Giving thanks to our combat engineers

Mercedes Stephenson, Special to the National Post Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It is not right that in the ongoing war against global terrorism we hear so much about the vicious monsters that kill and maim our troops -- the notorious Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)--and so little about the heroic men and women who risk their lives daily neutralizing and removing IEDs. These brave souls have saved the lives of countless soldiers and Afghan civilians.

They are combat engineers, the unsung heroes of the war in Afghanistan, and on Saturday we lost two of Canada's finest: Corporal Christian Bobbitt and Sapper Matthieu Allard, both of the Fifth Combat Engineer Regiment serving with the Second Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment Battle Group.

Corporal Bobbitt and Sapper Allard were carrying out duties vital to the Afghan mission. They were killed by the second of two IED strikes on their convoy, after they had dismounted their vehicle to investigate the first explosion. Multiple IED attacks are increasingly common, as the Taliban seeks ways to compensate for the challenge posed by Canada's armoured vehicles.

The engineers were accompanying the convoy on a resupply mission through the Zhari district, a dangerous part of Kandahar that stretches from just south of the main highway to the Arghandab River. Zhari is known for its difficult terrain, both human and physical; it is infested with insurgents, like the neighbouring Panjwaii, considered to be the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

In Zhari, the Taliban lay IEDs on the road daily, then melt into the lush grape fields and back into the population. This makes it difficult for soldiers to protect themselves or separate aggressors from civilians.

It is standard protocol to assign combat engineers to accompany convoys and patrols in Afghanistan, so as to help deal with the inevitable IEDs. Combat engineers dismantle, remove and destroy IEDs; without them and their abilities, most convoys would find themselves at a standstill, the soldiers at a very high risk for injuries and death, when confronted by the IEDs they come across almost every time they venture on to the roads. Any convoy travelling through Zhari would have been especially in need of the engineers' skills.

Corporal Bobbitt and Sapper Allard would have been travelling with the resupply convoy to help protect it against IEDs, neutralizing and removing any they detected along the path. In the case of an IED strike, as was the case on Saturday,

it would be Allard and Bobbitt who would move forward to investigate the blast, determine whether or not it was safe to approach the affected vehicle and hunt for and disable additional bombs.

In carrying out their duties and protecting their fellow soldiers, combat engineers expose themselves to extraordinary danger. IEDs are the number-one killer of Canadians in Afghanistan, accounting for over half of all of our casualties there. Soldiers often joke that only two kinds of people will run toward the sound of gunfire-- soldiers and journalists -- but even soldiers tend to back away from IEDs. Combat engineers, along with specialist-trained explosive ordinance disposal personnel, are the exception -- they actually approach the IEDs and will, in many cases, disarm them with their own hands.

Combat engineers do not walk into this danger unknowingly. They are highly trained, with nimble fingers that would make any jewel thief green with envy, nerves of steel and a sophisticated understanding of explosives. Their acceptance of the risks they take makes their courage that much more admirable.

In Afghanistan, counter-IED efforts are a tough battle, but significant progress has been made. While the number of IEDs in Afghanistan has more than doubled in the last year, Canadian casualties have not --in large part thanks to the work of the engineers. More Afghan civilians than ever are reporting IEDs to the Canadians, who are in turn finding, dismantling and destroying far more IEDs than they hit. Unfortunately, we tend to only hear about the efforts of these fine soldiers when they are killed.

Brigadier General Vance, Commander of the Joint Task Force in Afghanistan, credits Bobbitt and Allard with being part of a group responsible for diffusing half of the IEDs on Kandahar's roads in the month of July, a phenomenal accomplishment that doubtlessly saved many lives, but ultimately cost them their own.

Two grateful nations thank them. But we must not only grieve: We must remember their fellow engineers who, at this very moment, are on the roads of Kandahar, walking slowly toward armed monsters, quietly calculating how they can render the IEDs harmless to fellow soldiers and the little Afghan girl watching from the side of the road. - Mercedes Stephenson is the host of MSI:M ercedes Stephenson Investigates.

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