Pubdate: Thu, 03 May 2007
Source: Chronicle Herald (CN NS)
Copyright: 2007 The Halifax Herald Limited
Author: Chris Lambie, Staff Reporter


Troops Grinding It Out In The Desert Laugh At Soft Life Of

CANADA ISN'T the only place with two solitudes.

When I first landed at Kandahar Airfield a month ago, I  figured this
was life-or-death Afghanistan. Turns out I  was wrong. After spending
a few weeks with troops who  spend most of their time outside the
wire, it became  obvious that the massive base everyone here refers to
  as KAF is not a particularly unpleasant or dangerous  hardship post.

Sure, it's hot, dusty and halfway around the world from  family and
friends. And yes, the Taliban do launch  occasional rocket attacks at
night. But after you hear  one whiz and a thump far off in the
distance, the  novelty wears off pretty fast. It doesn't take long to
realize that, since the odds of a direct rocket strike  are slim, it's
easier not to think about it, roll over  and go back to sleep.

On the amenities front, KAF isn't half bad. It features
all-you-can-eat salad bars and freezers full of ice  cream. Dining
hall menus boast steak and lobster one  night and crab legs the next.
Plus, there's a boardwalk  full of fast-food outlets where you can buy
anything  from a burger to Korean food. There's even a pizza  place
that delivers right to your tent.

Contrast that with life on a small Canadian patrol base  where danger
is imminent, showers are limited, shade is  hard to find and most
meals come ready to eat from a  bag.

"This is the real army shit, working out here," says a  medic who has
experienced both worlds.

"Being in KAF is pretty sweet."

Soldiers in the field have a relatively low opinion of  the folks they
refer to as KAFers.

"They don't leave and it drives me nuts. They get paid  the same as
us," says Pte. Matthew Oakley of Lower  Sackville.

"People are in there every day playing hockey, going to  Tim Hortons
and stuff. And we're out here."

He sighs long and hard. "But we suck it up."

The 19-year-old is a rifleman with India Company.  During the three
months he's been in Afghanistan, Pte.  Oakley has only spent four days
at KAF.

During a recent interview, he munched toast and drank  coffee while
sitting in a dusty tent at Patrol Base  Wilson.

"When we first got over here we were at a strong point.  It was less
than this," he says. "It was just sandbag  bunkers and no showers. We
got fresh meals brought to  us every couple of days, but it was
rations most of the  time."

Strangely enough, soldiers who spend most of their time  in the field
seem to prefer the austere lifestyle.

"I'm glad I'm out here because if I was in there, I'd  be broke all
the time and time would go much slower,"  says Pte. Oakley, adding the
past three months has gone  by "super fast."

The army argues the people at the pointy end of the  battle group
couldn't do their jobs if it weren't for  the soldiers who support
them from the rear.

And it's unlikely that many front-line soldiers,  despite their often
bitter complaints, would switch the  back of a dirt-crusted light
armoured vehicle for hot  showers, iced cappuccinos, continuous
Internet, cable  TV and an air-conditioned gym.

"We couldn't live in KAF," Sgt. Peter Nyitrai-Hacz of  Springhill said
after an eight-kilometre foot patrol  that started at 3 a.m.

"Out here everything is different. Every day is  something new. If we
do something different like this  every day, the weeks just fly."

War is normally full of contradictions, and this one is  no

Canada is spending billions on new tanks and planes for  the war in
Afghanistan. Yet some soldiers here had to  buy their own boots
because the army wouldn't cough up  for a model that's comfortable in
the desert.

"There's a lot of people upset over the boots," one  soldier says.
"Boots are a pretty important thing. We  do a lot of walking. You
would think that they would  have good footwear for us at least."

Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries  in the world.
It's no secret that each step Canadian  soldiers take outside the wire
could be their last. But  everyone tries to force such thoughts out of
their  minds.

"If you think about it, you'll go crazy," says Cpl.  Matt Elliott, of
Dartmouth. "And if you spend all your  time looking down at the
ground, then you're going to  miss what's happening around you, which
is equally  dangerous."

Canadian generals and politicians often talk about how  the presence
of NATO's International Security  Assistance Force has made it safe
here for children to  go to school. But most of the schools in Zhari
district  that were destroyed or abandoned during last year's
fighting in Operation Medusa have yet to reopen.  Civil-military
cooperation officers say they can't  build new ones until the area is
secure. The delay has  left thousands of children at loose ends in

"If they don't go to school they will get weapons and  start killing,"
says Sarber Mohammad, the principal at  Pashmul Middle School.

Narcotics present another paradox for Canadians in  Afghanistan. It's
impossible to ignore the fact that  fields of opium poppies and
marijuana are growing  everywhere. Canada doesn't officially endorse
the  watered-down eradication programs here, but we do train  and
equip the forces carrying them out. At the same  time, we also finance
irrigation projects that help  farmers grow their dope.

When eradication came up at a brief news conference  held here
recently by Josee Verner, Canada's minister  of International
Co-operation, she suddenly had a plane  to catch.

As if to highlight the incongruity of the whole sticky  drug mess
here, the Zhari district leader tells me  Afghan authorities are
clamping down on the poppy  trade. Seconds later, a local police
officer brings him  a poppy plant from a nearby field. He inspects the
pod,  peels it and eats the seeds inside, nodding as if to  say, 'Hmm,
not bad.'

Even the Afghan interpreters who work with Canadian  troops smoke pot,
says one sergeant. And the smell of  hashish was wafting out of a
mechanic's bay at Camp  Nathan Smith one recent Friday night as locals
worked  on vehicles.

Even the senses are bombarded with confounding  messages.

The nasty smells of sweat, garbage, cheap tobacco,  urine and rotting
feces are ever-present. Large groups  of Afghans in the countryside
often carry a deep funk  that lies somewhere between wet wool and
teenage locker  room. And after a few days in the field, Canadian
soldiers pack an olfactory punch of their own.

But when the wind is blowing off the Arghandab River  just before
dawn, it smells almost like a Nova Scotia  beach in the spring. And
the breezes wafting over  massive fields of marijuana carry a sweet
aroma that  makes the hardest soldiers here giggle.

All Canadians are advised not to drink the water in  Afghanistan. But
soldiers never seem to refuse the  sweet chai tea served at almost
every gathering. That  might have something to do with the
gastrointestinal  bug floating around the Canuck camps. At best,
soldiers  can hope for diarrhea with a low-grade fever. At worst,
they're barfing their guts up for a few days and wind  up with
intravenous drips in their arms to ward off  dehydration.

Medical officials try to limit the damage by relegating  sick soldiers
to their own latrines and placing bottles  of alcohol-based hand
sanitizer everywhere. But the  germs march on.

The heat pounds down here like a sledgehammer. But the  shade is so
instantly cool, it's almost impossible to  believe. And a stiff
evening breeze makes taking off  the body armour the best part of
anyone's day. "It's  like 30 seconds of heaven," says Warrant Officer
Kendall McLean, from Lakeville, N.B.

Like any place where people are in jeopardy, soldiers  rely on
caustic, often bawdy humour to keep themselves  sane. With 54 soldiers
and one diplomat killed here  since 2002, Canadian troops obviously
take this mission  seriously. But they also tease each other
relentlessly,  and I'm not spared for a second.

As we return from a long patrol to a remote village,  some guys from
India Company razz their sergeant for  being old. They offer to get
him a cane. Then I make  the mistake of asking him his age.
"Thirty-eight," he  says. Stupidly I tell him I just turned 39.

His face brightens considerably and he instantly gets  on the radio:
"Get out the wheelchair, boys."
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MAP posted-by: Steve Heath