In Retrospect “Letter from Kandahar” Fifteen Years Later
Articles by: 12723 Pat Stogran and 12570 Mike Kennedy
“I need this man. He fights.”
- Abraham Lincoln, speaking of General Ulysses S. Grant
Good Friday 2017
Pat Stogran and I have only met once, but I think we share a few things in common. Both of us were born in Quebec in the late 1950’s, myself under the sign of the Scorpion, and he under the sign of the Ram. Both of us share a mutual interest in martial arts, though he is much more accomplished than I am. Both of us entered the CMC system in 1976, he at Royal Roads, and myself at RMC. And as cadets in the College system, both of us had careers that could be described, in the most charitable of terms, as being rather undistinguished.
For both of us, April 17 is also a memorable day. For me, it’s the date of my son’s arrival in this world in 1994. Given that my wife and I had lost our handicapped daughter only little more than a year earlier, that event was a particularly joyous milestone in our lives.
For Pat, April 17 has a very different significance. It was on that day fifteen years ago, while commanding the 3 PPCLI Battle Group in Canada’s first mission to Afghanistan, that four of his soldiers lost their lives in a friendly fire incident. They were the first Canadians to be killed in combat since the end of the Korean War. Little could anyone have imagined that over the next several years that would follow, nearly 160 of their comrades-in-arms would give their lives while serving in one of the most remote and inhospitable corners of this earth.
The words you are about to read were originally written in 2002, when the mission in Afghanistan was just starting to unfold. Pat’s “Letter from Kandahar” was published in the summer edition of Veritas magazine; a few months later, he and his soldiers returned home to a hero’s welcome. My rejoinder to his letter appeared in the fall edition of the magazine.
Fifteen years have now passed since we first put our thoughts on paper. Much has happened since that time, and in many ways the world is a very different place than it was in 2002. But in reflecting back on what we wrote at the time, I believe that in many ways these thoughts ring just as true now as they did at the time they were first recorded.
By the time Pat would have arrived at RMC in the fall of 1978, I was long gone. Though we both had entered the system in the same year, our careers at the College came to very different endings, and our lives since that time have moved in very different directions. But even so, I still believe that we share some important things in common. In retrospect, I suppose that in some ways it was probably a bit presumptuous for a guy like me to try to comment on his letter, as I have never done anything that even remotely resembles what he did in Afghanistan. Even so, and although I have only met him once, and in passing at that, I can’t help but admire this guy as being someone who represents the best of the best of what the College was really supposed to be all about.
After these articles were published, Pat stayed in the military for a few more years, following which he continued to serve his country by waging a valiant, if not always successful, battle for the rights of Canadian veterans. My understanding is that he is now retired in Ottawa, where he continues to be a tireless and outspoken advocate for the causes he believes in.
It was on Easter Monday 100 years ago that the troops of the four divisions of the Canadian Corps embarked upon the assault that would eventually represent this country’s most triumphant feat of arms. Nearly a century later in Afghanistan, the soldiers of the PPCLI Battle Group serving under Pat Stogran approached their mission with the same sense of courage and determination, and proved themselves to be eminently worthy successors to those who had gone before them. Their heroic achievements were a true credit to their regiment and their country, and represent something that all Canadians can feel enormously proud of.
I hope readers of e-Veritas will enjoy what follows, now viewed fifteen years in retrospect. And regardless of whatever your own memories of the College may be, when you read these words, I would encourage you too to think about the impact the institution had on your life, and your contributions to the world around you.
12570 Mike Kennedy
Original Text of “Letter from Kandahar” – published in Summer 2002 Veritas
I must say I was somewhat flattered but at the same time taken aback by your request to send something about the mission that you could print in Veritas. Obviously, I am flattered that you would take an interest in our mission here in Afghanistan. However, I have toad mite that when I was a Cadet years ago, I was somewhat of a pariah in the College. I was a consummate underachiever, rebelling at the very thought of doing anything extra in the pursuit of a senior appointment in the Cadet Wing.
Moreover, when you asked me to put an Ex-Cadet bent on my story here in Afghanistan, I thought that would be a real stretch. Does the College give an officer a leg up / I think my response was an emphatic no. But after tossing some ideas around with my Operations Officer, Major Peter Dawe, I came to the realization after twenty some years of service in the PPCLI that it really did.
When I joined Royal Roads Military College, two ambitions consumed me: to get a degree, and to lead troops in combat. The boys’ school atmosphere of Royal Roads and the emphasis on the bullying and ravings by the Seniors very quickly discouraged me. My salvation after being tainted in my first year was the vision of the Staff Officer Cadets and Military Training (SOC & MT) then-Major George Oehring – a Gunner, who managed to get a bunch of us combat arms cadets on a jump course prior to going on BOTC. It was there, at the Canadian Airborne Centre in Edmonton, I found what I hoped would be my niche in life. All I wanted to do was serve in the Canadian Airborne Regiment, although I still felt a degree was a necessary milestone in my life.
I was never academically inclined nor was I particularly enjoying my time in Military College; however, I have always believed in biting off more than you could chew – and then chewing like hell, so I decided to persevere with the Military Colleges. To make it more of a challenge, if I had to put up with all the silliness associated with Cadets aspiring to senior appointments, I thought I would really make my life miserable and pursue a degree in electrical engineering.
However, as I reflect on how Royal Roads and RMC may have shaped my career, in particular the situation I am in right now, it became apparent that my MilCol experiences were quite profound. I remember during recruit camp at Royal Roads, which was really beasting-at-its-best, being taken for my first road run by the likes of 12320 Officer Cadet Walter Natynczk and 12324 Officer Cadet Tyrone Pile. These guys were fit. They had frames like body builders and could run like deer. Not only that, they were real leaders who played the Senior Cadet game when it had to be played, but they also mentored the juniors. I had always been into physical training, particularly martial arts, but it was on that run, as a 135-pound pencil neck, that I aspired to be like these two. PT would become part of my daily routine for the rest of my life.
As mentioned, I was never particularly gifted in the academic realm, so electrical engineer was a particular challenge for me. In retrospect, I doubt I could have completed such a pursuit in a civilian university. I did more than my share of late-night tutorials with professors – who were committed to teaching anyone who was committed to learning – but I think it was the closeness of the MilCol environment that was instrumental to my eventual graduation. I can’t begin to count the times I pestered guys like 12718 Dano Simard, 12589 Jay Moulton, and 12511 Bob Brimacombe for some help with a lab report of problem set that may have been assigned to us. These guys were truly brilliant academically and it was the close living conditions and common sense of purpose of RMC that enabled me to seek out their help to get through.
The dorm life and the kind of people the Colleges attract also allowed me to have brushes with brilliance in other areas that would be life-defining also. Senior appointments were not awarded only to careerist cadets who would do anything to get a couple of extra bars on their collars. Many were great natural leaders who a guy like me would have had to be pretty thick not to have sat up and taken notice of. I don’t think there are many educational establishments that offer every student the environment for so many profound life experiences, so early in life, that transcend pure academics.
Another aspect of College life that may have given me a “leg up” in the infantry was the camaraderie. There are literally hundreds of classmates within every year that share a special kinship, which might not manifest itself until a special event, such as our summer training. Phase II and III Infantry training were particularly grueling, but there was a special bond among the MilCol types. Us ‘ring-knockers” weren’t highly regarded by many of our peers on Phase Training but, to be quite honest, “ring knockers” weren’t well regarded by those of us from RMC either. We went on Phase Training as soldiers, and our peers were quick to pick up on that.
Although some of our MilCol brethren may have had some trouble with the training and some would tend to wear their alma mater on their sleeves, many of our peers in training quickly recognized our dedication to soldiering and the particular talent that some of my College-mates had to offer our course. I certainly did, and I personally benefited on Phase III Infantry from the synergy with RMC cadets like 12722 Tom Stinson, 12647 Steve Bryan, 12638 Roscoe Anderson, and 12668 Scott Hayter, to name a few. And while I may have been a tad of a rebel in College, I still had some very good friends along the way who weren’t Grunts, guys like Jimmy A (12146 Jim Allison), Fos (12662 Paul Foster), and Voodoo (12710 Duncan Reid).
The relationship that I developed over those years with these guys is reminiscent of the relationships that the Subalterns had in 3 PPCLI when I joined the unit from RMC. The Subbies are the Heart of an infantry battalion, and it is vitally important that a special bond develops between them. For someone coming from RMC, that was an easy fit. As a Commanding Officer, I see how the Ex-Cadets contribute to the esprit de corps amongst the Subbies. The “Charm School Boys” take their share of ribbing, as can be expected, but they take it in stride. They don’t strut their MilCol stuff; they focus on being warriors. I would suggest that, in fact, having been “brought up” with the camaraderie and esprit de corps of RMC, Ex-Cadets definitely have a leg up in providing the life blood to the Heart of a unit.
Finally, there are the role models in terms of the Regular Force personnel at the College. I was fortunate to have had a Squadron Commander, a Van Doo Captain Chuck Fournier, who was just such a role model. I remember that when I arrived at RMC, all I wanted to do was get into some casual parachuting with the Airborne Regiment in Petawawa. Captain Fournier pulled a few strings with his buddies in Premiere Commando and, before I knew it, there was a group of us that would seize every opportunity to make the road trip north for a para descent.
On more than one occasion, when the jumps during the week would conflict with my classes, my academic prowess caused some of my professors to refuse to sign the form excusing me from class. Captain Fournier would always sign it off anyways, having the trust in me to catch up on what I missed and still pursue my Airborne ambitions. That was a profound lesson in trust for a young Officer Cadet, and I managed to get through my four years of elec eng without a sup !
I also had the good fortune of being in the College when a fellow Patricia, 4860 then-Brigadier General John de Chastelain, was the Commandant. Seeing the Commandant run through the obstacle race before the recruits and playing against him in the Ex-Cadet Rugby match was my first real lesson in leadership by example, a lesson I have never forgotten. As can be expected, however, there were some staff that were somewhat less impressive role models, but they provided as valuable a lesson to me of what not aspire to in the Patricias as the careerist cadets in RMC.
At RMC, I almost achieved my goal of avoiding key appointments until the last slate of fourth year. At the time, I was down near the bottom of the merit list and was appointed one of the Flight Leaders in 4 Squadron. I thought this appointment was particularly a propos. It was about the same size as a platoon, and I expected to be commanding a platoon of war fighters in a few short months. I took on the job with a vengeance. However, now that I had to do the inspections, I had to keep my room and dress to a high standard. No more slinking off to my favorite watering hole, the Lakeview Manor.
I did quite well as a Flight Leader, if I do say so myself, which actually surprised my Squad Boss. I remember being called into a perplexed Captain Fournier’s office where he asked me why I had been such a thud for three and a half years, and didn’t show my colours until the last slate of fourth year. He was concerned that, with my track record, he didn’t think he could get me even three bars when he thought I deserved better, For me, though, that recognition was reward enough, because I knew that my four years in Military College and Phase Training had prepared me well to step up to the plate with soldiers.
You may have noted a lot of name dropping in my exposé. I did this purposely because the leg-up that I received from RMC was not necessarily from the institution or the program itself, but rather from the interaction I had with the people. I think what RMC did for me was to enable me to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in people, including myself. What I have learned through my career as a combat leader is the importance of a leader knowing himself before he can lead others, and that the great business of a leader is to recognize the strengths of the people who serve under him, and inspire them to do their very best.
Soldiering is all about people, and I attribute the success that the 3 PPCLI Battle Group has enjoyed thus far in its tour in Afghanistan to the great people I have working for me. Since the day I rejoined 3 PPCLI, this time as Commanding Officer, I have never referred to 3 PPCLI as “My” Battalion. I refer to it as “Our” Battalion. If ownership of the Battalion is vested in anyone, it belongs to the young soldiers who will serve many years in the unit. I am merely a two-year visitor.
Here in Afghanistan it has been my goal as a leader to empower all the members of this Battle Group with the same sense of ownership in the mission, and they have risen to the challenge. I have seen young Platoon Commanders leading their troops in combat air assault missions into what could have been the jaws of death, and they have done so in a thoroughly professional manner, with enthusiasm and no regard for their personal welfare. I have had many Section Commanders lead security patrols through the minefields that surround Kandahar Airfield in an effort to keep an elusive but ruthless enemy off balance. Our Strathconas have spent almost six months maintaining surveillance around our perimeter 24/7, and our Sappers have manned the trenches, all of which has enhanced the security of Kandahar Airfield immeasurably since our arrival here in February 2002. Every one of our soldiers – by they Gunners, Combat Service Support personally, or the manoeuver elements – have contributed to the success we are enjoying today.
We have not been without our problems, though. I have had some leaders who have not been able to cope with the stress and uncertainty of operating in a combat environment where our enemy has offered a reward to anyone who has offered a reward to anyone who kill or capture one of us. But, for the most part, everyone in the Battle Group exceeds expectations in everything they do. I think I can say that I have finally satisfied my second ambition, that being to lead troops in combat.
I’d like to close with yet another personal anecdote. Four years ago, I was posted to RMC on the staff of the Land Force Technical Staff Program. As my family and I were driving to Kingston for the first time, my kids made me promise not to try to persuade them to join RMC. Without hesitation, I agreed. However, I did not hesitate to get them involved in some of the College activities. It was an eye-opener to me to see how much more “civilized” the College has become. Later, as a Commanding Officer, I have had the opportunity to see the caliber of the Officer the College continues to produce.
As I write this article, only now do I realize how much I gained from RMC. When we moved away from Kingston, our daughter said that she might like to attend RMC one day. As rebellious as I may have been as an Officer Cadet, I think that would be a good thing.
12723 Pat Stogran
My rejoinder to the “Letter from Kandahar”, originally published in the Fall 2002 edition of Veritas:
Thanksgiving Day 2002
For many Ex-Cadets, Lieutenant Colonel Pat Stogran’s excellent Letter from Kandahar that was featured in the last issue of Veritas is something that no doubt read like a breath of fresh air. I know that it certainly did for me. After years of listening to senior officer bureaucrats obediently mouth the DND party line, it’s refreshing to come across a guy who’s not only a real soldier, but also one who’s clearly not afraid to say what he really thinks.
In reading Stogran’s letter I could not help but be impressed by his honesty and candor, and I felt that I myself could certainly relate to many of the things he had to say. What particularly struck me as I read his letter was how, 22 years after graduating from RMC, this one-time “pariah” showed what he was capable of accomplishing and, in the process, did a great deal to help restore our nation’s pride and confidence in the Canadian Army and its soldiers.
One of the things that jumped out at me as I read the Letter from Kandahar was the many similarities that I saw between its author and another “consummate underachiever” who, like Stogran, later went on to prove what he was made of. I refer specifically to John McCain, the United States Senator who, as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, survived five years of captivity in some of the most horrific conditions imaginable.
Those of you who have read Senator McCain’s superb autobiography Faith of My Fathers will know that although he was the scion of a distinguished Navy family, there was little in McCain’s early career to suggest that one day he would be bound for greatness. As a midshipman at the Naval Academy in the 1950’s, McCain spent four years under the thumb of a company officer who despised him, and he seemed to excel at nothing other than managing to get himself into trouble. After narrowly avoiding expulsion on more than one occasion, McCain finally managed to graduate fifth from the bottom of the Class of 1958.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, when in 1967 McCain found himself in a filthy prison cell at the mercy of his North Vietnamese captors, that he started to fully appreciate the significance of what the Naval Academy had taught him. As he candidly acknowledges in Faith of My Fathers, as much as McCain bitterly resented the draconian discipline of the Academy during his days as a midshipman, it was that same discipline that later enabled him to survive the ordeal he would be subjected to as a POW.
What’s the message in all of this for us as Ex-Cadets ? Maybe it might be the notion that things are not always what they appear to be. As cadets, the “system” pushed all of us to strive for the things that were visible marks of achievement and success – the bars on the collar, the merit badges on the sleeve, and all the other bells and whistles. But the reality is, these were only symbols, and temporary ones at that, for they quickly lost their meaning and importance as soon as we ventured forth from the sheltered and secure environment of the College into the much more uncertain and dangerous world that awaited us beyond.
Guys like Stogran and McCain remind us that sometimes it can be the individuals for whom nobody expects much of anything who turn out to be the real leaders. And the converse can be equally true as well; experience has shown that it’s just as possible for the cadets who seem destined for great things to lose sight of their moral compass and wind up making mistakes that are harmful to us all.
When McCain graduated from the Naval Academy in 1958, the top-ranked midshipman in his class was John Poindexter, who nearly thirty years later was destined to become one of the principal culprits in the Iran Contra affair. For most of his career, Poindexter was deemed to be an exemplary midshipman and a rising star in the Navy. But it all came to a disgraceful ending in 1990, when he was convicted of five felony counts for his dishonest and illegal actions during the scandal that nearly wrecked Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Perhaps the most important message in both Stogran’s letter and in McCain’s book may be the idea that what counts is not necessarily what we accomplish during our time at the College; what really matters is what we learn from the experience and what we choose to do with it in our lives afterwards. I suppose that in reality, for all of us as Ex-Cadets, RMC is but a brief stopping point on the journey we make as we travel through life. But it is a place where we pause at a very important formative stage in our lives, and one which, whether by design or by accident, has a profound impact on our image of who we are and what we believe in. This is something that I have often felt most of us don’t come to fully appreciate until many years after we march off the Square for the last time as cadets.
When you read Letter from Kandahar or Faith of My Fathers, it seems pretty clear the Stogran and McCain did not always enjoy their time within the “system”, nor did they particularly like or respect many of the people they were exposed to. But what’s equally clear, at least to me, is that both of them fundamentally believed in the values and ideals that institutions like RMC and the Naval Academy stand for, and that was why they stuck with it no matter what kind of abuse or injustice they were subjected to.
And when the time came, both Stogran and McCain did their best to remain faithful to what they had been taught as young men. They did what they believed they were expected to do. They did it with honour, courage, and unwavering loyalty to those who were depending upon them. And they did it asking for absolutely nothing in return for themselves.
Whatever mistakes these guys may have made in their youth, in my mind that’s the kind of conduct that makes them real heroes that all of us can be proud to be associated with.
It’s interesting, but as I wrote this piece on Thanksgiving Day of 2002, I read about a special lunch for Queen Elizabeth that was scheduled to take place at Rideau Hall on that day. The guest list consisted of 50 prominent Canadians who had been invited to join Her Majesty because each of them had accomplished something of special importance during a specific year of her reign.
The invitee for 2002 was Lieutenant Colonel Pat Stogran.
All I can say is, I hope that Stogran enjoyed having lunch with the Queen, and the many other distinguished Canadians who were in attendance. It was an honour that he certainly earned.
Well done, Pat. As the entire world looks back on the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and the events that unfolded in their aftermath, you and your soldiers have given us a lot to be proud of, and a great deal to be thankful for.
Respectfully submitted to all,
12570 Mike Kennedy