Combat engineers author new book, relive Kandahar

Army News Thursday, July 15, 2010

Halifax, Nova Scotia ó Clearing the Way: Combat Engineers in Kandahar is a compilation of stories by various members of 23 Field Squadron (23 Fd Sqn). Over 34,000 Canadian Forces members have been deployed to Afghanistan since 2002.

Of the many stories from those who have returned, some are good, others tragic and some are so uplifting it seems astonishing they have not been shared with the whole world. Others still are so dark they will likely never be heard.

Did you know Ö ?

You may have spent an entire tour at Forward Operating Base MaíSum Ghar (FOB MSG) without knowing why it is there. You may be unaware of why the ceilings in the buildings at Patrol Base Wilson are expertly braced in a very un-Afghan manner or that, for a time, the base was known as ďImpact Area Wilson.Ē

Book cover of Clearing the Way: Combat Engineers in Kandahar. 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 ďMad MaxedĒ yellow bulldozer was an integral part of Operation MEDUSA? Or that, after surviving a roadside bomb that destroyed his vehicle and kit, a petty officer second class defused an improvised explosive device using only his bayonet?

In answering these questions, Clearing the Way provides an intimate glimpse into the reality on the ground in Kandahar Province during late summer and fall 2006.

Corporal Matt Austin was interested in writing a few short stories about the soldiers in 23 Fd Sqn, an idea fully supported by Major Mark Gasparotto, officer commanding of the squadron on Roto 2. ďI told his section commander Ö that we should look at interviewing all the members in the squadron and putting together a small book,Ē says Maj Gasparotto.

Challenging chapters

In April 2007, Cpl Austin got down to work back in Canada, travelling through Ontario and making dozens of calls to various parts of the country.

ďThe real challenge was to interview all persons involved in the TICs [troops in contact] or significant incidents. Naturally, soldiers sometimes forget things they may have said in the past or events in detail,Ē he relates. Realizing this, Cpl Austin cross-interviewed troops at different times to verify the narrative and root out what were, essentially, simple lapses in memory. His research generated over 250 gigabytes of pictures and videos.

Another challenge Cpl Austin did not anticipate was the emotional impact that revisiting these events would have on those he interviewed. ďMany men would stop and only continue with the support of other section mates,Ē he says.

Collaborative work

After he had written four lengthy, highly detailed chapters, Cpl Austin was placed in a section heading back to Afghanistan, forcing him to hand over his research.

ď[Cpl Austin] ran out of time to cover everything that deserved to be written about,Ē explains Maj Gasparotto. ďThatís when I decided to write the squadron war diary and invited other members to share their stories.Ē

The finished book includes the war diary by Maj Gasparotto, the chapters by Cpl Austin and several first-person accounts of various incidents that stood out during the tour.

Clearing the Way: Combat Engineers in Kandahar can only be purchased online at or at participating engineer kit shops. All profits generated from book sales will be shared between the Sapper Mike McTeague Wounded Warriors Fund ( and the squadron association.

Article by Capt Edward J.H. Stewart, LFAA Public Affairs, Project Number: 10-0486

Army News gathers news about and for soldiers, produces and distributes two bilingual Army News video episodes weekly and edits print content for the Army website and the Army pages in The Maple Leaf.

The following is the transcript of Army news video which accompanied the above article. Sgt Luc Taillon interviewed Major Gasparotto and Cpl Austin. The video can be found here 

10-0486 Interview with Authors of "Clearing the Way: Combat Engineers in Kandahar" 

Sgt Luc Taillon: Welcome to this special edition of Army News, Iím Sgt Luc Taillon.

Clearing the Way: Combat Engineers in Kandahar is the title of the book. It is a collection of stories from CF members who served with 2-3 Field Squadron during the early days of Canadaís combat experience in Kandahar province. Joining us in studio is Maj Mark Gasparotto, who co-wrote and edited the book, and with him is Cpl Matt Austin from 31 CER (Combat Engineer Regiment) who also contributed to the book. Good day gentlemen and thank you very much for being here.

Maj Gasparotto: Thank you.

Cpl Austin: Thank you.

Sgt Taillon: Letís start with you Major, tell us a little bit more about what this book is all about.

Maj Gasparotto: This book is a collection of stories based on 2-3 Field Squadronís experience in Kandahar Province. We were attached to the 1 RCR Battle Group and we served there between Aug 2006- Feb 2007, essentially ROTO to Op ATHENA.

Sgt Luc Taillon: Where did the idea for the book originate from?

Maj Gasparotto: Iíll let Matt answer this question.

Cpl Austin: We both had our own ways we were thinking of telling the story of what was going on and what happened in Kandahar. Maj Gasparotto was looking at the war diary aspect for the squadron and I was thinking of pursuing my own on-the-ground approach to writing the story. It came across from Maj Gasparotto talking to my Sgt. We both came together in Gundi Ghar which is now a Forward Operating Base, and we decided at that point that we would contribute together to tell the story of 2-3 Field Squadron.

Sgt Luc Taillon: Talking about contribution, letís talk about the contributors. Who are they, what trade, what rank?

Maj Gasparotto: There are 13 members of the Squadron who decided to write. I wrote everything in Part 1, which is essentially the Squadron war diary. I attempt to provide the thread linking the individual accounts of battle together. Cpl Austin wrote four chapters after interviewing many members of the Squadron to tell their story. Then everyone from my second-in-command, the Sergeant-Major, several troop commanders, some section commanders, EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) team leaders, EOD operators, and them some people from the headquarters all wrote based on their experiences.

Sgt Taillon: Cpl Austin, youíre known as the historian of the Squadron; could you tell us a bit more about your contribution?

Cpl Austin: Certainly. I was given a list, generally after we return home from Afghanistan, of significant incidents and which sections and call signs were involved in the incidents. From there I carried out a series of interviews throughout the entire squadron with members that were then re-tasked and re-positioned in Canada. I interviewed them to get their stories, to bring their stories together for the diary. I also got together all the videos and pictures that were taken in Afghanistan so we could have them all together in one central location for the war diary.

Sgt Taillon: Did the training you received prepare you adequately for the tasks you had to achieve in Afghanistan?

Maj Gasparotto: I believe it did from a technical and tactical perspective. I think what is very difficult to replicate is the emotional aspects of war, and that is where we had the most to learn.

Cpl Austin: Yes, I felt that once youíre on the ground, it becomes an internal battle of how hard you are being pushed and how hard you are pushing yourself. Certainly the training prepared you for your job at hand, but then you prepared yourself mentally when you were on the ground for what you were seeing, what you were doing.

Sgt Taillon: Maj Gasparotto, you mentioned in the book that November 27th, 2006 was the day the music died, could you explain?

Maj Gasparotto: Well that was the day that CWO Bobby Girard and Cpl Albert Storm were killed by a suicide bomber. They were the last casualties to be taken by the Battle Group. But considering that Mr. Girard was the Battle Group Sergeant-Major, it really hit home and certainly itís a day I will remember for a long time to come in terms of the emotions felt.

Sgt Taillon: Is there a moment where you realized, while you were in Kandahar, this is real, no more training, this is real?

Cpl Austin: Absolutely, being positioned in the North, after: the 3rd of September we had lost four members, the 4th of September we had lost another member in Panjwai and thatís when it became real that weíre losing members and there are real opponents in the field that are combating us. That night, watching tracers going back and forth from the Forward Operating Base, I realized this is the real deal, thereís no turning back now.

Sgt Taillon: How do you deal with these moments, personally?

Maj Gasparotto: Itís difficult, or it can be difficult. Thereís certainly been an evolution of the emotions and the coping mechanisms. At the time, you rely on your training and you rely on each other. Often the full magnitude of what has happened has not sunk in and itís only after, in the safety and confines of your home back in Canada that these things surface. I think itís important to talk about it, I think weĎre much better at that now and certainly this book is a reflection of that need or desire to tell the story.

Sgt Taillon: What would you say was your worst moment?

Maj Gasparotto: Well, the loss of Sgt Shane Stachnik, from a squadron perspective, was definitely the low point of the tour. We had many other casualties taken as well. Itís very difficult to deal with that and itís also very difficult to see your soldiers continue to struggle. So without question, that was the most difficult thing for me.

Sgt Taillon: What about you, Corporal?

Cpl Austin: For being in the field, under the chain of command, it was certainly the struggle of continuing forward and trying your best to live as best you can in the field, to survive as best you can in the field and always remember your training. It was long hours behind the gun in the incredible heat, very stressed that there are enemy combatants in the area and certainly not wanting to let your guard down. Itís a survival mechanism that is certainly very stressful.

Sgt Taillon: The mission must go on.

Cpl Austin: The mission must go on, yeah.

Sgt Taillon: Letís go from worst to best, Iíll stay with you Corporal, what was the highlight or the best moment you experienced during your time in Afghanistan?

Cpl Austin: I think the best moment for me was, actually I was sent to Forward Operating Base Martello in the mountains near Albak. It was a very peaceful place. It certainly wasnít in August and September when it had seen combat, considerable combat, but at that point it was somewhat peaceful. From the clouds rolling down off the mountains into the Operating Base, and the people that were outside of the Forward Operating Base, it was actually very relaxing. The battle was still raging on in Panjwai, in fact the Battle Group Sergeant-Major was lost at that time when I was deployed up there. I really hit home that the war was still being waged down in Panjwai with the fellow engineers.

Sgt Taillon: Did you experience something like this, Major?

Maj Gasparotto: Iíll characterize it more as challenging or fulfilling, but for me it was the construction of Route Summit when I was a Combat Team Commander. I had a troop of my own engineers, and heavy equipment and a couple of infantry platoons attached, and just pushing that road through under contact or the threat of enemy contact. For me that was by far the most challenging experience of my tour.

Sgt Taillon: So, writing a book like this, how does it make you feel? When you go through the book, is it therapeutic, helping you deal with what you went through?

Maj Gasparotto: Itís great that itís done now. It certainly consumed three years of my life and no doubt, the other twelve authors, to varying degrees. It was cathartic, at the time of writing it brought out maybe as many demons as it cured, but now it is something Iím proud of.

Sgt Taillon: Were there times where you thought ďIím not doing this bookĒ or did you feel that it was important to finish?

Cpl Austin: I feel like there were certainly some moments. When you can see the big picture of how many significant incidents that the squadron was involved in, all of these interviews that had to be taken down, and then transformed into potential chapters, there is so much that could and potentially could be written. At that point, you can get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work in the book, but generally the Major continued forward and pushed with the book, continuing to give us our objectives to work towards our deadlines.

Sgt Taillon: Major, what would you like a reader to learn from your book?

Maj Gasparotto: This needs to be looked at as a collection of stories. It shouldnít take away from anyone elseís story who served in Kandahar. There are some little nuggets of military wisdom in there that no doubt, everyone else is aware of, but when you can contextualize it, I think they become clear. I would like people to learn from our mistakes: my own personal ones and the ones the squadron made so they donít repeat those mistakes in the future and pay the same price we paid.

Sgt Taillon: Iíll ask you the same question Corporal, is there anything you would like the reader to retain from this book.

Cpl Austin: Absolutely. As I wrote in my chapters, the individual experience that soldiers go through, I try to highlight that. Though some of us may have gone over with almost invincible kind of feeling, it does change every one of us. We all came back different. I try to write through my portion that individual experiences definitely varied in the war. Some were certainly touched by their involvement in one anotherís. I try to show that a soldierís life by no means and by no circumstances is easy.

Sgt Taillon: Have you had some people who read the book so far? Do you have any feedback from them?

Maj Gasparotto: Friends and family have had an opportunity; many helped me with the process. Book sales started on the 15th of June, so there have been some. By and large, the feedback has been positive, and thatís great. My real hope is that itís something that members of the Squadron can be proud of because primarily it was written for the squadron. If that is satisfied, then Iíll be happy.

Sgt Taillon: Gen. Thompson had a chance to read the book, and he commented on it. Can you tell me what he said?

Maj Gasparotto: He wrote the foreword. Iím very grateful that he did. He and I go back several years and by having him do it, it allowed various degrees of personalization of that foreword. He was also the Brigade Commander from whence we came, so he had a connection to the Squadron, to the Battle Group, and I think that shows through in his foreword.

Sgt Taillon: Before we wrap up, I understand the proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the Wounded Warrior Fund, where can we get a copy of the book?

Maj Gasparotto: Any profits that are made form the sale of this book will be shared between the Wounded Warriors Fund and the Squadron association. The book is not available in stores, it can be purchased online at the squadronís website:

Sgt Taillon: Well gentlemen, thank you very much for being here with us today, and good luck with the book.

Maj Gasparotto: Thanks very much.

Cpl Austin: Thank you.

Sgt Taillon: Well, thatís it, thank you for watching Army News. For this and a whole lot more go to For Army News, Iím Sgt Luc Taillon, ŗ la prochaine!

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