Clearing the Way: Combat Engineers in Afghanistan

“Stories from the Combat Roads”

By Capt. EJH Stewart

“Stories,” writes author Tim O’Brien, “are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were, to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased.”

Over 34,000 Canadian Forces members have been deployed to Afghanistan since 2002. Of the stories carried within by those who have returned, many are good; others tragic; while some are so dark they will likely never be spoken of. Then, in some cases, there are those stories so uplifting that it seems astonishing and wrong that they haven’t been shared with the whole world.

Good or bad, for every story about the Afghan mission that is publicly known, there are at least a thousand that are not.

You may have spent an entire tour at Forward Operating Base Ma’Sum Ghar (FOB MSG) without knowing why it is there. You may have wondered why the buildings at Patrol Base Wilson have their ceilings expertly braced in a very un-Afghan manner. Or not known that it was, for a time, known as ‘Impact Area Wilson.’ You know tanks are a standard feature in the Canadian Battle Group, but did you know that the first time they deployed en masse from Kandahar Airfield they were caught in a Soviet-era minefield? Do you know how Route Summit got its name, or how it came to be in the first place? Or what happened to FOB Zettlemeyer? Or how a ‘Mad Maxed’ yellow bulldozer was an integral part of Operation MEDUSA? Or how an engineer officer ended up owing the Afghan National Army $400,000? Or that after surviving a roadside bomb that destroyed his vehicle and all his kit a Petty Officer Second Class defused an improvised explosive device using only his bayonet?

Clearing the Way: Combat Engineers in Kandahar, collectively written by various members of 23 Field Squadron (23 Fd Sqn) tells those stories, and provides an astonishingly intimate glimpse into the reality on the ground in Kandahar Province in the late summer and fall of 2006.

The evolution of the book is almost as interesting as the book itself. “One day at MSG it was made known to me that Corporal (Cpl) Matt Austin was interested in writing a few short stories about the soldiers in the Squadron (Sqn),” relates Major (Maj) Mark Gasparotto, Officer Commanding (OC) 23 Fd Sqn on Roto 2. “I told his section commander that I fully supported the idea and that we should look at interviewing all the members in the squadron and putting together a small book.”

Back in Canada in April 2007, Cpl Austin got down to work. “I managed to interview troops on several dozen incidents of which four would make it into the book,” said Cpl Austin who travelled through Ontario and made dozens of calls to various parts of the country. “The real challenge was to interview all persons involved in the TIC’s (Troops in Contact) or significant incidents. Naturally, soldiers sometimes forget things they may have said in the past or events in detail – it was my view that by cross-interviewing troops at different times I would be able to verify the narrative and root out conflicts that for the most part were simple lapses in memory.”

Another challenge that Cpl Austin did not anticipate was the emotional impact revisiting these events would have on those he was interviewing.

“Many men would stop and only continue with the support of other section mates.”

Cpl Austin also managed to archive over 250 gigabytes of pictures and videos. “We would spend hours going over them to paint a picture of what troops were seeing and feeling.”

By the end of summer 2007, Cpl Austin had written four lengthy chapters – all of which contained incredible detail and tone. He planned to continue on with fifth and sixth chapters until events overtook him. “In September 2007 I was placed in a section heading back over to Afghanistan and my research would have to be handed over.”

“[Cpl Austin] ran out of time to cover everything that deserved being written about,” explains Maj Gasparotto. “That is when I decided to write the Squadron War Diary and invited other members to share their stories.”

The finished product includes the War Diary written by Maj. Gasparotto and the chapters written by Cpl Austin. The remainder are all first-person accounts of various incidents that stood out over the course of the tour. The other authors include, by current rank, Maj Rich Busbridge, Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) Brad Montgomery, Captain (Capt) Anthony Robb, Capt Dan Clarke, Warrant Officer (WO) Derek Marcoux, WO Scott Clucas, Sergeant (Sgt) Neil Coates, Sgt Justin O’Neill, Sgt John Valois, Master Corporal (MCpl) Mike Maidment and Leading Seaman (LS) Keith Bruce.

Whether or not you are an engineer, Clearing the Way is a significant work – it reads like it was written by soldiers, for soldiers. “There is a significant sense of pride,” says Cpl Austin, “in finally being able to tell the story to those who want to know how things were there.”

Clearing the Way is not available in book stores but can be purchased on line at http://www.23fieldsquadron.ca or at participating engineer kit shops. Any and all profits generated from the sale of the book will be shared between the Sapper Mike McTeague Wounded Warriors Fund (http://www.woundedwarriors.ca) and the Squadron Association