Double-Double: A Kandahar Christmas

15 January 2008

Kandahar Double-Double could refer to my second Christmas in a row with our troops overseas – or to the fact that Tim Hortons played a much bigger role this year!

I joined the Honourable Peter MacKay, Minister of National Defence; General Rick Hillier, Chief of the Defence Staff; CWO G.R. LaCroix, CF Chief Warrant Officer; Ron Joyce, co-founder of Tim Hortons; and a few others, to show support for our troops.
A couple of long legs through London to the middle east brought us within Sea King range of HMCS Charlottetown, operating in the Persian Gulf as part of a Carrier Task Group with the aircraft ­carrier USS Harry S. Truman. We joined the crew under the leadership of Commander Patrick St. Denis (pictured with me below).

MP Lawrie Hawn and Cdr St Denis.

A high percentage of close air support missions come from the Harry S. Truman – and Charlottetown’s job is to help protect that extremely valuable asset. The crew also carries out regular boardings to interdict the smuggling of arms, drugs and people. A highlight of the visit was watching a night Replenishment at Sea (RAS), with the USS Arctic. It reminded me of air-to-air refueling in a CF-18, only with a much bigger hose and much fewer knots. The Skipper did a great job of ­“flying formation” in fairly rough seas.

After a rockin’ and rollin’ sleep, Christmas Eve started early with the beauty of a sunrise at sea. The only tense part of the visit was Minister MacKay ­driving the ship and having fun seeing how “hard-over” the ship could make the turns. Seasoned sailors took the leans in stride, but I’ll admit to reaching for a bulkhead. On our flight back to terra firma, we got a close-up look at the Truman. We also had a demo of the active countermeasures operation on the Sea King, when a radar warning receiver tone sounded and the system pumped out a couple of flares – just in case.

After a short stop at the logistic supply base, we boarded a trusty (read ‘old’) CC130 Hercules, in our visitors combat gear, for the trip to Kandahar, culminating in a combat arrival.

Despite the serious nature of the mission, Santa Claus was in clear evidence on Charlottetown.

The base had changed quite a bit since last year. It was more developed and seemed to be even more bustling. We met some of the troops over an informal ­dinner, including the Canadian Commander in Kandahar, Brigadier-General Guy Laroche, who was to be our host for the next couple of days. After dinner we were further kitted out with camping gear and boarded two Royal Navy Sea Kings for our trip outside the wire. Not as revealing as a road move, but faster and safer.

We split our group between Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ma’sum Ghar and FOB Sperwan Ghar. The Brits take flying in that environment very seriously and we did a lot of “bobbing and weaving” on the way into our landing zone. We were met by Major Trevor Gosselin, OC “C” Squadron of Edmonton’s Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), many more Strats, and members of the Royal 22nd Regiment (VanDoos).

Minister MacKay and Laurie Hawn travel by Sea King.

Spirits were high, even though we would all rather be home with family. The weather was much different than last year – cool and dry, and we got a taste (literally) of the fine dust that feels like ­talcum powder and gets into everything. After a late meal and visiting with the troops, Christmas Eve wound down with cigars and coffee under a bright Afghan full moon. It was quiet and peaceful as we bedded down – in the luxury of sea containers instead of tents.

Up early Christmas morning, it was clear that Ma’sum Ghar had also changed since last year, being much more developed and habitable. Still, not exactly a place you’d go for a winter holiday.

Laurie Hawn meets ISAF Commander, General Dan McNeill.

The Strathcona’s new Leopard IIs looked very much at home and have already proved their worth, giving our troops more comfort, firepower and protection. Slipping way down into the “cozy” gunner’s seat with the tank commander’s knees against your back, reminds you that this is no place for someone with claustrophobia.

An observation post gives a spectacular view of the countryside, with vineyards lying in fallow and a dull dirt colour to everything. We had a good look at the Arghendab River causeway that was built by the Afghans (with Canadian assistance). It links two major highways and will open up commerce for the region. The Afghans have pride of ownership of the project – and, so far, the Taliban seem to be sensitive to that by leaving it alone. That lesson is being followed on other construction projects. We visited the Afghan National Army (ANA) command bunker and had a “chat” (mostly sign language) with one of their officers. The ANA is more and more taking the lead under the guidance of our Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLT) and their development is proceeding well.

Christmas dawns.

Another bobbing and weaving Sea King ride took us to Patrol Base Wilson for breakfast with the VanDoos. This meal had a nice Gallic touch, with stuffed crêpes and chocolate sauce.

After learning more about the development program and practicing some French, it was off to visit the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City. We dropped the spherical puck at that most Canadian of events – a hockey game – and the competition was as fierce as in any NHL rink.

Royal Navy Sea Kings – taxi service.

We shared lunch with various representatives of CIDA, Foreign Affairs, Cor­rectional Services Canada and the RCMP, and were given updated insight into some of the progress and challenges in their areas of responsibility. As with the rest of the ­mission, there is both significant progress and significant challenges.

One of the best moments of the whole trip was spending some time with 22 Afghan children. Minister MacKay and I handed out school bags filled with supplies, and I admit to having a tear in my eye at their reaction. They are the future of Afghanistan and why we are there.

The merry band in Afghanistan: Jay Paxton (MND press staff), Maj Dan Audet (MND mil staff), Laurie Hawn, Ron Joyce, Minister MacKay, BGen Guy Laroche and Col Matte (COS for CDS).

Another quick chopper hop had us back at KAF and serving another Christmas dinner in the new large dining facility that holds about 1,000 people. Ron Joyce made himself very popular by throwing open Tim Hortons for that evening and Boxing Day. Ron served up free goodies through the drive-through window and I pumped double-doubles across the counter. Minister MacKay was busy, meanwhile, scoring the winning goal in yet another hockey game.

Our post-game coffee was rudely interrupted by a short whistling sound, followed by a whump, and then, a fire about a klick away. Seems like the Taliban just couldn’t resist the urge to share their version of Christmas spirit by lobbing a rocket in the general direction of KAF. No casualties and little damage, but we got to spend a bit of time in a bunker waiting for the all-clear.

Christmas dinner at KAF.

Early on Boxing Day, we loaded into a Herc for the trip to Kabul. We met Canadian Ambassador Arif Lalani and members of the Canadian International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Head-quarters team that is assisting in overall mission coordination and developing Afghan capacity in the many areas not directly involved with combat operations. The message remained the same – progress with challenges.

After several days of non-stop activity, there remained only 24 hours of flying time, in a collection of Hercules and Airbuses, to get back to the civilization of Edmonton. It was another excellent Christmas spent with a most special group of Canadians, military and civilian, who are doing a tremendous job under very difficult circumstances. A special personal treat was meeting several people with whom I had previously served.

This is why Canada is in Afghanistan.

The job is getting done, and it is a matter of Canadian national interests, ­universal human values, and international trust that we must carry on. This trip is becoming habit-forming.

LCol (ret) Laurie Hawn, the MP for Edmonton Centre, is also Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister or National Defence, Peter MacKay.
© Frontline Defence 2008