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Assignment Afghanistan

Soldiers celebrate holidays in camp

by Tod Strickland Afterburners light up the sky like two 20-foot blowtorches and the sound of a jet engine fills the air as another fighter takes off into the sky. It is Christmas Eve in Kandahar and I am sitting outside my quarters enjoying a very good cigar as the clock ticks past midnight. It is a relatively calm moment at the end of a long day, while half a world away Canadians are beginning what is frequently the busiest shopping day of the year.

It is hard to believe that I have been here four months now, but time continues to pass quickly. This week has been rough with our first casualty of the tour. Barely a week ago Corporal Steve Martin of the Royal 22nd Regiment of Valcartier was killed by an improvised explosive device in the Horn of Panjwa’i, and thoughts naturally turn to his family and the kind of Christmas they are inevitably having.

Soldiers being away from home at Christmas time is nothing new and this is the second time my family has experienced my absence. Bosnia in 2002 was my first deployed Christmas experience. Getting to live through a second season surrounded by troops is not something I really thought that I would get to do, and as much as I miss home, it is something to be savoured. The opportunity is one that should be enjoyed.

Last time it was a peacekeeping mission; this time it is fighting an insurgency. Everyone gets pulled a little closer and people you might not have chosen as friends or colleagues suddenly find themselves as close as family: sharing stories and moments of calm, enjoying a laugh over a cup of coffee or a “near beer,” or telling stories and being a little bit silly. It is about being brothers and sisters in arms and enjoying being alive and well as another year comes to a close.

Tonight was a little bit more special. Canadian military and political leaders, and a couple of entertainers, gave up their Christmas to visit the troops. Plus, we were treated to Don Cherry of Hockey Night in Canada fame. When we got wind of the visit there was a little bit of trepidation. Cherry has never really had a reputation for being a fan of French-Canadians, but he was nothing less than a hit. His kind words, jokes and stories played well, in particular his statements about Quebec City getting a hockey team in the future. Right now the events of the evening are done, and I am enjoying the pause.

For me, Christmas really started on December 7 when packages began to arrive. I got a plastic Christmas tree and fireplace from my wife with detailed instructions as to the necessity of putting them up. This was funny as we are normally fairly late getting our tree up at home. The season was upon us.

Christmas cards and packages of gifts, food and mementoes quickly followed. Particularly special was that they weren’t necessarily from friends and family. We received thousands of cards and letters, as well as Girl Guide cookies, fruitcakes, scarves, socks and the ever-ubiquitous Tim Horton’s gift cards. Royal Canadian Legions and schools sent boxes of gifts, which we were able to send out to our Forward Operating Bases, so that pretty much everyone got a sign from home that they were far from forgotten. Seeing this very tangible indication of the fact that our soldiers were supported, no matter one’s views of the war here, was good for everyone’s morale.

On December 23, the headquarters where I work took a good chunk of the day off for the traditional sports day before Christmas. Usually we play ice hockey; here in Kandahar Air Field we played ball hockey. The normal drill is for junior officers (Captains and below) to play junior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) (Privates, Corporals and Master-Corporals). The game was of course won by the junior NCOs who were quite good. We followed this with senior NCOs playing senior officers. By some miracle, the senior officers, including yours truly, won which in turn meant we got to play the junior NCOs, who then walked away with the tournament. I doubt there is anything more satisfying for troops than beating their leadership at a game of skill. It also marked the only time I have shed any of my own blood here in Afghanistan. One should always keep one’s head up when you go into the corners and fight for the ball.

In the afternoon we had a “chain-of-command” race. This is a competition which starts with the lowest ranking member of the team riding a broken bicycle through a course of pylons, while wearing an army helmet. As the ranks increase, you put on more and more equipment. For our team, it finished with me wearing full battle order, a pair of coveralls, carrying a rifle and a backpack with 40 pounds, while wearing my gas mask.

Tomorrow we will have our traditional Christmas dinner where the soldiers get served by the officers and senior NCOs. I expect this will be followed by another cigar on the deck, telling stories and sharing a laugh with colleagues and friends. In short, it should be a good day and with a little bit of luck all will be quiet in Kandahar Province and we can enjoy Christmas with a little bit of peace. May it continue through 2011.

Lieutenant-Colonel Tod Strickland is Assistant Chief of Staff for Task Force 5-10, and member of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan.