A soldier’s story

Black smoke slowly rose into the sky while the sand of the Registan Desert began to swirl.

Only minutes before, an explosion had ripped through a Canadian Armed Forces Bison armoured personnel carrier in Panjwai district, Afghanistan late on a Saturday morning.

Inside the Bison were three medics who were part of a four-vehicle convoy responding to a call to disarm a mine found in Kandahar City.

Two Canadian medics, Kristal Giesenbrecht of Wallaceburg, 34, and Andrew Miller of Sudbury, 21, were killed and a third, unnamed female medic was wounded.

One year later, it’s still fresh in the memory of Corporal Dave Langlands.

“That was one of the worst days we had,” said Langlands, a Canadian military policeman in the reserves who completed two tours and was ­stationed at Panjwai District Centre (PDC) police substation.

“Andrew was my first aid instructor in ­Petawawa. I trained with him before going over to Afghanistan and we went on a few missions together. It was a long, miserable day.”

Minutes after the explosion that killed ­Giesenbrecht and Miller, as the smoke travelled to the southwest, two United States Apache ­helicopters circled the area as Canadian, ­American and Afghan soldiers arrived from the PDC, only one kilometre from the explosion.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, observation ­balloons and patrols were launched to find out who ­detonated the roadside bomb. But those responsible wouldn’t be found for another three weeks.

With the exception of half a dozen camels and a herd of wandering sheep, the incident had few witnesses and was one of several violent ­encounters since Canada began its combat ­mission in Afghanistan in 2002.

Within 10 hours the scene had been cleared and the wreckage removed.

The small crater from the blast and the burn marks from the explosion that stretch eight metres both ways will remain until sand covers them.

“When anyone looks at that area only a handful of people will actually know what it means,” said Langlands. “It’s just a spot, but it is a symbol of the dangers we faced.”

Only a few kilometres from the crater is Ma’sum Ghar mountain and 500 metres to the right of where Giesenbrecht and Miller’s vehicle was hit is a nomad village.

“I woke up every morning looking at Ma’sum Ghar. It’s beautiful,” said Langlands. “The area is also the birthplace of the Taliban and one of the most dangerous places in the world. Sometimes appearances can be deceptive, I guess.”

Now, as the almost decade-long Canadian ­mission has finished, many are left wondering how to appropriately memorialize Canadian ­soldiers who served in the conflict.

Langlands compared his tours in Afghanistan to any other job. As long as soldiers are recognized, he feels that’s all that’s needed.

“We just don’t want to be forgotten,” said ­Langlands. “It’s the same way with an architect or an engineer, they want people to know what they did because they’re proud of it.”

There have been many types of ceremonies to remember the 157 Canadian soldiers killed since 2002. The journey on the highway of heroes, the funeral service on Kandahar airfield and the ­ceremonial burial of rocks at Ma’sum Ghar are all ways to reflect on soldiers killed.

Although these acts are meaningful, Langlands hopes the sacrifice for helping Afghanistan is not in vain.

“We haven’t done everything perfect,” he ­conceded. “But no one does. The majority of Afghans know we’re working with good intentions and I hope things continue to improve after ­Canada leaves.”

As far as memorializing the soldiers’ mission, Langlands believes it will take time.

“Right now it’s still raw,” Langlands said. “It will probably be 20 years from now once everyone has largely moved on to other ongoing events in the world.”

For Langlands, a soldier’s role is fairly simple.

“Soldiers just try and do their job. At times, they may be the tip of the sword, but we’re not evil ­people,” said Langlands. “I think what we really want, what anyone wants, is respect.”