Combat Engineers Bring Relief From The Danger

October 12, 2008, by Adam Day, Legion Magazine

These engineers say jokingly that they tell their wives and daughters that they’re in Afghanistan working as cooks, or building wells, or fixing schools, or anything other than what they really do.

They call it “recce by kaboom” and it could well be the worst job in Afghanistan.

With the threat of improvised explosive devices and mines extremely high, it’s the job of these brave Canadian combat engineers to drive out in front of Canadian convoys in their special blast resistant vehicles, literally proving the route safe by risking their own lives.

“We also call it ‘detection through detonation,’” says a smiling Sergeant Sean Fisher, a 34-year-old from Brandon, Man. “Though detonation is not the preferred way of finding them,” he adds.

The vehicles these guys pilot—Huskies or Buffaloes—are designed to come apart in a blast, and so far at least, they’ve worked well, and the worst these Route Clearance drivers have sustained is minor injuries.

This spring the engineers had been in Afghanistan for a few months and the pace of patrols was high and risky. They had already completed three major operations and more than a dozen small operations. Their vehicles had taken many hits—‘high-order detonations’ they call it—and many of them had already experienced being blown up.

Fisher was leading a column in an unarmed Buffalo when it triggered an explosion, sending parts and tires flying hundreds of metres, over the heads of soldiers doing flank security.

“Out in front of the windows just went brown,” recalls Fisher. “The dust went everywhere and there was a sensation of falling, and having the time to realize ‘holy f—k! I just blew up!’”

When Fisher stopped falling, he was still sitting in his burning vehicle, nose down in a deep smoky crater.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” he says, kind of grimly.

Now, says Fisher, he’s much better at noticing the warning signs of potential explosives.

“After you’ve learned a few things the hard way, you learn to filter out the unimportant stuff. You just look a foot at a time, just move forward, keep your eyes on the ground, looking for any indication that there’s something there,” he says. “And if you’re really, really good, you’ll see them.”

In addition to being very dangerous, Afghanistan can also be, quite simply, extremely tedious and uncomfortable, where keeping morale high can be a very challenging part of the mission.

Imagine you’re a Canadian soldier spending six months on a little base like FOB (Forward Operating Base) Sperwan Ghar. You spend all day on top of a pile of dirt that looks mostly like a massive anthill, sometimes doing guard duty or going out on missions but always on call, always ready for war. Except that call rarely comes, and so you wait.

In fact, you wait for a lot of things at a place like Sperwan Ghar. You wait for re-supply. You wait for up to six weeks for mail to arrive. You wait for the Internet. And, even when you’re on the Internet, you wait, as for some reason, the military has trial versions of desktop software on their computers at Sperwan, so every few minutes the Internet will snap off and the screen will go black and text pops up saying ‘Discover Station Trial Version, provided by Userful. Returning to desktop in
10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.’

And you sit there waiting as it counts down. There’s no dignity in it. Even at war you can’t escape nagging computers.

So, in order to keep morale up, the engineers have taken it upon themselves to improve their lives, and, maybe, just maybe, the lives of the infantry and artillery guys also stuck at the base.

These soldiers, from 1 Combat Engineer Regt. based out of Edmonton, are deployed all around Panjwai, but primarily at Sperwan Ghar and at the larger though perhaps not much safer Masum Ghar, where they live in a place they dryly refer to as “the catcher’s mitt,” an area near the top of the mountain which is so-named because it’s shape and prominence results in it catching quite a few incoming rockets.

At Sperwan, they’ve started a comprehensive effort to make things more enjoyable. First, they’re using their construction expertise to build a recreation room at the camp for everybody to enjoy.

The new building will accommodate the base’s table soccer and table hockey games, which were previously outside, basically in the parking lot, exposed to the heat and bugs and incoming fire.

It is at the table hockey game, incidentally, where the legacy of the recently departed Vandoos (Royal 22nd Regiment) is still very apparent, as the Afghans employed on the base not only love the table hockey game, but frequently shout “tabernac” when a play doesn’t go their way.

The engineers are, however, saving their most morale-boosting construction work for their headquarters area, where they have already installed a brick barbecue and were working steadily on a small park with a proposed water feature. It was hard to tell if they were joking about the waterfall or not, but all indications are that they were serious.

In addition, the engineers have set up an empty aquarium they call the Thunderdome. Inside they place whatever spiders, snakes or scorpions they come across, and then watch as the creatures battle it out. The reigning champ for many weeks was a large and ferocious camel spider, whose attacks no other scorpion or spider could defend against.

Then one day an engineer found what he thought was an Afghan house spider with a body about the size of a Toonie. He put it into the Thunderdome as a snack for the camel spider. Instead, the smaller spider leapt clear across the terrarium, landed on the camel spider’s back, and killed him almost instantly with what could only have been some wildly effective toxin.

Having learned their lesson, the engineers have quietly decided to leave this new and scary spider alone. Put another way, none of the bomb-defying engineers are volunteering to go near the aquarium again anytime soon.

The engineers take it all in stride however. Just another lesson learned in a country that seems bent on doing them harm. And while there may be no more killer spiders for the Thunderdome, the morale-boosting projects will continue, as will the mine-busting patrols.

 

 

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