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Heroism amid hail of bullets

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Article link found on the SOMNIA website, from the Halifax Chronicle Herald:

http://thechronicleherald.ca/Front/9018166.html

Heroism amid hail of bullets
Radio operator ignored own wounds, gave first aid to comrades
By KELLY SHIERS Staff Reporter
Fri, Oct 8 - 11:43 AM

The explosion knocked Der­ick Lewis off his feet, send­ing him flying 25, maybe 50 metres from the injured sol­diers he was trying to help.

Amid roaring rocket attacks and a hail of gunfire, Lewis’s mind was impossibly calm, his bloody body remarkably free of pain.

He yelled “I’ve been hit," wondered if his arm was gone, and crawled, seeking the only thing his training would allow: the relative safety of badly outnumbered Charles Company comrades under attack by Taliban fighters.

It was an ambush.

And Operation Rugby was doomed to retreat.

Its two platoons of 60 or so Canadians, along with members of the Afghan Na­tional Army, intent on seizing a Taliban headquarters, had driven their light armoured vehicles across the Arghandab River straight into a massive firefight.

Four members of Charles Company, 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, would die that day. Others, like Lewis, were badly injured. And doubt would be cast on the circumstances of these battle­field casualties some four years later when WikiLeaks, an international whis­tleblower website, said friendly fire was to blame.

But that part of the story Lewis will get to a bit later, as surely as he got to the wounded that fateful morning of Sept. 3, 2006.

And just like the 32-year-old gets now to the story of how a boy from Kentville will soon be among a select group award­ed the Meritorious Service Medal for his “exemplary perseverance and devotion to duty."

In the words of a government news release, he helped save lives when “de­spite being wounded, he assisted with the assessment, treatment and evacuation of the other casualties until his own injuries forced him to stop."

But that doesn’t really tell the story.

You have to go back a bit for that.

Maybe to 1999, when Lewis signed up at a Halifax recruiting centre, choosing to follow a tradition that led every man in his family to serve their country since the First World War.

Fast-forward to 2006 and his home base of Petawawa, Ont., where he trained hard for this, his second tour in Afghanistan.

And then to that summer morning, just three weeks after arriving in that country, when Charles Company set out as part of Operation Medusa, Canada’s largest com­bat operation since the Korean War.

Success was crucial.

NERVOUS EXCITEMENT

Operation Medusa, the Canadian-led NATO offensive, was supposed to root out the Taliban forces in their Panjwaii district stronghold and stabilize the deadly region southwest of Kandahar city, where the Taliban movement is said to have begun.

Charles Company’s orders — code­named Operation Rugby — were to attack a Taliban headquarters compound just across the river, after seizing a nearby mountain the day before.

Dawn was breaking, the day was al­ready hot and, Lewis remembers, there was “nervous excitement" in the air.

Light armoured vehicles rolled across the river, with engineers ahead making holes in the high wall on the other river­bank to let them pass. Only 1.2 kilometres separated the force from its target and vehicles were told to line up side by side to advance with all the firepower they could muster.

They didn’t get far.

“They had set up an ambush for us, knowing we were coming across," Lewis said.

With the river behind them, “we were surrounded on three sides."

Many stories have been written about what happened next. Questions have been raised about the battle’s timing and the information leaders had about the Tali­ban’s strength and numbers.

But by all accounts, the Canadians were outmanoeuvred and outnumbered.

“We had several people hurt and killed right off the bat," Lewis says. “There was lots of gunfire, lots of explosions."

DETERMINED TO HELP

Lewis, who was the company command­er’s radio operator, said he knew he could put his medical training to use. Although not a medic, he could tend to less serious injuries, and more importantly, let the medic know who the most severely wounded were.

He remembers gunshot wounds, in­juries from shrapnel, machine-guns blast­ing, anti-tank rocket fire and lots of blood.

He remembers pulling a crew commander out of his vehicle, chunks of metal buried in the front and back of his shoulder.

And he remembers setting up a make­shift collection point to assess the injured.

He says there might have been eight peo­ple there when machine-guns and anti­tank rocket found them.

“There was an explosion, which blew me off my feet and away from where my guys were. . . . I’m thinking ‘I have to get to cover. I have to fix my wounds. I have to continue on with my job.’ " He inched ahead, dragging his 150-pound frame along the ground.

“When I was crawling back to cover, I got shot through my left forearm. . . . I couldn’t move my left arm at all, which made me think perhaps I was missing my arm. I looked to see if it was still attached. I could see blood and some of my open wound. . . . There was very little pain. My body went into shock very quickly."

Shrapnel tore through his left triceps and cut both hamstrings above his knee on the back of his left leg. A bullet to his arm followed the same route out as the shrapnel had, taking most of the triceps along with it.

A friend who helped bring him to safety described the injuries to him.

“I told him how to take care of my wounds for me because I couldn’t do it one-handed."

And then Lewis got back to work.

At the makeshift collection point, he asked the wounded to tell him what was wrong.

And he found a way to reach them.

ONE GOOD ARM

“There wasn’t a lot of space between us. . . . I’m crawling. I’m using my good arm and my good leg to push myself closer to them on my butt."

Time passed. He is not sure exactly how much.

“The only time I do know for certain is that I was injected with morphine for pain at 9:20 in the morning. It’s written on my helmet.

“When you give pain meds — morphine — to a soldier, you write the time, so when they’re (evacuated) back to the hospital, they know exactly what drug was given to you and what time, so they know whether they can give you more or not."

But even after the medic — himself an earlier recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal for the work he did that day — gave him the drug, Lewis said he wasn’t fin­ished.

“I still had some things I needed to do and . . . I continued to do them until such time I was physically unable," he says, echoing that news release.

But what does that mean?

It was the blood loss and morphine that likely did it, he explains.

“I eventually passed out."

Back at Kandahar, there were immedi­ate surgeries on his arm and leg, and then three more operations at a German hospi­tal. He returned to Canada on medical leave, 25 pounds lighter when he finished rehabilitation. And after pushing to go back, in mid-November, he rejoined the battalion to finish the remainder of the original six-month tour.

Since then, there has been another tour in Afghanistan. He would go again, too, although this time as a master corporal with the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, even though it would mean leaving behind a five-year-old daughter in Nova Scotia.

His fiancee understands, he says. Pte. Kelita Card, a medic, is now serving in Afghanistan.

And now there is word that he will receive the Meritorious Service Medal for what he did that day at a ceremony yet to be finalized.

He says he is proud but repeats that “to be fair," he didn’t do anything that any other soldier, in the same circumstances, wouldn’t have done.

NOT FRIENDLY FIRE

And there is one more thing he wants to do for the sake of his fellow soldiers who died that day — Truro native Warrant Officer Frank Robert Mellish, Sgt. Shane Stachnik, Pte. William Cushley and War­rant Officer Richard Francis Nolan — and for those who loved them. Two of those men were his good friends, he says. It fell to him to pronounce one of them dead.

Last summer, a WikiLeaks report based on American documents claimed Cana­da’s casualties on Sept. 3, 2006, were victims of a bomb a U.S. jet dropped on a building they were in. Canada has always said the soldiers died in battle.

Lewis is still angry.

“I was there. I know these people died from the enemy, not from friendly fire," he says. “There’s no need to cast doubt on what (their families) were told by the military. What they were told is the abso­lute, 100 per cent truth."
 
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