Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Taliban Metal Crashes Medal Ceremony

Photo by: Cpl Dan Pop
Brigadier-General Tim Grant, Joint Task Force Afghanistan Commander, presents the General Campaign Star to Corporal Demys Boucher from the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team’s (KPRT) Force Protection Company (FP Coy). The FP Coy personnel served with the KPRT in Kandahar from November 2006 to July 2007.

Globe and Mail

July 25, 2007
MASUM GHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- The rocket slammed in below the ridge line just after a senior officer arrived to hand out medals to departing Canadians in what was once the Taliban heartland overlooking the lush vineyards of the Panjwai district.
Everyone at this rugged base dived for cover. The communications net crackled, checking if anyone had been hit, and the incoming arc was plotted so a patrol could be sent out to check the launching site.

"We get a couple a week," said Major Dan Bobbitt, who commands Canada's artillery unit. It was a fortunate miss. A few metres higher or lower and the rocket's warhead would have detonated among the gathering Canadians. "They usually fire with a timer and often from inside a village, so we can't just target the launcher," Major Bobbitt added. This time no one was hurt. But the explosion shattered the searing heat and sent a cloud of grit wafting down. It served as a grim reminder that the Taliban are far from beaten.
Masum Ghar seems unlikely to join Vimy Ridge and Juno Beach in the proud lexicon of Canadian military victories. Schoolchildren a generation from now may never hear of it. Still, Canada has paid dearly for Masum Ghar.

"This is a piece of territory that is hugely important to Canada," Brigadier-General Tim Grant, told the assembled troops, gathered in a three-sided square to get their campaign medals and reflect on the bittersweet end of a tough deployment. "It's a time to reflect on what we have achieved and what we have lost, . ... and we have lost a lot."
Set in a mountainous bowl, Masum Ghar is emblematic of this war, a tough counterinsurgency in a distant land. Once a Taliban stronghold, Masum Ghar was seized in a battle nearly a year ago, when Canadian infantry fought uphill battles as rocket-propelled grenades rained down from Taliban positions on the heights.
During Operation Medusa, the battle that finished the Taliban as a conventional fighting force, it was at Masum Ghar that an U.S. A-10 Warthog pilot mistook a garbage fire for an enemy position and raked it with gunfire, killing one Canadian soldier and wounding 36 others.
As Brig.-Gen. Grant walked the ranks, pinning medals on desert camouflage fatigues, there were clearly moments of deep emotion.
"This is a very small token of a grateful nation," he said.
The ceremony was mostly for those reservists and others who will not be going home to Gagetown, N.B., where the majority of the battle group will assemble with their families to get their medals.
(As the returning battle group, based mainly on the Royal Canadian Regiment, prepared to head home, the lead elements of the next rotation, drawn mostly from the famed 22nd Regiment, known as the Vandoos (Note from Military Mom: 22nd Regiment or the number 22 translates to "Vingt-deux" in French - and hence the name: "Vandoos") and mostly from Quebec, were arriving for a six-month tour.)
"This is the last time I will see you guys here," Brig-Gen. Grant said to the returning soldiers.
He urged them to reflect on what they had accomplished. "Go and have a beer at the Legion," he said, because you, too, are veterans, no different from Korean or Second World War veterans "except that they are old and you are young." Unspoken was the reality that 66 Canadians won't grow old because of the war in Afghanistan.
Masum Ghar, now a major forward operating base, is home to Afghan National Army units as well as Canadian tanks, infantry and artillery. It commands a stunning view of both the lush Panjwai, west of Kandahar, and the rugged desert used as an infiltration route by the Taliban.
As the incoming rocket starkly demonstrated, the Taliban aren't far away.
In random conversations with more than a dozen soldiers, all of them counting the days until they leave, no one said they would miss Masum Ghar.
Despite the impressive repopulation of the Panjwai - the village streets and market stalls throng with returnees and children shyly wave at passing Canadian armoured vehicles - counterinsurgency operations continue. The ground-pounding infantrymen of Hotel Company, operating out of Masum Ghar, is at 23 battles and counting.

Photo Credit: Melissa Leblanc
Splayed across the bowl side is a huge Maple Leaf, a painstakingly laid mosaic of thousands of red and white-painted rocks. It, too, is emblematic, already fading. As the fledging Afghan National takes on an increasing share of the fighting, the Canadian presence may also fade into the background. But that's something for the future.

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