Mission transition in Afghanistan

Grant Cree, The Western Sentinel, 21 July 2011

On June 21, CBC Radio interviewed MWO Dominic Lapointe, his wife Barbara, and their two children in their home near Edmonton. MWO Lapointe is the Squadron Sergeant Major of 11 Field Squadron, 1 Combat Engineer Regiment (1 CER) based at CFB Edmonton. The Western Sentinel assisted with the interview, which will be broadcast as part of a series of stories by CBC to chronicle the CF involvement in Afghanistan since 2002.

“We were on our honeymoon in Mexico on Sept. 11, 2001 and we saw the news coverage on every channel,” recalled Barbara Lapointe. At the time, the main overseas deployment for the Canadian military was in Bosnia. But that soon changed.

Soldiers from 1 CER went on a field exercise in the fall of 2001, and it quickly turned into pre-deployment training for Afghanistan. The unit became part of Operation Apollo which deployed overseas in February 2002.

“All of a sudden in February, we were told that he’s going to war,” said Barbara. “It was the most painful experience ever. It’s hard to say goodbye because you don’t know what to expect. We had no idea what this mission was going to look like, what they were going to be doing over there, or how long they would be gone for.”

It was a new experience for most Canadian soldiers since many of them had never served in that region of the world. They had to get accustomed to the climate and the local culture.

“After we arrived, we protected the camp [Kandahar Airfield] for five weeks,” said MWO Lapointe. “That was a good breaking-in period. Then we flew to another location where we went out of offensive operations. Nothing happened, but the potential was there and so was our anxiety that comes with it.”

After that first rotation, MWO Lapointe returned safely to Canada and in 2005 he deployed for a second tour. While serving in Afghanistan, he missed his daughter’s second birthday.

“It’s the bad part of having to deploy because missing my wife and kids is never fun,” he admitted. “But that’s my job. It’s what I do. In the end it makes us stronger as a family. I’m going on my third tour now.”

Frequent travel is a fact of life for any military family. Sometimes a member is on a course or conference. Other times it’s a training exercise. Or a domestic deployment to help people deal with a sudden flood or forest fire. The one constant factor is the disruption their absence causes at home.

“There’s a bit more anxiety  because of where he’s going,” said Barbara. She estimated it takes about a week for her and the two children to get into their new routine, and then the countdown begins for when he returns. “We make it a fun thing. Every Saturday is a movie night and we have a certain number of Saturdays until he comes home.”

For this overseas tour, MWO Lapointe is one of the 1,600 members on the Mission Transition Task Force (MTTF), and their job is to close down Canada’s combat presence in southern Afghanistan. That means packing and shipping huge amounts of equipment, supplies and vehicles back to Canada.

“On this mission, the focus will be different,” said MWO Lapointe. “We’re not going out there trying to pick a fight, we’re going out there to pack up and send stuff home. It’s more of a logistic tour so it should be less intense. We’ll see.”

MWO Lapointe spoke glowingly of the support that residents in Edmonton and surrounding communities have shown to the troops. He recalled one incident in particular when soldiers from Operation Apollo returned from Afghanistan in 2002. They loaded onto seven buses at the Edmonton International Airport and drove in a convoy to CFB Edmonton.

“There were people on both sides of the street the whole way to watch our buses go by,” said MWO Lapointe. “It was unbelievable. You can’t calculate how many cases of PTSD may have been saved right there. It was the feeling of appreciation we got when we came back that day.”

On June 24, three days after the CBC Radio interview, MWO Lapointe and more than 100 soldiers departed from Edmonton. Their destination was Kandahar Airfield where they will serve as members of the MTTF.

“Going on this mission will give me a chance to see the progress over there, and see the difference between start and finish,” MWO Lapointe told the Edmonton news media a few minutes before the troops climbed onto the Airbus.

“It will give me a good perspective of the changes and the scope of everything that’s been done over there.”

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