Londoner tells of Afghan war's tragedy, triumph

BOOK: Clearing the Way: Combat Engineers in Kandahar

Maj. Mark Gasparotto now works at a desk in Ottawa, far from the dangers of Afghanistan.

But still vivid are memories of the "violent tour" he and his combat engineering squadron endured in 2006 and 2007 near Kandahar.

The London native and graduate of London's Catholic Central high school knew there was a story to be told -- about courage, ingenuity, tragedy and hope.

He and other members of the 23rd Field Squadron have written a book to offer Canadians a glimpse of the dangers faced by Canadian Forces overseas.

Gasparotto, the engineer squadron's commander who was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal in 2007 with others in his squadron, calls it "a six-month snapshot" of their work there.

They have self-published Clearing The Way: Combat Engineers in Kandahar, the story of their raw experiences on the front lines at a particularly violent time.

The book is a series of first-person accounts of life from 13 authors from the 135-member squadron, including Gasparotto, who wrote about half the book.

Another soldier, Cpl. Matt Austin, a political science student at the University of Waterloo, wrote four chapters based on interviews with squadron members.

These front-line engineers are often the first in and first out of a combat zone -- clearing bombs and mines, building roads, demolishing what needs to be taken out and providing "castle-like" fortifications for protection.

The squadron brought together what Gasparotto called "an eclectic group" including combat engineers, explosive ordnance disposal operators, electronic warfare specialists, armoured soldiers and engineers and others.

From a cultural perspective, Afghanistan was confounding, Gasparotto said: "It will always be stranger than a strange land."

While many parts were hospitable, particularly during his earlier tour near Kabul, the Operation Medusa work had tremendous challenges.

"Some places haven't changed in hundreds of years except for the introduction of cellphones and guns," he said. "I served in Bosnia and it was a foreign land. Afghanistan to me was truly alien."

Early in the tour, where civilians had largely been driven out by the Taliban, it was an almost daily contact with the enemy.

"If it had two legs and moved, we killed it," Gasparotto said.

In the book, there are first-hand accounts of survival, IED explosions and taking out Taliban attackers hiding nearby. There are stories of caring for the wounded after a suicide bombing and a gripping description of searching the bomber's body.

There are accounts of dealing with the death of colleagues and memories of final conversations hours before their deaths.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Sgt. Shane Stachnik, killed during the initial assault on Pasmul on Sept. 3, 2006.

Half the proceeds support the Sapper Mike McTeague Wounded Warriors Fund, named after a member of the squadron injured by a suicide bomber attack. He has since returned to duty.

The remaining profits support the 23rd Field Squadron Association. Gasparotto said the book has been out a month and has sold 270 copies. You can order it at www.23fieldsquadron.ca.


Engineering under fire

University of Waterloo web site.

In October 2007, Major Mark Gasparotto received the Meritorious Service Medal (Military Division) from the Governor General for his actions in one of the deadliest missions of the war in Afghanistan.

Gasparotto, a civil engineering grad (BASc ’96), joined Canada’s armed forces in 1997, served in Bosnia and Kabul, and by 2004 had risen to major. He currently teaches tactics at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick.

From August 2006 to February 2007, he commanded 23 Field Squadron, a group of 135 combat engineers attached to 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group. As soldiers, they fought; as engineers, they built roads, operational bases, and bunkers, mapped terrain, set up obstacles to hinder the enemy, breached minefields, and dismantled improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“The tour was a violent one,” Gasparotto says, with 19 killed and many more injured. In September, “the Taliban massed in the hundreds at Pashmul, dug in and fought us in a conventional battle.” Without armour to attack the heavily defended enemy, the squadron improvised. “We rented civilian bulldozers and welded on steel plating. The Taliban expected us to use the roads, which they’d sown with IEDs. When we bypassed them with our heavy dozers, they were severely dislocated and eventually were either destroyed or escaped.”

To avoid the IEDs, the Canadians built their own roads, while under constant attack. The simple lanes bulldozed through grape or marijuana fields eventually became a paved two-lane highway — Route Summit — through previously held Taliban territory. The highway gave safe passage to local farmers as well as the troops.

The citation for the Meritorious Service Medal says, in part: “Major Gasparotto’s innovative thinking, dedicated efforts, and exceptional leadership under enemy fire made a strategic impact on the battlefield of Afghanistan that enhanced battle group operations and saved the lives of Canadian soldiers.”


Making his mom proud; Merlin native awarded for bravery in Afghanistan

Posted 2008, Bob Boughner, Chatham Daily News

A Chatham mother has good reason to be proud of her son's bravery as a soldier in Afghanistan.

Master Warrant Officer Bradley William John Montgomery was recently presented with a meritorious award for bravery.

"I'm very proud of my son," Madeleine Montgomery said Tuesday. "He's quite a hero."

Madeleine was present in Ottawa in mid-October when the award was given to her son by Governor General Michaelle Jean.

The soldier is one of two children of Madeleine and the late Hugh Montgomery.

The career soldier was raised in the Merlin area, attended Merlin Area Public School and John McGregor Secondary School in Chatham.

He joined the militia in Chatham 22 years ago.

Montgomery was deployed as the sergeant major of 23 Field Squadron, Ist Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group in Afghanistan from Aug. 1, 2006 to Feb. 15, 2007.

According to the Defence Department, Montgomery's professionalism, leadership and experience were critical to the development of roads and forward operating bases during intense combat situations.

During four separate incidents, Montgomery readily placed himself in harm's way to aid soldiers who had been targeted by enemy attacks.

"Respected by many, Montgomery is the embodiment of a soldier - professional, selfless, loyal, relentless and dedicated," said the Defence Department.

Montgomery received the award along with his military commander from London.

Major Mark Gasparotto of London described the tour of duty as "very violent."

He said his troops were attacked almost daily by the Taliban, who did not want the road to go through.

Montgomery and Gasparotto were also under attack by drug lords, rival tribes and armed men engaged in centuries-old blood feuds.

The squadron suffered many injuries and lost one soldier, Sgt. Shane Stachnik of Alberta, in a Sept. 3 battle.

The awards are given for a deed or activity of "a very high standard that brings honour to the Canadian Forces," said the Defence Department.

Montgomery is married and the father of two children.

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