Monday, March 22, 2010

I was...In the Middle of Nowhere

Cpl James Arnal

Cpl Arnal's mother Wendy and brother Andrew besides James' plaque.

Canada has been in Afghanistan for eight years, and in that time 140 of our men and women have given their lives in extraordinary acts of courage and bravery for their country. Cpl James Arnal was the 88th soldier to sacrifice all. His mother Wendy, and brother Andrew, went to Kandahar last September. What follows is Wendy's account of their journey, in her own words:


(c) Wendy Hayward

I was fortunate to travel to Kandahar Air Force Base with our military and experience something awesome, and I mean that in every sense of the word. This phrase covers the whole spectrum of impressions, and that is why I feel compelled to share my experiences and the validation it gives to our cause and the global crises of not only 50 million landmines in over 70 countries, but also the need for the help necessary in a country that has been riddled with wars for over 30 years. The more I research this crisis, the more daunting the task seems to become. I was told by someone recently that it would take 500 years to rid the world of all the landmines! There are reported to be over 650,000 landmines in Afghanistan ... the middle of nowhere.

To me Afghanistan, and more specifically Kandahar Air Force Base, is an area that prior to being there was more surreal than it is to me today. Upon my arrival, “the middle of nowhere” became real in many ways – physically, mentally and emotionally. This was no longer a place described to me by my son, but rather a reality that he lived and that I needed to experience for myself. “The middle of nowhere” wasn’t just the geographical location of Afghanistan to me, but rather the place my son died; and I knew I needed to experience it as part of my journey to not heal – because I don’t think I ever will – but cope with this loss. This trip made the middle of nowhere real.

I was taken as far and as close as I could go safely to where my son died. This story does not depict the level of risk, physical endurance, and courage it takes to go outside the wire. I was left feeling that heaven and hell is just outside that wire. My son is out there ... in the middle of nowhere.

My trek to Afghanistan provided me with even more validation and motivation to continue our work to help demine countries of this weapon of terror, destruction and devastation. I met a young boy about 7 years old in the Kandahar Hospital that had stepped on a landmine last May and lost his right leg. I have to tell you that I was horrified and cried as I immediately felt that we were too late. And what struck me so oddly was the sense that this is an event that is maybe not every day, but a fact of life in Afghanistan. I immediately thought that something this horrific would not be tolerated back home. Why is it here? Over the course of the next couple of days the answer resonated with me. I remembered my son being quoted in an article on Remembrance Day November 2006, “We’re here so that these people can have the same opportunities we have back home ... and not have dictatorships such as the Taliban telling them what to do. I hope they’ll be remembered as brave people who stood up for things that other people can’t or are too afraid to defend.” There’s the answer ... Afghans are not equipped to defend themselves and they live in fear. After over 30 years of war it has become a way of life.

Later that same day the military showed us actual landmines that they have found over the years and explained how the designs and the construction of them change over the course of time as the military become wise to the Taliban’s strategies of the construction and planting of IEDs. I had always wondered why they just don’t explode them from a safe distance rather than risk the lives of soldiers and dogs and I had the opportunity to ask and get yet another answer, it is critical that the knowledge of what and how they use these weapons is shared so that soldiers, local farmers and children can be on the lookout for them. The defusing of them provides the intelligence to combat the random detonations that do not recognize whether it is a soldier’s foot or that of a child’s. The soldiers giving us the briefing on IEDs shared many successful stories. One young girl recognized a wire sticking out of a pile of garbage. She reported it and ultimately lives were saved!

More and more landmines are becoming undetectable as the Taliban now use as much plastic as possible, still even the copper wire used as the contact to detonate is detectable by detectors sometimes and remote controlled surveillance machines. I was also amazed that the military have “contraptions” that counteract radio transmitted controlled devices and are used to protect human lives. These “contraptions” appear to be something out of a Star Wars movie and emit a signal that disrupts other signals. And of course the use of a robot equipped with cameras is utilized as much as possible when approaching suspicious objects thought to be a landmine.

My first day in Kandahar ended off by accidentally running into Werner, a reservist and mine detection dog handler from South Africa. His dog Ricky and he were sniffing out landmines along a fence line around the outer edges of the base. What an incredible dog! We all thanked him and Ricky, and were only too happy and proud to have our picture taken with them! Werner and his best friend were dusty with the fine desert sand but full of heart.

Our troops, among so many other countries and quite a large number of civilians from around the world were hard at work and busy in Kandahar in a number of different projects. A number of NATO forces working in concert toward a common goal and currently being commanded by a NATO General from Norway. We had the opportunity to meet him and after only talking with him for 15 minutes he shared his passion and belief they do make a difference. I learned about a school, Sayad Pascha, just outside the wire that was built by the military and supported to house classes for the local children. I was told by our military escorts that they would appreciate our support for that school and ultimately the next one. It is currently being supported by “Skills Generation” and you can learn more by visiting their website, I was shown the school’s progress and what it takes to be productive and meaningful and I find it amazing how a substantial project could evolve out of a mission that at first glance appears to be chaos. But being there and seeing everything, it is anything but chaotic.

The small “city”, in this huge sandbox, runs methodically, organized and focused on tasks going on all around you. A number of barb wired fences surround compounds and the outer edge of the camp. Proud soldiers and armies everywhere you look, carry rifles. Friendly locals providing meals, cleaning, construction, etc, always grant you a friendly smile and nod. Machinery and vehicles are covered in fine desert sand, which covers and sticks to absolutely everything. Cubed housing and facilities make up small city blocks surrounded by tall cement rocket barriers, some proudly displaying graffiti from those before us. A few roads are paved, though most are gravel. Every cubical houses many air conditioning units providing relief from the heat. Now and then you’ll walk past a “Canada Post” mail box and you are reminded of home. A “poop pond” fills the air with a stench which is grotesque at first and unbearable. If you stay there long enough you have no choice but to become accustomed to it.

The infamous boardwalk is the only sign of our western world boasting Tim Horton’s, Burger King and a number of other brand name restaurants, and both local and brand name shops. It’s a dry camp, meaning no alcohol, and one corner of the large boardwalk houses a karaoke corner where those that need not the induced courage to sing, belt out their favourite tunes! The center of the boardwalk provides beach volleyball, floor hockey and other sports for the troop’s rest and relaxation. The mess halls seem to feed an endless line of people and even provide sinks prior to entering for washing up before dinner. I was surprised to find out that there are over 260,000 cases of malaria in Afghanistan. Every effort is taken to lessen the challenges this country presents and everywhere I went there was the most valuable commodity ... water. The heat is so intense, you don’t go anywhere without your bottle of H2O.

For security reasons, few lights remain on at night and everyone then dons their yellow florescent belt, a signal to the many vehicles always on the move. The airport is a business in itself, airplanes, Chinooks and Apache helicopters and jets constantly landing and taking off. No pictures were allowed in certain areas, for security reasons. The airport was one of them. The airport terminal is called the TLS. The Taliban’s Last Stand. The building that armies forced them in too, marked with gun shots and a hole in the roof where a bomb hit. The hospital is near the airstrip and helicopter pads for emergencies. I was surprised but pleased to see only four patients, two soldiers with minor wounds and two children. It is more than a MASH unit and quite impressive, even equipped with dentists and a CT scanner. And again, every precaution is taken for a healthy and safe environment. There is construction everywhere. The most prominent is the new hospital being built of brick and two stories high. Around the edges of the camp were fields that had been demined and filled with scrap metal as a result of those efforts. We also saw fields currently being demined as the “city” continues to grow in size.

The cenotaph is the only place on base that a salute was required. This rule was changed recently but soldiers still salute as they go by paying tribute to all fallen. The flag was at half mast that Sunday, having been lowered for a British soldier killed in the line of duty. I was also impressed to see a number of times the fund raising efforts being done in Kandahar for Soldier On, the School, etc. A female soldier actually offered her long locks to be shaved upon reaching a goal of $15,000 and we witnessed the shaving! She was only too pleased to do it, not only for Soldier On but also to give her hair to another organization that makes wigs for cancer patients! I was amazed at their focus, aren’t they doing enough by just being here?

In what was such a busy place where everyone had a point B to get to at all times, what I did not see was vehicles speeding, blatant disrespect for those whose turn it was at a four way stop, who was next in line at Tim Horton’s or the mess hall, idleness, or even just one cranky person. Everyone wore a smile.

When the sirens went off because of a rocket attack, we were quickly ushered into a bomb shelter, however not once did I feel at risk. Although being debriefed, I instinctively did not know what to do. But my military escort, Chris, knew exactly what to do as did all the personnel. At one minute we were eating and enjoying each other’s company and the next they were moved to action to protect us. I do not intend to minimize the risk of an attack but there was no whistle in the air and the ground did not shake beneath my feet. But the threat was real. Reports after confirmed a rocket found about four kilometres outside the wire was aimed at the camp but detected before it could be fired. According to our military escorts there has not been one in 4 to 5 weeks and they hardly ever come near the base if they are fired. But again, every precaution is taken to protect lives. I recalled my son writing in his journal when he came close to a bullet, “Good thing these bastards can’t shoot!” But what if they got lucky? They did hit a mess hall once and destroyed it, and it is now a parking lot to the new one that replaced it.

Our group was also granted a debriefing on the Canadian Contingent’s Mission and was very impressed with the progress made in an area that is now to be considered completely free of the Taliban and landmines. The way I understood it was there is almost a police station presence in the village that provides protection and assistance to establishing irrigation, building schools, creating roads, electricity, jobs, etc. All the things we consider as basic necessities. With this strategy it enables us to build trust and hope in the local people where they can see the fruits of their labours and build an infrastructure that works for them that will not crumble upon our departure. The influx of American troops allows us to focus more on this strategy. Our government and military have been lobbying for more support of troops from other countries for some time now. In a way we are somewhat peacekeeping in this location. It’s what we are experienced at and do well. The military proudly boasts the success of this in at least this one town and district, and are already moving on to another location to do the same.

The Canadian mission in Afghanistan is and always has been to my knowledge, “To Protect and Enable”. Not peacemaking or peacekeeping. To me this appears to be a humanitarian mission. How could it be anything but protecting and enabling when you don’t know who you are fighting and horrible things are happening to innocent people. Even the Afghan people, that can, don’t know who to fight as their land is occupied by a power that brings their own rules of engagement and survival. Unfortunately at the cost of good men and women, we have been forced to engage the cowards of this desert in order to meet the goals to protect and enable. Call it what you want, engaging in combat has happened in other tours, and in the last 50 years Canada has lost over 100 other soldiers in 70 other tours that we called peacekeeping. Afghan people that want protection and assistance to be enabled are getting it.

Being part of a group of fallen families visiting such a desolate place, it is a paradise for all those living and working there for the good of others. We visited a compound that housed the unit where Cpl Nathan Hornburg worked in and they presented his mom and dad with a little air conditioned retreat for the troops named after him ... Hornburg’s Corner. I couldn’t help but think that the littlest corner in the world housed the biggest of hearts. The troops provided us all comfort for the “Mending Hearts Club”, families of our Fallen Hero’s. Outstanding and impressive heroes ... in the middle of nowhere.

I returned home with more love and pride for our troops, the civilians and other countries all doing their part and a better appreciation of what they go through to make a difference ... an inspiration to support our mission, our troops, and the Afghan people. Whatever our mission evolves to in Afghanistan I believe the people in the know that are and have been there and experience this place, truly care and know what they are doing. And those involved choose to be there. One of the Officers I had the pleasure and privilege to meet told me that you can always fit a square peg into a round hole if you hit it long enough, and hard enough. These civilians and NATO forces in Kandahar work long and hard and that square peg is fitting in ways we don’t always hear about. Thank you to you all and Godspeed your safe return. My heart is with them ... in the middle of nowhere.

Wendy Hayward

Mother of Cpl James Hayward Arnal: KIA – July 18, 2008

President and Founder:

Carpe Diem88 Inc


Poet Warrior said...

Wayward Wendy, I wuv you! That is a tremendous article. God bless your son. God bless you for having the courage to visit the land where he made his sacrifice. I think about your "middle of nowhere" and then realize how many "middles" there are. The sad thing for me is that once there, the "middle of nowhere" seeps into your soul and travels with you wherever you go ever after. It punches a hole in your psyched at the most undesirable of times, only to reclaim you briefly and revisit the pain of the time you were there physically. We call it PTSD. We call it the misery given to the loved one who lost someone who there. It is as portable as a nightmare. You are fighting your demons in an incredible way. I recall Princess Diana being dedicated to such a mission. You are part of her legacy as well now. A few months ago I talked briefly to a man who had visited Dachau (sp) and as he and his friend walked through the gate they saw two boys playing in nearby drainage ditch. The lads were tossing an ancient German "Tater Masher" and it scared the "bejeezus" out of them. The reported it immediately to a guard at the entrance who dispatched personnel asap. If you recall that is a WW2 German version of a hand grenade. As they learned later the boys had stumbled across that thing inside the drainage pipe where they played. It had been there for 6 decades and was suddenly uncovered by spring rains. Your mission will take you to the "middle of nowhere" often. For God's sake, please don't let it leave you there.

Men N Pause said...

Wendy ! You are an amazing lady with an amazing family ! Your courage to move forward and help others is very inspirational to many, myself included ! Thank you !

Anonymous said...

What strength it must have taken to go to the place where your son was stationed so far from home, such an alien environment. I guess that we have such brave warriors because those warriors had brave mothers. Thank you for sharing this painful journey.