Cobden -- When the Canadian Armed Forces left Afghanistan in 2014, they left behind what had been a 12-year commitment as part of a United States-led multinational coalition to overthrow the Taliban regime in the country. Over that time, more than 40,000 Canadians had served on the mission which cost 165 Canadian lives: 158 military and seven civilian. A further 2,000-plus were wounded.
Defined in broad terms, the mission was understood to:
· Conduct combat operations to drive out insurgents and maintain security to create a secure environment for development and reconstruction.
By the time the Canadian Forces withdrew from the mission, those serving there had seen, besides the devastation and tragedies, many signs of progress in moving the country and its inhabitants toward more freedom and opportunities. And so, it is with a sense of loss that the news was received that, in the run-up to the United States withdrawal from their presence in the country scheduled for August 31, Taliban fighters had taken control of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15, 2021.
Among the Canadian veterans of the Afghanistan conflict who are now still processing this turn of events is Robert Lauder, an Anglican priest who as Major the Reverend Lauder served a seven-month stint as leader of a seven-person team of chaplains from August 2006 to March 2007.
“During that time,” says Rev. Lauder, “I shared in the sacrament of last rites over the bodies of 23 Canadian soldiers, most of whom I knew personally, and said goodbye to more than 200 friends who were medically repatriated.”
There were approximately 2,600 Canadian personnel on the ground in Afghanistan at any given time. They were rotated every six months for 10 years. While conducting counter-insurgency operations, they were also engaged in sharing a new way of thinking with the Afghanistan National Police, who exercised the power of local warlords over people in their areas.
“Traditionally they were nepotistic appointments of their relatives, wearing no uniforms and getting no pay. They would stop people at crossroads for money or anything else of value they had,” he said. “The idea of ‘To Serve and Protect’ was a radical concept when we arrived. Policing as a career with a uniform, a code of conduct, and regular pay was a fascinating development."
While they were attempting to fulfill their mandate, the soldiers had to function under the constant threat posed by the prevalent worldview of a society dominated by warlords who acted on their interpretation of Islam.
“We quickly learned to ignore burka-clad women at all times to avoid violence,” recalled Rev. Lauder. “In practical terms, women didn’t exist except for their husbands inside their houses where they bore and tended to their children.”
However, the needs of unattached males had to be accommodated, and for that purpose young boys were used. The ramifications of this added to the stress already part of the soldiers’ combat experience and entered into the regular counselling sessions which were part of the chaplain’s role.
“They would tell me how extremely troubled they were by hearing the screams of young boys being used on Thursday evenings,” he said. “We were told that Friday was the Muslim holy day, and that according to the ancient Pashtunwali (tribal law), which predated Islam by 300 years, it made sense.
“Canadian soldiers were in terrible distress and would say. ‘What can we do?’ Passed up the chain of command, the word came down to do nothing. ‘We are not there to change their culture or local customs’.”
During the scheduled “purple stole” times, when chaplains agreed that anything they would hear was in absolute confidence, members of the forces would line up 10 at a time to wait for their allotted 20 minutes with that chaplain.
“For those minutes they would vomit their experiences into our laps, thank us for listening, and then move on to make way for the next in line,” he said. “All we could do was listen. It was the only place they could take the psychic energy they carried within from their experiences. But the ones I was really concerned about were the ones who didn’t seem to be struggling.”
Meanwhile they were up against an indistinguishable enemy which was a gathering of people from various Islamic countries, indoctrinated to believe that members of NATO forces supporting the Hamad Karzai government were there to deny their faith, to destroy their mosques, and otherwise deprive them of their ability to practice Islam.
“Almost all were high on opium or marijuana, which were cheap and easy to obtain,” said Rev. Lauder. “Afghanistan remains a major world source of these substances.”
There was the matter of understanding the culture which motivated the insurgents and the society in which the events played out.
“Our interpreters were paid and treated well to help us communicate and to understand social practices,” he recalled. “It was difficult. The good guys and the bad guys all looked the same. Quite often they were cousins of the people to whom we spoke on the street, who thanked us for being there.”
A tradition with wide-eyed newcomers, overwhelmed by the heat and dust, was to invite them to “the fishing derby on Saturday at the lake.
“New arrivals got excited about this bit of Canadiana in an arid land, until they realized we were referring to the sewage lagoon, the only open water anywhere, the smell of which wafted over Kandahar Airfield as a symbol of our life there.
“The fishing was poor.”
The daily horror continued, with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) a constant threat. Chaplains are forbidden from carrying weapons; nevertheless, Major Lauder frequently accompanied the soldiers to the front lines in solidarity with them.
“We were there to help them cope; to survive, to make sense out of senselessness.”
He was told by an interpreter that even the enemy valued the role of the chaplain.
“We were told that there was a bounty of $10,000 for any fighter who killed a Canadian soldier,” he said. “The bounty for a chaplain was $20,000. This was a huge amount in Afghan culture. They must have thought that ‘Canadian Imams’ were good for the morale of the soldiers.
“I knew I was doing the job well when we heard that gunsights were training on us, but it raised the level of anxiety.”
There was no way of knowing when an interaction would turn deadly.
“There were CF married couples serving in the same theater of conflict, which seemed unfortunate to me,” said Rev. Lauder. “One Canadian soldier was killed in an explosion. We had to notify his wife, who was on duty about a mile away. It did not go well. If our opponents were trying to reduce our fighting effectiveness, it worked that day. The body of the soldier was escorted home by a close friend, as was our custom, and by his CF wife and her close friend.”
However, troops found ways to lighten the ever-present feeling of threat.
“I visited one soldier in our Role 3 surgical hospital with a badly-swollen leg,” he recalled. “Asking what had brought him there, he said, ‘Snakebite by a viper.’ I inquired how he knew it was a viper, so he reached under the bed and drew out a lifeless, headless viper. ‘Where’s the head?’ ‘I bit it off.’ We laughed together so hard that he almost fell off his cot. The mood was briefly lighter and he recovered.”
In November of 2006, Major Lauder shared an excerpt from his personal diary with The Anglican Journal, the magazine of his denomination, recording a day in his life in Afghanistan.
After describing the heat and the dust-covered landscape where “everything is tan wherever one looks” he went on to explain:
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 school being burned again by insurgents.
I visit an orphanage. The 21 girls, ages 3 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. The Afghan government has asked the world for help and we are part of the Canadian government’s response.
He sings Matins, a morning prayer service in Fraise Chapel, a multi-national sacred space “made of plywood and love.” Then his phone rings.
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 to come. The Black Hawks (helicopters) 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 metres. 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.
A window into the day-to-day life of those deployed on the Afghanistan mission, and of the experiences which caused many to be traumatized to the point where they could no longer function in the combat theatre and were sent home. To help them cope, and to transition to non-combat life, there was a four-day process at a decompression centre in Cyprus.
“The theory was that there was a chance to talk to medical doctors, recover and re-engage with “normal” civilian life. While it was helpful, it was not enough.
After the decompression period, they came home, many unable to disengage from the events that had resulted in their medical discharge, “to a spouse and kids who had no understanding of their experiences. Spouses often wondered who the profoundly-changed guy or girl was in their house.”
And now, the return of the Taliban to power has seemingly reversed the hard-won gains resulting from the sacrifices of so many soldiers and their families.
Rev. Lauder says the US troop withdrawal this past August which emboldened the Taliban takeover was “inevitable.”
“There was no way the US would keep its forces there forever,” he said. “Since the days of Alexander the Great around 300 BC, would-be conquerors were stopped by Afghan fighters, who would simply retreat to the hills and wait for the latest conqueror to leave.
“We did what we could when we could. It was unwinnable. We can’t change people; we can only walk with them as they go their own way. Yes, at first there was a great sense of futility. But just as with conflicts of all times, it’s only the change within ourselves that make any difference.”
He continues to be sustained by numerous “little lights” from his experiences in Afghanistan.
“There was a boy who told me his older sister had been able to attend school for the first time and she was hoping to become a lawyer. There was a man who told me he was now growing flowers. Never before had he been able to grow flowers. If he had grown anything other than opium or marijuana, the warlords would have killed him and his wife and children, he said. We were able to plant seeds of hope that people could become something other than they were. A whole generation grew up with the possibility of something bigger and better. Maybe some will become teachers and lawyers. We will find out. But, for 20 years, they had a chance to breathe.”
On his return to Canada, Major Lauder was posted to a small army depot in Toronto where he served far from the battlefields of Afghanistan and even more distanced from anyone who would understand the toll the experience had taken on him.
Posted to Toronto immediately upon return from AFG roto 03-06, he rode the subway north to Denison Armoury in Downsview daily. Reporting in on his first day, he didn’t get halfway through the parking lot before being physically accosted by four young men, calling out and beating him with their fists.
“I was thinking, ‘Welcome to Toronto’,”, he said. “Then they started to laugh, asking if I remembered them. It turns out that they were four reservists from a Toronto regiment, seconded to 1RCR for roto 03-06. Knowing how hard it is to be inserted into a formed unit, I had sat with them one-on-one through a long night of sentry duty behind a heavy machine gun in a foxhole at Masum Ghar, a vulnerable forward position where the threat was real. I said little as each stood their watch telling the chaplain their troubles and concerns before the long night turned into dawn. ‘Padre, you were a God-send that night. We don’t think we would have made it through the deployment if you hadn’t risked your own life that night. Most senior officers come forward, stay low, get their picture taken, and depart by helicopter. You sat through the night with us in our hole when you didn’t have to. We figured, if you can do it, we can do it.’
“It was not what I said, for I said little,” he recalled. “It was a ministry of presence. These soldiers were truly appreciative.”
Rev. Lauder continued to process his experiences. After two years he requested psychotherapy and ultimately was declared medically unfit to continue as a member of the military. After his medical discharge he retired to Petawawa where he started a small financial service business which he continues to operate.
His heart, however, is never far from his one-time comrades, and, with a Harley as his favourite mode of transportation, he serves as chaplain to two Wounded Warriors motorcycle clubs. While he fills in for Sunday worship vacancies in churches in the Anglican Parish of the Valley, he says “his church” is now the Wounded Warrior groups with which he meets twice weekly.
“We laugh, we cry, we ride our Harley’s and sometimes we get better,” he said.
The 65-year-old father and grandfather now resides in the Cobden area.
He is the current president of the Kiwanis Club in Pembroke and is looking forward to singing in the Pembroke Community Choir once again when COVID-19 measures permit.
“But my principal outreach is to the Wounded Warrior community,” he said.
He acknowledges the catch-all term for trauma injuries, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is somewhat clichéd.
“We all endure trauma,” he said. “What will we do with it? How does one make sense out of chaos? I don’t want to hang on to a sense of futility. I want to move on to things that have meaning and purpose. If we see the bigger picture, we can make better choices.
“I want to remain useful,” he added. “My role as a pastoral counsellor is to find the gift within the hurt. You can’t walk down anyone else’s path any farther than you have walked yourself. People who knew me before Afghanistan say that I am much more helpful to them now.
“We only grow when it hurts. Pain breeds change. It’s all good, if we can just figure out what it means.”
Marie Zettler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader