A remarkable collection of first-hand accounts written by soldiers, doctors and aid workers on the front lines of Canada’s war in Afghanistan.
Visceral, intimate and captivating in ways no other telling could be, Outside the Wire features nearly two dozen stories by Canadians on the front lines in Afghanistan, including the previously unpublished letters home of Captain Nichola Goddard, the first female NATO soldier killed in combat, and an introductory reflection by Roméo Dallaire.
Collected here are stories of battle and the more subtle engagements of this little-understood war: the tearful farewells; the shock of immersion into a culture that has been at war for thirty years; looking a suicide bomber in the eye the moment before he strikes; grappling with mortality in the Kandahar Field Hospital; and the unexpected humour that leavens life in a warzone. Throughout each piece the passion of those engaged in rebuilding this shattered country shines through, a glimmer of optimism and determination so rare in multinational military actions–and so particularly Canadian.
In Outside the Wire, award-winning author Kevin Patterson and co-editor Jane Warren have rediscovered the valour and horror of sacrifice in this, the definitive account of the modern Canadian experience of war.
About the authors
Kevin Patterson grew up in Manitoba and put himself through medical school by joining the Canadian army. Recently, he served for seven weeks as an internist at the Kandahar Air Field hospital. His first book, a memoir called The Water in Between, was a Globe Best Book and an international bestseller. Country of Cold, his debut short-story collection, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. His latest book is the novel Consumption. He lives on Saltspring Island.
Jane Warren was raised in Toronto and attended McGill University in Montreal. She has worked as a literary scout in New York City, a subsidiary rights and contracts assistant at Random House of Canada Ltd., and a literary agent with Anne McDermid and Associates. She works as a freelance editor and lives in Toronto with her husband.
Excerpt: Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of Its Participants (by (author) Kevin Patterson & Jane Warren)
Corporal Gordon Whitton
Gordon Whitton was born on July 18, 1974. He joined the Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders in Cornwall, Ontario, in 1994, and transferred to the regular force in September 1996. He served in the Persian Gulf in 2003 during Operation Apollo. Upon returning to Canada, he served in Reconnaissance Platoon, 1 PPCLI (First Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry), and deployed to Afghanistan in January 2006 for Operation Enduring Freedom. He was awarded a “mention in dispatches” for an incident on May 15, 2006, involving a roadside bomb, and returned in August 2006. He is now a member of the PPCLI Regimental Headquarters and lives in Edmonton, Alberta, with his wife and two children.
This is the first of three edited excerpts from the journal Gordon kept while in Afghanistan.
January 25, 2006
The day we’ve been waiting for, for more than a year, is finally here. Nicole, the kids and I woke up early and got ready to drive to the Lecture Training Facility (LTF) on the Edmonton Garrison to say our final goodbye. It started to sink in before I’d even left our house, I was looking at my wonderful family and home and I knew I was going to miss this more than anything in the world. We took a few minutes to just hold each other tight on the couch before we left.
When we got to the base, I had some administration to take care of before we got on the buses, so our families could hang around for an hour or so. Landon, Brooke and the other kids were having fun running through all the files of troops on the parade square floor in the LTF. When General Grant (commander of Land Force Western Area) was speaking to all of us, Brooke got lost wandering around in front of him. General Grant stopped in the middle of his speech and asked who owned the little girl in the pink shirt and ponytail. Captain Hamilton knew she was mine, so he pointed her in the right direction; I was almost embarrassed to walk in front of the general to claim my kid.
After a little while all of our admin was complete. I took every chance to just hug my wife and kids as much as I could, it seemed every time I was holding my son or daughter, reporters were all around us taking pictures. My in-laws, Don and Shirley, were also there to say their goodbyes to me, I was happy they could be there to do that, they left about twenty minutes before Nikki and the kids. Landon was just sitting on my kit, he couldn’t say much and he seemed depressed, he said he just wanted me to come home. I told him to be a good boy, have lots of fun and Daddy will come home soon, but the truth was seeping out of my eyes, I was having a hard time holding it back. Brooklyn told me she loved me and handed me a penny, which I made sure I put in a safe place. They all just seemed to go silent. I picked up the kids’ jackets and helped them put them on, zipped them up and told them I’d walk them out.
Just before they went through the doors, I kneeled down to the kids’ level and pulled them both in, I told them I loved them. I stood up and hugged Nikki one last time, I said, “Goodbye, baby, I love you and I’ll be home before you know it.” I said, “Go, go now, you guys, I love you.” They walked through the doors and down the corridor, Brooke and I blowing kisses at each other until they went out of sight. I started to get overwhelmed with some of the stuff I’d been holding in, I had to pull a Kleenex out of my pocket and get a grip on myself, I didn’t want to think about it, it just seemed like too much for me to handle. I knew what I had to do and I knew I must get my mind prepared to go out and do it. I made my way through the lines and boarded the bus that took us to the airport where a plane was waiting for us.
A Family Reflection of Afghanistan
Sergeant Russell D. Storring
Russell Storring joined the Canadian Forces in 1991 at seventeen years of age. During his career he has been posted to a variety of units across Canada, and he served with the UN in Rwanda in 1994 and with NATO in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2005. He is currently posted to the Canadian Forces Joint Signals Regiment, and resides in Kingston with his wife Nathalie and his children.
Although my family and I have known for a while that I will be leaving again for Afghanistan, I have been so busy helping another squadron get ready to deploy, I haven’t really had time to focus on my own departure. Then, at the end of May 2005, when I leave 2 Combat Engineer Regiment to become part of Recce Squadron, Royal Canadian Dragoons, it finally sinks in to Nathalie, the boys and me that, in a couple of short months, I will be headed to Afghanistan for the second time in two years.
We have talked about the danger of serving overseas, and, never keeping anything from Nathalie, I have told her about a couple of close calls from my first tour. It’s not really something that comes up over a romantic dinner, just a topic of discussion that sometimes comes out of the blue. When I first told Nathalie about a rocket attack on Camp Warehouse, she worried for a week and kept telling me that she didn’t want me to go back. It’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t in the army that an incident like that, which may seem like a close call to them, is just part of the job to a soldier. It’s not that you forget about those close calls after the tour, but because the risk isn’t there anymore, they no longer seem like that big a deal.
To ease Nathalie’s growing concerns as the days tick by before I depart, I tell her that I won’t be heading outside the camp as much as last time, which I know isn’t true. I don’t really think of it as a lie, but just a way to protect Nathalie and the boys from worrying all the time. Most of what I have been hearing from Recce Squadron is that we will be outside the camp for most of the tour, conducting reconnaissance patrols and convoys for the impending move from Kabul to Kandahar. It’s not really something Nathalie needs to know, and it definitely won’t help her peace of mind, so I decide to keep it from her.
In June, Recce Squadron heads out to finish our training with a confirmation exercise for the whole task force. It’s a little frustrating that just before we leave for a six-month tour, when we want time with our families the most, we have to spend as much as three more months away from home, completing the required training and exercises. I know it bugs Nathalie that I am headed out for a couple of weeks so close to my scheduled departure date, but I assure her that the training will demonstrate to the commander that we are ready for the stresses and dangers of a tour and will also show us that we are as prepared as possible, allowing us to test our skills through a series of drills and exercises that have no actual life or death outcome.
One of the training scenarios that I lead a section through is an urban patrol in “Little Kabul,” a small shanty town that has been constructed in the Petawawa training area. My mission is to conduct a presence patrol, and to meet with the local police chief and the town mayor, all the while keeping within mandated rules of engagement. I run my section through orders, and after a quick shakeout, we head into the outskirts of the shanty town. Immediately, the locals (played by Third Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment soldiers, dressed to the part) start harassing our patrol for food and money, and trying to sell us trinkets. Some are gathered around burn barrels and others simply hang out in their huts watching us walk by. Along the way we are greeted by a variety of locals, from seemingly friendly to indifferent, most just happy to get in our way and make our patrol as difficult as possible. If anyone ever says that soldiers can’t act, then they haven’t seen the show that 3 RCR put on for our work-up training. Except for the smell and the absence of the smoke that hangs over Kabul, this could almost pass for one of the little gatherings of houses that I saw so many times on my last tour in Afghanistan. The realism doesn’t stop there but carries on into first-aid scenarios that involve IEDs (improvised explosive devices), booby traps and enemy insurgents all tied into one continuous realistic training program that both reinforces our abilities and forces us to improvise along the way.
In the second week of my final field exercise, Nathalie calls me from home and tells me that my stepfather, Gerry, is dying. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in late March, and told that he’d probably had it for five years. I already lost my father in 2001, and now before I head out again into harm’s way, I’m losing my stepfather, too. I inform my chain of command, and for all the times I’ve bitched about the army, I have to admit that they move pretty fast in getting me out of the field, back to the padre, leave pass in hand, and on my way home. The army prides itself on being like a family, and the soldiers that I have been working with and for prove to me that they care for me as one of their own.
We consider not taking our boys, Jonathan and Jeremy, to see their Papa Gerry, but feel it wouldn’t be fair to them if they weren’t able to see him again. With me still dressed in my combats, we make it to the Napanee hospital in record time. In my rush, I forget to thank the police officer who pulls me over for speeding, but, once I explain the situation, quickly lets me go with a warning.
After a short, courageous battle, Papa Gerry passes away on June 17, with his family by his side. As we stand around the hospital bed, and Jonathan and Jeremy realize that they won’t be seeing their Papa anymore, I realize that my boys are growing up faster than I want them to. It’s sad to have to learn, at six and nine years old, that death is a part of life–it’s not that I’d ever felt an impending sense of doom or anything, but Nathalie and I both realize that death is something they should understand. They manage to gather themselves to say their final goodbyes and to kiss Papa Gerry on the cheek one last time, speaking mountains of their own fortitude and courage.
Pre-deployment leave kicks in shortly after we return to Petawawa, and I am on leave from June 30 to July 22, before flying out on July 23. Nathalie’s parents come up for the Canada Day weekend, which happens to coincide with Canadian Forces Base Petawawa’s one-hundredth birthday. A fun-filled day watching the CF Gun Race, taking in various displays, and enjoying a world-class parachuting display by the Canadian Sky Hawks culminates in a barbecue dinner at our house. While sitting in the living room after supper, my mother-in-law appears with a birthday cake and everyone starts singing “Happy Birthday.” I panic, wondering whose birthday I have forgotten, when I realize that the party is for me. Knowing I would miss another birthday at home, Nathalie had planned a surprise one for me, so I could celebrate with my family. I’m not really one for making a fuss over my own birthday, but this time it brings tears to my eyes, reminding me of what I will miss while I’m deployed.
That night, after everyone heads to bed, I realize just how much I ask of my family, how much they go through when I’m not here, and how much they give of themselves to support the life I have chosen. What does a child think when he’s talking to his father on the other side of the world, trying to explain his report card or how he’s hurt his foot playing soccer, or describing his first trophy? Sharing milestones in a child’s life by phone or email, and sometimes with pictures, just isn’t the same as sharing them in person. It’s hard to console a hurt little boy over the phone, and have him understand that you’re not there to make him feel better because you have a job to do helping other people. I’m not sure the boys understand when I tell them that, and every time I return, it seems that they have grown a little farther away from me than when I left them.
With only a couple of weeks left at home, I spend as much time with Nathalie and the boys as possible. We play mini-putt and dodge ball, barbecue all the time and visit the beach. Nathalie and I spend our alone time in the evening talking, making plans for the future, watching movies or walking the dog. This is only Nathalie’s second tour as a military spouse, and she amazes me with her strength and steadfastness, especially since most of her friends’ husbands will not be deploying with me this time, making it harder for her, reminding her every day she sees them that I am gone and they are still here.
Nathalie finally asks me one night what she and the boys would do if something happened to me in Afghanistan. Being the person that I am, her question doesn’t really bother me, but I know from the tears welling up in her eyes that this is something she has been thinking about and keeping inside for a long while. I try to give her the normal answer–“Don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen”–but she cuts me off and asks, “But what if something does, what do we do?” Really, how is anyone supposed to answer that kind of question? I remind her that she is a strong girl, and would have to be strong for the boys, and that after a while, although it wouldn’t be the same, life would move on for them. Lots of people do it, and have done it, but I reassure her again that nothing is going to happen and that in five to six months it will all be over with and I will be on my way home again. I don’t think it is a question that really needs an answer, just Nathalie trying to tell me her fears and worries. She tearfully reminds me, “Don’t do anything stupid, and don’t be a hero,” before closing her eyes to sleep
"In these accounts, we hear crying children saying good-bye to parents; we witness the horrific deaths of Canadian heroes and we are shown the difficulty soldiers have trying to reintegrate back at home. Some of these accounts are moving and heartbreaking. Others are painfully raw. All are memorable and, in most cases, quintessentially Canadian, being a mixture of fearlessness and civility. Outside the Wire tells us more about the lives and deaths of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan than will ever be conveyed in news reports or military briefings. It's a book to make you cry and to make you feel proud, not just of the soldiers serving there but of all the soldiers who have worn the Canadian uniform for the past century."
—The Ottawa Citizen
"We hear a lot [about the war], but relatively little from the ones most directly affected, such as rank-and-file soldiers, aid workers, or even Afghan citizens. That’s where this excellent new book comes in. It’s written from the perspective of people who have been there. They’ve lived, fought, died, aided the needy, and invariably been changed by their experiences in that country. …None of the chapters are throw-aways; they’re all engrossing. It’s not an easy book to read, but it is an astonishing one."
—The Winnipeg Free Press
"[I]n this startling new book... the voices of battle denote the ecstasy of survival, the thrill of engagement, and the crippling loss that accompanies the death of friends and compatriots. At times haunting and desperate and at other times playful, even lyrical, these unmediated dispatches are flesh and bone, mind and matter, and, above all, soulful to the last. For observers of Canada’s national drama on the killing fields of Kandahar province, Outside the Wire is a must-read. It ensures that our soldiers are heard — that they do not go missing in action."
— The Walrus