T. Robert Fowler Speaks to Canadian Soldiers

T. Robert Fowler Speaks to Canadian Soldiers

Posted on June 6 by T. Robert Fowler
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What happened in Kandahar province between 2006 and 2011? It turned out to be the longest campaign in Canadian military history but no official records will be available to the public for some time. The only way to understand what happened is to talk to the soldiers who were there. That’s what I set out to do a few years ago. It turned out to be one of the most fascinating and inspiring experiences I have had since I began writing about the Canadian military many years ago.

 

Finding Interviewees

It wasn’t easy to find soldiers who would agree to be interviewed. Striking out on my own, I found that soldiers were reluctant to talk about their tours. But finally, through very helpful contacts at Army Public Affairs, I found two soldiers who were open to talking to me, and that broke the bottleneck. I eventually had seven soldier whom I could spend some hours with, either in person or by telephone, getting the full story of their Kandahar tours.

These soldiers were glad to talk about what had happened to them, whether they had been seriously wounded or not. Their time in Afghanistan had been fascinating to them personally and they had a sense that the public should know about what the Canadians had done there. It’s also likely that answering my questions provided some cathartic relief. At least they knew, from the interest I showed, that someone cared.

 

Full Disclosure Interviews

I talked to each soldier for several hours over a period of several weeks. They all answered my questions without hesitation and with all the detail I needed, except when I occasionally touched on a classified subject. The experiences of these soldiers were quite different because they had had completely different roles in Afghanistan. As a result, by the end, I could sense a different tone in each interview that fascinated me, that helped me understand the person I was interviewing a bit better.

 

Caring for Fellow Soldiers

For Richard Stacey the tone that stood out was that of duty and responsibility. That was as expected since he was a Master Warrant Officer looking after all the men and women under his command. He admitted anxiety when his column had been ambushed on the Arghandab River, but his first priority had always been the care of those under him – regardless of whether they had been Canadian, American, or Afghan. During my interviews with him, I was impressed by the courtesy with which he treated me, and the sharp, decisive mind he seemed to exhibit when recalling every detail about Afghanistan. I believe it would have been a great comfort to serve under him in any dangerous circumstance, with his attitude reflected in his words:

“I never once thought about dying. It’s not about me. It’s about my soldiers.”

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Resilience

Franck Dupéré, on the other hand, impressed me with his overall enthusiastic and positive attitude about his tour and indeed life in general. He displayed no regrets, even after being severely wounded by a suicide bomber. Today, his right arm and hand remain weak and I just found out that he recently lost his right eye despite attempts by medical specialists to save it.

I could only describe his attitude as that of joie de vivre as he continues to seek new challenges despite all handicaps.

Most amazingly, after recovering from his wounds he joined the True Patriot Love expedition to climb a mountain in the Himalayas; that only whetted his appetite and he has just returned from a solo climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. He is the ultimate example of resilience, as shown in his words: “Life is so short. There’s two ways to see it. Either you see the good way or bad – it’s your choice. I still have one arm, one eye, so I can still see my kids growing. I still have one hand; I can touch them, put them to bed.”

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Natural Empathy

Rob Peel seemed to have landed in an ideal job for his aptitudes when he became a mentor to the Afghan National Army after arriving in Afghanistan. During our interviews, he showed a strong natural empathy towards the Afghans, readily accepting the differences between their culture and our Western way of life. This empathy showed up first even before he deployed, as he took the initiative to seek out books on Afghan history and culture. As he explained to me, “There was always going to be issues with the Afghans – as there are issues with the Canadian Forces too. The problem is a bit of ethno-centrism. But they are different than we are. And us applying our model to them and expecting results in a mere five years since their army was created is extremely unfair. They have different values and a different culture.”

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I could go on in equal detail about what the tone I sensed from the words used by the other interviewees, each unique in their own way. Looking back at all these men and my talks with them, the overall impression I am left with is that they are really representative of the majority of soldiers sent to Afghanistan, who must be considered the most professional force ever deployed by Canada to an overseas combat campaign.

T. Robert Fowler

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 27, 2015
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T. Robert Fowler

T. Robert Fowler is the author of several books about the military, including Courage Rewarded and Valour on Juno Beach. He has also written articles for The Canadian Army Journal and Canadian Military History, among others. He lives in Nepean, Ontario.