out of them with everything we had.”
It was during this period that recce conducted what Hamilton describes as “recon by force–drive till somebody shoots at you.” The platoon was nicknamed the Bullet Magnets by Major Kirk Gallinger, with whose Alpha Company it most often worked.
The lessons came as fast as the RPGs for the sophisticated young Hamilton, who was raised in the small rural town of Norwood, Ontario, and environs but who spent two years in his wife Carolina’s home country, Venezuela. There he picked up a bit of Spanish and took bets on sports for a bookie, before coming home and landing a job in the exportimport field (he brought meat from Mexico to Brampton) he had studied at college.
“And I hated it,” he says. “Detested it.”
He applied to the military but didn’t hear a word for eight months–typical for the Canadian army circa the turn of the century, which usually acted as though applicants ought to be grateful if they were even given a look and whose top speed tended toward the glacial. “I thought it was dead and gone–‘No, we don’t want him’–and then I got this call out of the blue.”
He was twenty-three, and he was in.
Hamilton’s grandfathers had both been in the military. One, Major-General G.G. Brown, was a former colonel of the regiment who fought in the Second World War. Brown lived in Calgary, but the family had a small cottage on an island in Quebec where they all gathered in the summers. “He loved to spend time with his grandkids. He’d appoint one sergeantmajor for the day, make sure the chores got done. I had no idea what a sergeant-major was at that age, but then he’d tell us enough, stories about him being wounded.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Fifteen Days by Christie Blatchford. Copyright © 2007 by Christie Blatchford. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.