Memoir: a Toronto cop in Kandahar

Memoir: a Toronto cop in Kandahar

I spent nine months in Afghanistan, helping train police officers and patrolling with the military. I’m not a churchgoing man, but I’ve never done more praying in my life

We arrived by military plane at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on the night of November 17, 2009. For a large air base, it was dark and surreal. I’ve never seen so many bats. Light at night is the enemy’s friend, so the base was what we call light disciplined, meaning minimal illumination, and it was also really noisy and dusty. Everyone thinks Afghanistan is all sand, but it’s more like dust. We used to call it moon dust—you take a step and it billows up around your feet. It gets into everything. There’s also a pervasive smell, a combination of open sewage, diesel, and all the things they burn for fuel: cow manure, wood, plastics. It all floats up into the air. Afghanistan was nothing like the world I knew in Canada, but it would be my home for the next 273 days.

I’m a police officer, a staff sergeant at Toronto’s 32 Division. I joined the force in June of 1980, when I was 19. My wife, Terri, is with the RCMP, and we have two daughters, Taylor and Dylan. I volunteered to go to Afghanistan, along with 23 other officers from across Canada (11 from Toronto), under a program run by the International Police Operations Branch, part of the RCMP. The program has been active for 20 years. Our officers have worked in places like Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. We mentor, teach and try to help create a modern, disciplined police force. Kandahar was my second stint; I’d gone to Kosovo for nine months in 1999. I enjoy being with the military—the camaraderie, the atmosphere, the kibitzing. Plus, I’m a bit of an adrenalin junkie.

When we weren’t teaching, we were on patrol, either in Kandahar or in nearby villages. Working in Afghanistan is never routine. You’re always at the ready, always armed. I slept with my gun close to me. The only time I didn’t have it was when I was in the shower. But on patrol, I would feel excitement more than fear. The biggest rush came when we were out with the Quick Reactionary Force searching for hidden explosives. At first, in the carrier, you could hear a pin drop, but once out of the front gate, we’d start slagging each other, bolstering our bravado. The QRF only responds when they find explosives or when one goes off, so at the site, it gets quiet again and we become all eyes and ears, on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary.

Walking into a location with the potential for booby traps and ambushes is unlike anything else. I’m not a church­going man, but I’ve never done more praying in my life. When you find an IED, the experts either blow it up or disable it. Our job was to set up a proper cordon, making sure all the surrounding buildings were empty and that Afghani officers didn’t interfere. It’s difficult. You’re mentoring them, teaching them to take over, but with an IED, you have to tell them that it’s best to leave it to people who are fully trained.

My second-last day in Kandahar will stay with me forever. We were at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City, about 14 kilometres from the airfield. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon, and I was in my shorts in my bunk in the barracks, watching a movie on my laptop. My stuff was all packed, and some of it had already gone on ahead of me. The barracks are built out of big shipping containers, with one window, A/C in the wall and a door, and they’re stacked two high. No plumbing—you have to go out for that. Suddenly there was this huge explosion; the whole barracks shook, and dust rained down inside. Everything seemed to go into slow motion. When the place stopped moving, I crawled out of bed and checked for my helmet, flak vest, pistol and eye protection. I was on the second level, and there’s a kind of gangway you can walk out on.

I got dressed and went out on the gangway and met a buddy of mine, a police officer from Ottawa, and we started shouting down to the street, asking what had happened. We could see this big plume of smoke and dust 200 metres south of the main gate. Two guys from Corrections Canada came running by—civilians who were mentoring at Sarposa Prison. They yelled, “We just got hit.”

Thirteen Afghan trainees in a light-skinned vehicle—a van, really—had been struck by a directionary focused charge, which means a garbage can packed with explosives, steel ball bearings, nails and glass. A station wagon came up the street and stopped at the medical infirmary directly opposite us. My buddy said, “We’d better give them a hand.” The guy in the front passenger seat was covered in blood, but he could still walk, and we helped him into the infirmary. The guy in the back seat was unconscious, scorched and covered in blood. He was maybe in his 20s. My friend took his shoulders, and I took his legs. We carried him into the building and onto a stretcher. We cut off his clothing—he had deep lacerations on his legs, head, side. I was very calm. It’s amazing what you can do and still remain calm in the moment.

After the medics took over, my buddy and I went back outside. We were covered in blood. There was a stockpile of water there, and we tried to clean up. We kept opening bottle after bottle of water and taking turns squirting each other with Purell, and it took forever to get the blood off. I was just shaking my head. All I could think was, what an exclamation mark on our tour. I’d seen bodies and pieces of bodies, but this was as hands-on as I got with someone whose life was in the balance.

I never found out if the guy lived.

We left the next day. Since I’ve been home, I find I don’t get too rattled by things anymore. It’s just, there’s a job to be done, so let’s do it. I’d enlist in the program again in a heartbeat. Maybe not to Afghanistan, but the Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone? For sure.—as told to Gerald Hannon

Staff sergeant Brian Kenny is back at 32 Division, near Yonge and Sheppard.

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(Illustration: Paul Dallas)