This story is based on my experiences both in Afghanistan in 2007, and at home, some 14 years later, when the news broke in August that the Taliban were retaking the country. It describes what I was feeling in that moment and in the weeks following. Although some of the information is fictional, the basis of the story is a true reflection of incidents then, on my last night in Kandahar, and now, as I work to overcome PTSD. I managed not to do what I describe in the last paragraph, but that reality exists, always challenging me.
Try as he might, during a week in August, he can’t stop watching the news. Stations are broadcasting what amounts to a train wreck occurring halfway across the world. He knows he should not be watching it unfold, as he has his own issues to deal with, but this is no ordinary train wreck. The Taliban have steamrolled through Afghanistan, retaking the country quickly and doing so with little opposition. Watching it happen makes him highly emotional, leaving him angry, sad, and in utter despair. 15 years earlier, he had deployed to Kandahar for almost year, part of an international Provincial Reconstruction Team helping rebuild and bring some semblance of peace to a country long ravaged by war. The overall goal was to help ensure Afghanistan would never become a safe harbour for terrorism again. The Taliban were the terrorists then and now they have overthrown the ruling government. Just as it was then, they are a ruthless force. During his operational tour, they ensured dozens of his colleagues came home in bodybags and were just as ruthless on Afghans. Now, footage and news stories told of door-to-door manhunts for anyone who worked with organizations that opposed Taliban rule.
Spurred by the news splashed everywhere, including the deadly suicide bombing at Kabul airport, his mind keeps going back to Kandahar, particularly his last night, the one which nearly cost him his life.
It was the end of a long, hot and dangerous tour during which time dozens of his colleagues' lives were claimed in gunfights, by IEDs or by suicide bombings. He was ready to go home and was scheduled on one of the last Chinook flights out of the small military camp located inside Kandahar City.
The camp, named after a Canadian soldier killer during a training exercise in Afghanistan, was constructed on the grounds of a former fruit canning facility. Its perimeter was made up of tall, dense walls, but even taller buildings existed just outside those walls, presenting challenges to daily life for those deployed there. The threat of an attack was constant. Vigilance was key to survival, and everyone had to remain vigilant at all times, not knowing who was watching, taking notes on who departed and arrived, and gathering other useful information. For anyone bent on attacking the camp, and there were many, this intelligence was priceless.
Even with the threats, life on the camp suited him well. Its small size made it possible to become comfortable with everyone who lived or worked there, and he liked that. It reminded him of life on board the smaller war ships he sailed in as a young Naval Officer. As he walked around the camp, faces and names became increasingly familiar, as did routine activities like darts, card night, and ball hockey. A gym, lounge area and splendid food from the kitchen all added to the comforts. Free phones, allowing daily calls to loved ones back home, were a bonus. All the amenities helped, but now, it was time to go home. Waiting for him was his wife, 8 year old son, and three month daughter, the one he had only seen in pictures.
Chalk 11 was his flight. Scheduled to arrive the next day, it consisted of one twin rotor Dutch Chinook transport helicopter and two Apache gunships. He and his colleagues' safe travel would be ensured by the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Such was life on a multi-national operation.
With replacements arriving at the camp each day, including his, space was at a premium. Accommodating everyone meant giving up the footprint he called home for the last year and moving into a temporary room. Such is life in the military; the only constant is change. As he neatly packed his things, making sure the gifts he picked up at the local market were well protected, including the sturdy marble vases and hand-carved stone chess set, the plan changed. His new bed would be in Transient Quarters, much different than the small, double-occupancy rooms.
Transient Quarters could be described as being a large, long tent in which numerous beds were lined up in neat rows. Each bed was a mirror of the others, with linen laid out just so and a night table and lamp beside it. Privacy was non-existent and the ability to adjust to the habits of others was necessary. It was really only a place to sleep for a night or two. Luckily, it had air conditioning, which staved off the relentless Afghanistan summer heat.
After lunch, he moved his things into the big tent, selecting a bunk towards the aft end. The rest of his things were left with Transport, whose job at the time was to stack luggage onto pallets and ship them home. Slowly, his mind started 'checking out' from the deployment, drifting from the mission at hand to focussing the journey home. Letting go was difficult, especially after a year of hard work, but it was time. At some point late in the evening, his lamp turned out, sleep arrived. He was exhausted from the deployment and it was starting to show.
It was late, possibly after midnight, when the attack came. The blast pulled him out of a deep sleep and into reality. He screamed, possibly out of fear; possibly out of surprise. The explosion coloured the room with shades of red, yellow and orange. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) exploded very close-by and he felt the impact deep in his bones. Wide awake, his training kicked in as he reached for his fighting gear and weapons.
A second explosion rocked the camp as another RPG announced its arrival. Everyone was now scrambling to get dressed and rush to the bunkers. Engines roared to life as fighting vehicles took up defensive positions. Radios cracked with activity and orders were belted out. He needed to run to the safety of the nearest bunker. The next RPG arrived, landing somewhere to his left and providing enough light for him to scurry to the bunker and take cover. He was the last to arrive, crouching on top of a mound of sand nearly outside of the protective concrete walls. It was almost pitch black. Someone called out.
“Who just arrived?”
“Go it. 16 people for Bunker 11.”
A Sergeant was taking count of everyone there. The next step was to use the bunker phone and call into the Command Post (CP), but not before waiting another minute to see if anyone else arrived. No one did.
“Are you f*cking kidding me! I need a Runner.”
The phone line was dead and the only way to get a message to the CP was by foot. He made his way to the Sergeant.
“I’ll do it.”
He knew it was because of his rank. Officers weren’t looked at to do the physical work, which made him angry. He was just as capable as anyone, but the Sergeant was going to look for someone else first. A few minutes passed, gunfire going off in an area outside the camp, before the Sergeant bellowed again
“Okay Sir. You’re up.”
As it turned out, his frag vest was the deciding factor. It offered him enormous protection while under attack; protection that only he happened to be wearing at the time.
“Take the list to the Command Post. They are waiting.”
He scrambled from the bunker, glad the camp was small as he was in the CP within a dozen seconds or so, but not before hearing the whizz of an errant RPG overhead.
“Lieutenant James reporting for Bunker Eleven.”
“Sixteen. All well. No casualties.”
“Got it. Stand fast for now.”
He waited with two others, listening to information and orders crossing over radio waves. The local Afghan National Police outfit, with members specially selected to provide another layer of protection to the camp, were on the move, chasing down the attackers. The Commander of this unit was known as “Skinner”, a nickname he earned during the time of Taliban rule, when he commanded an outfit that actively resisted their orders. Rumour had it that after a particularly brutal attack on his troops, he captured an enemy soldier, took him to the centre of the district and made an example of him. The soldier’s screams penetrated the air as his skin was slowly extracted off his body. This was done as he hung upside down, his blood staining the sand. Skinner’s territory was left alone after that demonstration. It was a rumour, but one that had been repeated many times, making it feel true. He never found out the truth.
About an hour later, the “All clear” was given, and he returned to Transient Quarters, sheepishly apologizing to the others for screaming as the first RPG hit. It was some time before he fell asleep.
The scorch marks on the concrete post bore witness to the attack from the night before. The sheet metal close by was pockmarked with holes of all shapes and sizes. Any unfortunate soul in close proximity would certainly have been killed.
He stood still, staring at the concrete post. Behind that post, a little to the right, was the room he was supposed to occupy the previous night, before the plan changed. He glanced from burned concrete to shredded steel, the reality sinking in that had he been in that room the night before and had the RPG hit a few centimetres to the right, he would certainly be dead. After everything he had been through, the near-death experiences, the wide destruction, and the numerous deaths he saw, this was almost too much. It took all his energy to lift his boots and start walking to the landing pad. The whir of helicopter blades could be heard, signalling their pending arrival. It sounded very distant to him, until he saw the hulking Chinook appear along the skyline, escorted by the thin profile of two Apaches. When they arrived, he took his seat near the back, seeing the same views as the tail gunner. He could not relax and was in a daze as watched the dry, beige landscape pass underneath. He spent the next 30 minutes thinking about just how close he had come to dying. Then he put those memories into a mental lockbox and tossed away the key. His future lay ahead and all he could think about was his family.
The train wreck has blown open his mental lockbox, allowing the memories to flow out. First it is the RPG attack, then the eyes of the dying suicide bomber, followed by the body parts strewn around the site of a massive explosion, and finally the body he stepped over as he took cover during a gun fight outside the Governor’s Palace. These memories arrive first, but others spill out soon after. A decapitated head with eyes staring at him, six charred bodies in a burned out vehicle, the quick work of IED, and a eulogy delivered for a coworker before his body was flown home. It all floods back, making his hands quiver as he paces the room. Then he spots it on the kitchen counter.
A year ago, he started PTSD treatment and stopped drinking. After falling off the wagon a few times, things finally fell into place. Now six months on, his life is just getting back to normal and he feels almost like his former energetic and confident self. But today, the train wreck re-opened wounds and thoughts rush through his mind as he struggles to stop the bleeding. He lands on a possible cure: the single malt scotch sitting on the kitchen counter. He keeps it there as a reminder of his alcohol struggles. Each day the bottle stays closed, he wins. He has won for 180 days straight. Today, due to the decisions of others, he will lose. He pulls down a glass and closes the cupboard door, praying that all he loses is his sobriety. The sound of the bottle opening is music to his ears, helping drown out the sounds of the train. The TV finally gets turned off as he wipes warm tears from his eyes. Emotions of anger, despair, and sadness have boiled over, and all he can do is cry. By the end of the day, the bottle will be empty, his eyes dry, but his emotions still flowing, like a rip current trying to pull him under. He will fight it all the way.