It was a hot, dusty day, like every other day. This is Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan, a desolate place, and the heat hits like an open oven. Everything is tan wherever one looks. The roads are dust, and it swirls like talcum powder whenever anyone passes. Dust devils dance like whirling dervishes not far from our camp, driven by rising thermals. The few hardy trees, with roots so deep that they seem to live on nothing, appear to be constructs of dust too. Even the distant mountains, when they can be seen through the dusty haze, are brown.
Kandahar is the operational home of Task Force Afghanistan, 2,200 Canadian soldiers and 10,000 others charged with facilitating the three D’s of Canadian foreign policy: defence, diplomacy and development. But those last two are hard to achieve when insurgent forces are doing their best to kill those who want to see it happen. We are the target of terrorists dedicated to shooting or blowing us up by any number of creative means. Yet farmers just want to grow food, and are threatened with death by warlords who want them to grow endless fields of opium poppies. Children, keen and hungry to learn, watch their rebuilt schools being burned again by insurgents.
I visit an orphanage. The 21 girls, ages three months to 15 years, come from various tribal backgrounds. Overcoming their shyness, they treat me with such loving acceptance that my heart fills with joy. It reminds me of why we are here, and gives me real faces to recall in the months to come. I will fight for these children. Taliban and Al Qaeda forces have traditionally found refuge here. Warlords and insurgents have a big stake in making it look like they are in control. The Afghan government has asked the world for help, and we are part of the Canadian government’s response. It is a challenging place. It is imminent ministry for we who are chaplains to the Canadian Forces.
Mattins sung at dawn, I leave Fraise Chapel, our multi-national sacred space made of plywood and love. My phone rings, which is usually bad news. An emergency response group has been called. I discover that a suicide bomber has hit Canadian troops again. Four dead and 17 wounded. We go to the field surgical hospital to await casualties, silently whispering prayers for whoever is coming. The Blackhawks begin to touch down, and the stretchers are rushed into the triage area.
Thick bandages soaked with blood do not always stop the dripping through the stretchers onto the floor. It was not the blast that hurt these soldiers – it was the ball bearings, nails and shards of metal strapped around the explosive belt that made a circle of hot destruction for 50 meters. Pieces of victims and dirt coat the desert tans of the wounded. They suffer shrapnel injuries, and some are severe. The medical team makes fast, professional assessments and begins treatment. We lift stretchers, we hold the hands of soldiers as they squeeze our fingers and cry out in pain, grief and fear. We lift them for X-rays and help turn their torn bodies for treatment, praying aloud with those who wish it, and silently for all. We report to concerned friends how their buddies are doing. Later, we will help many contact loved ones at home, but not before they have had a chance to tell us their story first. It is too raw to be spoken to family and friends unmetabolized. They thank us for this. Chaplains are keepers of the story. We hold their experience in our hands, and cherish it. Tears come freely and often.
Mortuary Affairs calls. They are ready for us. The remains of the dead are not disturbed for confirmation of identification until the chaplain says final prayers – last rites. Not knowing anyone’s identity for certain, I pray from my prayer book for all and bless each body in turn. God knows his own and will understand. We send them to him for ultimate healing. The people waiting to do their job stand silently with bowed heads, and I am reminded once again that there are no atheists in foxholes. Many shake my hand in silent thanks, and our eyes meet meaningfully. This was important. Now their job begins.
The next day, contingents from Canada, Britain, the United States, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Romania and Portugal gather in formation by the Canadian C-130 Hercules aircraft to salute the fallen and to pay our respects to friends we will see no more. The chaplain reminds us briefly that we must acknowledge our grief and hold it like a precious thing, but now is not the time to grieve. That time comes later.
The ramp closes. There is no question that we will return to our units and continue the mission. This is war against evil. We are called to protect the weak and uphold the fatherless. We will guard those who tend the sick and help the hungry feed themselves. We will stand beside those who want nothing but security to live and the privilege of self-determination. We are among proud people and they are very grateful. We are the Canadian Forces, and we are doing our job. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Major Robert A. Lauder is Task Force Chaplain, Operation Archer, in Afghanistan.