Reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act from today’s Ottawa Citizen:
Attacks on Canadian convoys kill two soldiers
Three also injured in Afghanistan
CanWest News Service
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Two Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan Wednesday and three others were injured in a day that saw three separate attacks on convoys of Canadian armoured vehicles.
The deaths, which come less than a day after a ramp ceremony for six other fallen soldiers, bring the number of Canadians killed on the battlefield since Sunday to eight, the most ever in a given week in Afghanistan since Canada’s mission in there began in 2002. It pushes the total number of Canadian soldiers killed here to 53.
"As you can appreciate our thoughts, again, are with the families of the soldiers we have lost," Col. Mike Cessford, deputy commander of Task Force Afghanistan said from the NATO base in Kandahar early Thursday.
"It is hard to put into words what they must be feeling at this time of sorrow," he added.
Master Cpl. Allan Stewart, 30, and Trooper Patrick James Pentland, 23, died after their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in an area about 38 kilometres west of Kandahar City, and in a region that Canadians claimed last June to have mostly rid of Taliban influence.
Military officials confirmed the dead soldiers were members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, based in Petawawa, Ont.
CFB Petawawa was sombre Wednesday night as news of the deaths of the two soldiers began to spread through town. Many troops serving with the Dragoons and on the base won’t learn the news until this morning, said Lieut. Krzysztof Stachura, a public affairs official at CFB Petawawa.
“It is tough,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any easier than when the base heard two days ago that six had died. It doesn’t matter where they come from.”
Late Wednesday night, Stewart’s family said the fallen soldier was born for the military, but lived for his family.
“He was more then military. He about family. Even though he was quiet and kept to himself, we knew he was there for us,” said his sister, Saskatoon resident Tanya Safard.
“He said this was last tour. He wanted to be home with his daughters.
A career-military man, Stewart lived in Trout Brook, N.B. with his wife and two daughters, Sarah, 8, and Brittney, 12.
In Afghanistan, Blackhawk helicopters brought the two bodies back to Kandahar Airfield soon after the blast along with the wounded. One of those injured soldiers was carried into the base hospital on a stretcher, while another — still noticeably dazed — staggered in with the help of two medics.
Of those wounded soldiers, one sustained minor injuries while a second, who was seriously hurt, will soon be taken to the U.S. Military Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.
A third, who was injured in a separate attack, was also brought in with minor injuries. All three were listed in stable condition.
Wednesday’s deaths were the fourth and fifth casualties suffered by the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the 19th and 20th for CFB Petawawa in total. There are about 100 Dragoons and 500 soldiers in total deployed to Afghanistan from the base.
Cessford said the fatal blast took place around 8 p.m. and that it happened about 800 metres from an earlier, similar, attack against another convoy of Canadians.
That earlier incident, which Cessford called "unrelated,” took place around 6 p.m., he said, explaining that a separate Canadian armoured vehicle convoy hit another roadside bomb. The shrapnel from that explosion left one soldier in a trailing vehicle — the third to be brought to the hospital — with minor injuries.
In a brief news conference, Cessford refuted claims this week’s series of attacks should be seen as the beginning of a Taliban spring offensive.
"I think the spring offensive, if you listen to what the Taliban are saying, they are talking in hundreds, and multiples of attacks. These are two separate incidents widely dispersed," he said.
"It is a spike in casualties, obviously, we will examine it closely but again I am not convinced that we are seeing a Taliban spring offensive."
Cessford went on to suggest that instead of a show of new force, these attacks may in fact be a sign of weakness.
"The Taliban have tried to fight us in a conventional fight. They have lost," he said. "They have limited capability now and that is now turning to attacks with IED’s suicide bombs and so on — in my mind, perhaps, acts of desperation.”
The two blasts followed yet another attack on Canadian soldiers Wednesday, one that happened at about 1:30 p.m. In that third attack, a suicide bomber driving a taxi set off a large explosion next to a convoy of Canadian vehicles.
The blast blew out the front window of a nearby water truck and sent pieces of the taxi flying close to nine metres, witnesses said.
No soldiers were injured in that attack, which happened in a western district of Kandahar City, though Kandahar’s health director said 10 Afghan civilians were injured.
On Wednesday afternoon, military spokesman navy Lieut. John Nethercott said the explosion caused minor damage to a Canadian LAV III, but added all the vehicles in the convoy were able to keep driving and to leave the scene.
Taj Muhammed, a 25-year-old day labourer was one of those who was injured.
He said he was on his way to Helmand province to harvest poppies when the explosion went off. He explained he’d pulled his car to the side of the road at the time because a Canadian convoy was about to pass.
"Suddenly I heard an explosion," he said from his hospital bed,where he was being treated for burns.
"After the explosion fire spread all around us," he added. "I lost consciousness and when I opened my eyes I found myself at the Mirwais Hospital."
The string of attacks took place less than three days after yet another IED strike where six Canadian soldiers died in a blast about 75 kilometres west of Kandahar City.
Cpl. Brent Poland, Sgt. Donald Lucas, Cpl. Aaron E. Williams, Pte. Kevin Vincent Kennedy, Pte. David Robert Greenslade, and Cpl. Christopher Paul Stannix all died in that blast, and were given a final farewell at a ramp ceremony on the Kandahar Airfield Tuesday night.
On Wednesday morning, several infantrymen of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment’s hotel company spoke about what happened during the blast on Sunday and of how they have been coping since.
Master Cpl. Brian McCallum, 31, was the crew commander in the stricken vehicle and recalled on Wednesday what he felt immediately after the explosion went off: "From what I recall, I just remember a sense of floating," he said, adding he was standing halfway into the vehicle’s turret at the time the LAV hit the IED.
"When things did settle down I was on top of the turret," he said. "I think my legs were still inside the turret but the rest of me was out of the vehicle."
McCallum said he can’t recall feeling any specific emotions at the time, and that instead he simply fell back on his training and snapped into action.
"I remember calling out for names, waiting for word back," he said, explaining he was greeted by silence.
"At first I wasn’t getting any response," he said."A good sign was when the gunners hatch opened and my gunner was telling me `I’m all right, I’m all right.’”
McCallum and others said they have spent much of the last few days leaning on each other and to sharing funny anecdotes and quiet moments. Most of all,however, he said they’ve started putting their minds towards returning to the field.
"We come here to do a job and I would like to finish it with the guys I came with," he said.
Pte. Dennis MacKenzie, 23, agreed saying he remains comfortable with the risks that come with the job, as well as with the training and equipment Canadian soldiers have to protect themselves.
"As far as I’m concerned it happens," he said of death on the battlefield. "You come in thinking the worst, knowing the worst can happen and knowing the risks of coming here.
"You can’t come here thinking the best. You’re going to try there best to do what you can do, but it’s always going to be in the back of your mind," he added.
When asked if he will be lonely when he heads back into the field without his old crew, McCallum took a long pause and then settled on an answer.
"No, I don’t think so," he said."I’ve got a little bit of everybody in me and I know they’ll be riding along with us because they wouldn’t have given up," he added as he started choking up.
"They are all there until the bitter end."
With files from Ottawa Citizen and Saskatoon StarPhoenix
© CanWest News Service 2007