Kandahar Skies—Part One: Life on Hold

 

About twenty years ago, a friend and colleague of mine (for security, I will call him Burt) asked me for a letter of recommendation. He was tired and bored of his office job and felt the need to shake up his life. He decided to achieve a long-standing dream. He was adamant that he would become an air force pilot. While I was happy to write this letter, I felt it necessary to point out that he was 40 years old and that pilot selection and training would favour men half his age. His answer left me with no retort: “If I qualify, make the grades, pass the tests, they cannot reject me. It’s the law.” He was smart, fit and determined, but I had my doubts. Shortly after I sent Burt the letter, he disappeared. I often wondered how he was doing and if his dreams had been dashed and whether he had returned to his old job with his tail between his legs.

Two years later, I received an email from him. As I remember it, it did not have any words, just an attached digital photograph of himself suspended upside down in his seat harness in the left seat of a CT-114 Tutor jet trainer. Outside the cockpit windscreen was the air base at Moose Jaw, some five thousand feet below. I almost cried when I opened the jpeg. He had made it!

Now, twenty years later, he has recently retired from the Royal Canadian Air Force to pursue other dreams. The latter part of Burt’s career included a combat deployment flying Griffon helicopters in Afghanistan. He has agreed to share with us his feelings, preparations, memories and achievements in that stressful yet fulfilling deployment—in a three-part series called Kandahar Skies. — Dave O’Malley, Editor

Here now is Part One: Kandahar Skies—Life on Hold

I was at home on that September morning. I had taken a few days of leave, spending them at home with the intent on tackling an endless list of “to-dos”. I had just gotten out of bed, let the dog out, poured myself a hot cup of coffee and turned the TV on, when instead of the regular morning network fare, I recognized the familiar silhouette of the World Trade Centre. An aircraft had, for no apparent reason, flown into one of the towers. Mind you, as shocking as this was, I remembered that it was not the first time this sort of thing had happened. Many decades before, a B-25 Mitchell Bomber had collided with the Empire State Building in upper Manhattan while flying in low cloud. But I thought to myself; “Really, on a perfectly clear blue New York morning?” Not knowing what to make of it, I tried to reason that perhaps in the early morning mist and with the low sun on the horizon, maybe the pilots just hadn’t seen the towers and that by some horrific and freakish air traffic control error, the big jet had just been vectored into Manhattan at low altitude.

The instant the second plane hit the other tower, oh well then, as everyone else did, I figured that it was no accident. As unbelievable as it was to contemplate, some people somehow had willingly flown these fast-moving jets into the sides of those slow moving buildings. Moreover, as the day went on and as I continued watching the events unfold, I couldn’t help thinking that in some way, my humble military life was going to change as a result of what I was seeing. Surely not right away, not likely soon, but somehow, someday, this was going to affect me and my family.

At that time, I had already spent two years as a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) at No. 2 Canadian Forces Flight Training School (2CFFTS), also known as the Big 2, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. There, I had been teaching brand new student pilots the ins and outs of basic military flying.

Students and instructors of the Big 2 practice formation flying in their CT-114 Tutors over the Saskatchewan prairie. Photo: RCAF

The crowded CT-144 Tutor flight line at Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw when the type reigned supreme. Each carries the crest of the Big 2 on its rudder. Photo: RCAF

Life at the Big 2 was quite predictable. Most days, the instructors flew two and sometimes three instructional sorties on the Raytheon CT-156 Harvard II, a brand new, dark blue, sleek and tandem-seat turboprop trainer that had just replaced the Canadair CT-114 Tutor as the workhorse of Canadian military jet flight instruction. Each flying lesson was a well-structured one and a half hour hop during which the student learned anything and everything from the basics of takeoffs and landings to the intricacies of instrument flying, aerobatics, formation flying, low level navigation and night flying. On most days, the flying was fun and seeing the students progress through the curriculum was most rewarding. I was home pretty much every evening and lived rather comfortably in Moose Jaw’s oldest neighbourhood in an old century home where my then spouse and I raised two kids and a continuously changing number of dogs, domesticated rats and guinea pigs. Life was good.

In 2000, the CT-156 Harvard II replaced the Tutor as the aircraft used in basic military flight instruction with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Photos: RCAF

A few days after the terrorist attacks and before my short holidays were over, flight training at the Big 2 (which had been suspended as did all air traffic in Canada as a result of the attacks) had resumed. In the USA, in the days that followed, the immediate shock of the attacks slowly dissipated; the big three TV networks eventually resumed their regular broadcasts; Letterman and Leno saw it right to be funny again and people searched for normalcy.

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, the powers that be came to know that the attacks had been perpetrated by a small but well funded group called Al Qaida. The intelligence community had also figured out that the then little known outfit had been training its disciples in camps located in a barren, war-ravaged country nestled between Iran and Pakistan, namely the Republic of Afghanistan. Within just a few weeks of the attacks in the USA, the retaliations started. In a most incredible display of military might, from ships hundreds of kilometres from their targets, the USA launched a swarm of low flying robots (cruise missiles) to hit the training camps.

Some say that things could have ended right there, but they didn’t. There was, in America, an appetite for more, a whole lot more. There is probably no need to recount the genesis of the coalition that was formed and expedited to Afghanistan in an attempt to remove the Taliban and establish some form of democracy in that country. Much has already been written about this and I am sure, just as much has yet to be written about the intent, the justification, the goals, the successes and the failures of this war. Mine is not to debate the pros and cons of this military venture and Canada’s role in it. 

Meanwhile, back in little Moose Jaw, life went on. I continued with my teaching duties at 15 Wing Moose Jaw (home of the Big 2) until early 2006 at which time I was posted to a desk job at 3 Wing Bagotville, Québec. I ought to say: a desk job is usually not such a great thing, more so after you’ve gotten used to the incredible view out the window and several thousand feet of air beneath your office. But even though I enjoyed calling Moose Jaw “home” for the better part of eight years, I was ready for a change and it was time to move on. I welcomed the chance to return to the beautiful Saguenay Valley and the majestic Lac-St-Jean area of Québec where I had spent my teenage years. The plan, as my Career Manager (but better known in military circles as “Career Mangler”) explained it, was that I would work at a desk job with 3 Wing Operations for the better part of a year before starting helicopter conversion training. Ultimately, I was to finish my flying career on rotary wing aircraft. At first, I would be learning the basics of flying helos on the Bell 206 in Portage-la-Prairie, Manitoba and sometime thereafter, continue training on the bigger twin-engine, four-bladed Bell 412 Griffon in Gagetown, New Brunswick. As the plan stood, I would eventually fly in a Combat Support role with 439 Combat Support (CS) Squadron in Bagotville.

Contrary to what the name suggests, the term Combat Support (CS) Squadron really has little to do with combat. The CS helicopters actually have a number of jobs in support of the fighter base where they are located. In Bagotville, 439 CS Squadron stands at the ready to seek and retrieve CF-18 pilots who may find themselves having to punch out of their Hornets over the vast training area that lies to the north of the Saguenay River. In the CS role, 439 Squadron is also called upon to transport personnel and equipment in support of 3 Wing; such as carrying technicians to the radar installations at Lac Castor, north of the Saguenay River or carrying visiting VIPs. The local population doesn’t mind seeing the familiar yellow and red Griffons in the skies of the Saguenay–Lac St-Jean region as 439 is occasionally called upon by civilian authorities to assist in the search and rescue of local hunters, snowmobilers and hikers who find themselves in a fix.

Burt (with face obscured for security) and his Griffon. The RCAF’s Bell 412 Griffon is used in the Combat Support role by 417 Squadron (4 Wing Cold Lake) and 439 Squadron (3 Wing Bagotville) and in the primary Search and Rescue role by 424 Squadron (8 Wing Trenton). The tiger stripes on the tail boom reflect the fact that 439 is known as the “Sabre-Tooth Tiger Squadron”. For the first 60 years of its life, it was a fighter squadron—Hurricane, Typhoon, Sabre, Starfighter and Hornet—with almost all of those years on RCAF stations in Europe. Photo via the Author

For me, the plan actually went as advertised. After working a year at Operations as the Task Officer, I drove to Portage-la-Prairie and started to learn how to fly the Bell 206. Once that was completed, I went on to Gagetown to further my helo training on the Griffon. Once that was completed, I joined 439 Squadron in Bagotville. That’s where I started to actually learn to do my job, including obtaining a SAR FO1 (First Officer 1, Search & Rescue qualification). I had to learn all of the flying tasks associated with Search and Rescue; including landing and taking off out of very small places such as in the middle of an narrow opening in a forest (a.k.a. confined spaces) and hovering at the tree tops so as to provide a stable platform from which the Search and Rescue Technicians (SARTechs) could be winched down and back up to retrieve people when there is just no place to land.

Just as I was getting into the swing of things and just four months after arriving at 439 Squadron, the repercussions of the events of 9/11 finally came knocking at my door. On 17 December 2008, twelve years to the day after I had learned that I was offered a pilot position in the Canadian Armed Forces and just before the start of the Christmas holidays, the Commanding Officer (CO) of 439 CSS peeked through the door opening to my office, apologized for being the bearer of bad news and asked me; “Is there any reason why you would not be able to deploy to Afghanistan?” I informed him that I had just obtained a clean bill of health at my last medical and that there was no reason that I knew of which would prevent me from deploying overseas. Admittedly, my CO’s request was not a complete surprise. I had heard through the rumour mill that Combat Support Squadrons (such as 439) were going to be solicited to provide crews in support of the war in Afghanistan. My CO had been asked to submit a name and I was going to be it. After our very short conversation, he advised the chain of command that I was willing and able to deploy and one day later, I received an email informing me that I was going to deploy to Afghanistan as an “augmentee” to 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron (THS), based in Edmonton, Alberta. The email instructed me to report to Canadian Forces Base Gagetown on 6 January to start my Tactical Flying Officer course.

It all took a while to sink in. There is no denying it; the prospect of flying for six months in Afghanistan was daunting. After all, people of the coalition were dying every day and it didn’t take a university degree to understand that there were some people on the ground who were intent on harming us, although I appreciate the fact that those of us who had the privilege of flying helicopters were not facing the same danger as the ground troops did. Those folks of the land forces were facing unenviable odds each and every time they stepped out of the Forward Operating Bases (FOB), camp or Observation Point (OP) where they were stationed.

From that December day onward, the pace of training was fast and furious. Much of the Search and Rescue skills I had toiled to hone in Bagotville were of no use in Afghanistan. There wasn’t going to be any hoisting in Afghanistan and the Griffons that had already been deployed there were not equipped with hoists. The Griffons that were roaming through Kandahar province had three tasks; to provide armed escort for the Boeing twin-rotor Chinooks, to provide reconnaissance and to provide fire support to the land forces, when necessary. To that end, they had each been fitted with two M-134D Miniguns, one on each side in the large sliding door openings. The starboard gun was operated by a qualified Flight Engineer and the port gun was operated by an experienced gunner who had previously seen field experience with the infantry.

After I had learned the basics, much of the pre-deployment training was to be done during the cold Alberta winter with 408 Squadron in Edmonton. Altogether, the pre-deployment training was going to last about nine months. So, in January 2009, I reported to 408 “Goose” Tactical Helicopter Squadron (THS) in Edmonton. In essence, I spent the better part of these nine months training, with the occasional trip back home down East to rest and connect with what, by then, was left of my splintered family. I was already qualified to fly at night using Night Vision Goggles (NVGs), but now that I was deploying with a tactical squadron, I had to learn how to fly tactically under NVGs. This meant practicing how to navigate and perform a tactical approach into a confined area at night. We also practiced night formation flying. Later in the spring, we deployed to Suffield, Alberta and then Wainwright (a.k.a. Wainwrong), Alberta where we learned the day-to-day routine of working as a squadron through all of its tasks and functions; flight planning, briefing, flying the missions, debriefing, intel, etc. 

In 2009, during pre-deployment training, all aircrew participated in a comprehensive exercise held indoor, inside a large hangar (top) at CFB Wainwright, Alberta. This exercise had little to do with flying simulation, aircraft performance or flying skills. Its purpose was to enable us to work as a team through the entire mission cycle; from receiving the tasking, planning the mission, pre-mission brief, flying the mission (simulated on computer stations), debriefing and reporting incidents including Flight Safety incidents, simulated losses, etc. Photo via the Author

We also went to Yuma, Arizona for two weeks in order to gain some exposure to dusty and hot conditions similar to those we would soon find in Afghanistan. Helicopters are very susceptible to what is called low density altitude (the result of a combination of warm, moist air and high altitude). We also got to practice landing and takeoff techniques which would help us to do so safely in very dusty conditions.

As an escort pilot, I had to learn the various tactics and procedures we were going to employ in order to provide a credible deterrence to those who would want to hurt the Chinooks. I also had to learn and practice the various manoeuvres we had to use in order to enable our door gunners to quickly and correctly identify their targets, administer the proper dosage of lead, all the while limiting our own vulnerability to the strict minimum. If well-executed, the manoeuvre most often required the section (i.e., two helos) to fly fast and very low and to pop up at the last second to allow the gunners to acquire the target and let the guns talk, before diving back to the relative safety of very low flight. I also had to learn how to provide a stable platform to maximize the gunners’ accuracy and what actions to take if we were taking fire from small arms or from the dreaded Man Portable Air Defense (MANPADS—shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles). Tactical aviation was my new trade and come hell or high water, I was going to be good at it.

I have heard it said that a military career is not quite complete without an operational tour and I knew that the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan was above all a warrior’s privilege. Many of the Canadian Forces personnel will never deploy on operations and while some are okay with that, I could tell that my colleagues at 439 and the folks that I knew at 425 ETAC in Bagotville were somewhat jealous of the opportunity I was getting. A few of the pilots there had been my students in Moose Jaw and they were now training so as to present a credible deterrent in defence of Canada. Pilots from 3 Wing Bagotville have since been deployed with their CF-18s in Italy to fly missions as part of Operation Unified Protector (OUP) in Libya or over the Baltic states as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing or Op Impact against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

The pre-deployment training included such things as Combat First Aid and honing my skills in shooting with a hand gun and with a semi-automatic weapon. We also all got to throw a grenade, just in case that skill was one day going to be required. We were briefed on how to make an emergency request for emergency artillery fire. Physical fitness was a must and we all had to demonstrate that we were fit enough to deploy by performing a so-called Battle Fitness test, which amongst other tasks, included a 15 km forced march wearing a relatively heavy backpack (I can’t remember how heavy it really was but by the end, my feet were on fire).

We all had to attend cultural sensitivity briefings which were meant to prepare us to the culture clash; the values and customs of Afghanistan and Canada are vastly different. I remembered wondering to myself “How useful is that going to be?”; after all, I thought, those who were going to be flying (Pilots, Gunners and Flight Engineers) were not likely to meet the locals face to face. Much of what we learned during those briefings had already been discussed in the media to some degree. But still I learned a great deal. In the end, I ended up meeting a few Afghan people during my deployment. Some were part of the Afghan National Air Force but most of the Afghans I met were merchants who were allowed every Saturday morning to sell their wares in a market that was set up in the north part of the base. It must have been a lucrative business as this was a very popular market and most servicemen and women ended up purchasing souvenirs of Afghanistan.

Sometime along the way during the training in Edmonton, we learned that what was initially supposed to be a six-month deployment was now going to be a nine-month deployment. Initially, there were three squadrons that had been tasked to train and, in turn, to replace each other in a six-month rotation. But in the winter of 2010, one of the squadrons that were originally destined to go to Afghanistan was re-tasked to provide security and VIP transport at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. This meant that the two other squadrons were now going to stay in theatre for a full nine months to make up for the shortfall.

September came, the training ended, and soon we were all going home for some well-deserved R&R before the deployment itself.

But November came all too soon. On one very early November day in the Saguenay, I left home and let the adventure begin. Last minute check; water has been turned off and the pipes drained and the heat is on absolute minimum. The car is on blocks, fuel stabilizer in the tank. 

Neighbours were told to keep an eye on the place. As planned, a taxi came to pick me up at my little cottage on Lac Kenogami and before dawn, took me through the 55 km of the beautiful Saguenay Valley to Bagotville airbase. One squadron mate (a Safety Systems Technician) and I were leaving on this deployment along with a dozen of other members from 3 Wing Bagotville. Even though we were leaving early on a Sunday morning, my squadron CO and Master Warrant Officer (MWO) were on hand at 06:00 hrs to wish us goodbye. Their presence was much appreciated and meant of lot to us. Families embraced one last time before the nine-month separation. I was now single yet again and so, there were no kisses and hugs for me. I had to be content with unceremoniously stepping on the bus and settling in for the eleven-hour ride to Trenton, Ontario. We were to sleep at CFB Trenton before taking a chartered flight to Paphos, Cyprus.

The next day, a chartered Boeing B767 from Air Italy was waiting for us on the ramp in Trenton to take us on the long flight to Paphos. It was a long but comfortable flight and the flight crew’s fine service was much appreciated. We only stayed a few hours in Paphos. Soon enough, a CAF (Canadian Armed Forces – as the RCAF was then known) C-17 showed up, ready to take us to Afghanistan. If ever there was a doubt about the nature of our business, this is where it all came too clear. Prior to stepping into the C-17, we were all issued with body armour, including a large ceramic plate at the front and back to protect the vital organs against small calibre rounds. Along came a hard helmet. We were not required to wear these at the time of departure but as we approached Afghanistan, we were instructed to don our protective gear. Just prior to the descent, the interior lights in the cabin turned from white to red. I never inquired, but I am guessing that this was to allow our eyes to get accustomed to the darkness in case we had to make an emergency landing and egress from the aircraft. The schedule had us arriving in the middle of the night at Kandahar Airfield (KAF). As one would expect, the pilots of the C-17 did not execute a slow gradual descent into the war zone. Instead, once started, the descent was steep and filled with numerous changes of course; left turn, left turn, right turn, left turn again then right … on and on, so as not to be predictable to a trigger-happy enemy on the ground. The landing was uneventful as we arrived in KAF in the wee hours of the morning. We stepped out of the C-17 onto the tarmac at Kandahar Airfield.

As is often the case in large military deployments from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War to Afghanistan, part or all of the delivery of fresh troops to the battle area is accomplished by contract airlines. In Burt’s case, the first and longest leg, from CFB Trenton on Lake Ontario to Cyprus, was flown by Air Italy, a small charter airline subsidiary of Meridiana of Milan. Photo: Wikipedia

Inside an RCAF CC-177 Globemaster, en route from Cyprus to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Photo via the Author 

As we offloaded, we were instructed to walk to one of the buildings on the side of the tarmac and to wait there until our gear was unloaded. Within a few minutes, a forklift truck brought pallets stacked with each and everyone’s barrack boxes. In preparation for the deployment, we were each issued with two larger very tough plastic boxes for the purpose of shipping our military gear and personal clothing as well as any authorized personal items we wished to bring with us during the deployment. The nets covering the pallets were quickly removed and everyone sifted through a mountain of identical boxes, searching for the one with their name. Happily, one of my colleagues who had deployed on the previous rotation hinted that it would be well advised to personalize my two boxes a little, just enough to be able to find them easily. So, I stuck little strips of reflective tape on each corner of my two boxes and sure enough, they stuck out above all like a sore thumb under the glare of a flash light at night.

Kandahar Air Base is one of the largest and busiest military airfields in the world, a veritable city that is insulated from the country that hosts it. The author’s tent was similar to those seen at middle right in the above photo. Photo: Aviation Gallery by Will. A. Nijhuis

We were then each issued with two weapons: a 9 mm Browning hand gun (with a few clips and rounds) and a C-7 automatic rifle (and a whole bunch of magazines and rounds). The Browning is almost an antique and is so inaccurate that it would be a challenge to hit an elephant at close range in a corridor. We were instructed to carry it at all times anywhere on base. The C-7 is the standard semi-automatic/automatic assault rifle of the CAF. It is an accurate weapon but its range has nothing to do with what a sniper would use. But if one of the helicopters was forced to land in the countryside (and it did happen), then the C-7 would be the ideal weapon for us to defend ourselves until help arrives. So, all aircrew were required to bring their C-7 and several magazines of ammunition with them on each and every mission.

It was still early morning in KAF and there were a number of mandatory briefings to go through before we were released to our assigned accommodation. Still, for those of us just arriving in KAF, it was about midnight on our biological clock. I remember being so tired, that much of the briefings went in one ear and out the other.

Soon enough though, one member of the squadron, whom I was to relieve, came to pick me up in a small white pickup truck, along with one other colleague. We dropped our heavy barrack boxes in the back of the pickup and piled in the front seat for the short ride to one of three very large tents. To this day, everyone who went through KAF refers to them as the BATs (for “Big Ass Tents”). They were filled with rows and rows of metallic bunk beds. These were temporary sleeping quarters in which we were to stay until the crews we were replacing were gone. I remember only having slept two nights there. I chose an empty bed (the upper level), placed my barrack boxes there and followed the crowd to the nearest food hall. 

Inside one of the three BATs (Big Ass Tents); our home for the first two nights in Kandahar Airfield. Photo via the Author

Our modest abode for the duration of the deployment. Each half-moon tent housed sixteen people, each in a small six feet by six feet private space cordoned off by curtains. The personnel from 408 Squadron were only occupying a few of the hundreds of tents and other types of accommodations on this 23,000-strong beehive of a base. Photo via the Author

My personal 6’ x 6’ space. Like many of my colleagues did, I raised my bed using whatever I could use (in my case, I had used cases of bottled water) so as to be able to store some personnel effects under the bed. A number of short range radars had been installed around the base so as to detect the launch of rockets aimed at the base. The instant the radar detected the rocket, the alarm sounded. This gave us a few seconds (the flight-time of the rockets) to take cover before impact. We all knew the drill, drop to the ground and wait for the “all clear”. Because attacks sometimes occurred in the middle of the night, most of us had perfected the art of rolling off the bed and falling on the floor, almost subconsciously. Photo via the Author

At Kandahar, where Burt’s deployment would last nine months, mail call was a very happy event, often bringing packages of goodies from home. Photo via the Author

By the time we arrived in KAF in November 2009, there were four Dining Facilities (DFACs) on base, feeding each and every one of the twenty-three thousand inhabitants of this far-flung outpost. The DFACS were all staffed by swarms of foreign workers. Every now and then, I would engage in short conversations with some of them and got to meet a few from Indonesia, Pakistan and Tibet to name a few countries of origin. All were willingly expatriating themselves in this war zone for periods ranging from six months to two years to make some money which they dutifully sent back home to their loved ones. Although seemingly run by the same civilian contractor, the DFACS all had a different menu, clientele and atmosphere. The Niagara (which some persistently called the Viagra) was a large cafeteria that served American-style food. As one would expect, the food there was typical of what you would find on the table of a high school cafeteria before a belated turn to a healthier diet; a mix of rather bland meats, vegetables and salads sharing counter space with the ubiquitous hamburgers and pizzas. Warm milk competed with an assortment of American colas. A dessert bar harboured a variety of unimaginative sweets and cakes. More often than not, US infantry personnel could be seen building on their trays a fortress of pop cans surrounding hamburgers, onion rings and fries. The atmosphere was definitely institutional.

When you entered the Viagra, you might think that you have entered the cafeteria in a typical large American penal institution. At one end, the cafeteria-style counters offered the food and for the reminder of the long, low ceilinged place, rows of four-foot-high concrete blast walls subdivided rows of tables and chairs. The tables had chairs on both sides, but more often than not, the patrons sat on the side of the table that allowed them to watch the endless stream of football, basketball and baseball broadcasted through the only available channels, peppered with military propaganda programming that had a most definite Orwellian feel. Was it intentional? As if to shield the soldiers from the political debates revealing the intricacies of the war, Viagra’s TVs almost never showed news broadcasts from mainstream networks.

Signposts telling soldiers and airmen the distances back to “the world” have been a tradition in semi-permanent military encampments since before the First World War. On days when the dust was this oppressive, it was best to remain in your “hooch”. Photo via the Author

The newest dining facility, located on the north side of Kandahar Airfield. All of the other four dining facilities were located on the south side of the airfield and it took twenty minutes at best to drive from the north side, around the runway to the South side. This new dining facility made life so much easier for all those working on the flight-line on the north side. Photo via the Author

A colleague of mine and I somehow kept some sort of sanity by dutifully maintaining a parallel universe in which we navigated at will outside of work hours. For example, as if he had arranged for a business dinner, Jason would tell me; “I have made reservations at this little place I know. It is called the Luxemburg. I talked to one of the gentlemen there and he has set aside one of their best tables for us.” It might as well have been scripted as I answered “This sounds lovely, what a nice idea." The next day, I would say something like: “Allow me to take you out for a nice meal. Please, don’t worry, it’s on me.” (needless to say, all meals were free.) At meal times, soldiers of various nations and uniforms lined up at the door to swipe their magnetized meal cards. We then had to wash our hands in long industrial sinks equipped with rarely functioning motion-activated hot water taps, under the watchful eye of personnel who would make sure that everyone washed their hands. The foreign workers consistently displayed incredible patience when dealing with everyone. I often joked about going up to the counter at the entrance and asking the attendant; “I have reservations for two for (insert name here)” just to see what reaction I would be getting from the attendant. But I never had the guts to do it.

The Luxemburg offered a decidedly more European menu; the layout was pretty much the same as that of the Viagra but gone were the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball feeds. Unlike the American DFAC, one could watch the news (Skynews from the UK).

The foreign workers and a good number of military personnel chose to eat at the Asian DFAC. I tried to go there on a regular basis because I love Asian food, even though the walk was quite a bit longer than that for the other DFACs.

The Cambridge was the DFAC presumably run by British personnel. It certainly offered a fare of British and Indian food.

While the main food service building had a somewhat industrialized approach to feeding the troops, Canadians could avail themselves of an honest-to-goodness Tim Horton’s Donut and Coffee shop—a truly comforting taste of home. It’s difficult to explain the emotional importance of this place if you are not Canadian. Photo: DND

Upon arrival, there was little time to get used to our new surroundings. By the second day on base, we all had to follow compulsory training in recognizing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and by the third day, I was scheduled for my first two flights: a day familiarization flight and a night familiarization flight. They were intended to familiarize us with the start, taxi and takeoff procedures and to start getting acquainted with the geography of the Kandahar province and the various districts in which we were going to be flying for the next nine months. There was no time to be wasted. There was a war to be fought.

By “Burt”, a Canadian helicopter pilot.

A CH-146 (Bell 412) Griffon in the hover at Kandahar. Flying the helicopter in Afghanistan, while a dangerous hardship, was a great privilege for Burt. Photo: RCAF

For the next nine months, the strange, dangerous and cocooned Apocalypse-Now-like environment of Kandahar Air Base would be Burt’s home. Photo via the Author

The author, Captain “Burt”, takes a kitted-out selfie on the Kandahar ramp with a brace of Griffons in the background. Burt follows protocol by not showing his face, to reduce security risks to his family. Photo via the Author

End of Part One. Part Two will be published in June.​

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