Richard Lees is a former Springhill resident currently serving with the Canadian Forces transporting troops to Afghanistan.
Special to The Record
Our call sign is Canforce 71. I am working with 429 Transport Squadron temporarily stationed out of Pathos Cypress flying C-17 Globemaster III. Our job is to fly fresh troops coming from Edmonton into Afghanistan and fly the troops of the R22eR (Vandoo) Battlegroup out of the AOR (Area of Operations) to Cypress for some well needed rest and relaxation before heading home to their families.
On this particular flight I am greeted by a very familiar face. It's none other than Mark Joseph. Sergeant Mark Joseph of 1 PPCLI to be exact. We shake hands and I get him a seat next to me and we start to catch up on old times. We reminisce about back home and talk a little about our class reunion that we both missed. Who is married who is divorced. Who died recently; who has had babies and what we plan on doing if we decide to pull the plug on our military careers in the coming couple of years. Our conversation carries on from Cypress through to Syria. Mark manages to get a little shuteye somewhere between Saudi Arabia and Dubai. By Pakistan everyone is woken up for the tactical phase of our flight as its time to don our flak vests and helmets. I secure all the loose items in the cargo compartment and I take one last moment to get someone to take our picture. It's so good seeing someone from home, especially being this far away. Just in case I don't see him again I wish him luck and head off to the cockpit where I perform my spotting duties.
Afghanistan is a very desolate place. There is nothing out there and from this height it looks more to me like a sandbar at Heathers Beach. Just ripples of sand. During the daylight hours its even the same red colour, but tonight everything is monochrome green. With the light being amplified through my night vision goggles I can make out thousands more stars than with the naked eye and tonight is extra special as I am treated with a small meteor shower. Off in the distance a thunderstorm rages, lights from coalition airplanes can be seen travelling to and from Kandahar Airfield. Down below are single points of light in the void desert I wonder if they are campfires or trucks of some sort. Is that some Taliban fighter making his way north from Pakistan in to Kandahar? I don't know nor do I really ponder it more than a second. I keep scanning the terrain below me looking for tracer rounds licking the night sky or the tell tale corkscrew of a surface to air missile winding its way up towards us. And tonight, like the hundred nights before it, I see nothing.
We make our landing on the Kandahar airfield. Kandahar is a very busy place. Coalition helicopters are constantly going out or coming in. In early September I had the front row seat to something I really didn't want to see. Two Black Hawk helicopters came in, big red crosses painted on their nose and doors. I watched from a hundred feet away with a morbid curiosity as they unloaded the wounded and placed them into ambulances. Little did I know that just a mere 48 hours later I would be carrying one of those people part of the way on his homeward journey. His name was Private Jonathan Couturier. He was 23.
But tonight its just the regular traffic coming in and out. As we taxi down to our parking spot the giant cargo doors of the plane open up. Offering our passengers and Mark their first real Afghanistan experience. It seems that the wind is offering us a good whiff of the poo pond tonight. There is no real sewage treatment plant in Kandahar. So what they have is two giant poo ponds, or poo lagoons if you will, filled with human excrement. On a good night it's very tangible. I swear to God you can taste it. Its really really bad! And tonight is no exception.
The plane stops the lights in the cabin go from red to white. Everyone gets up and starts to proceed to the passenger terminal where there are busses waiting for them so they can start their in-clearances and lectures. I see Mark one more time. He is tired and nervous but eager to get out and start his mission. I wish him luck and to be safe and if he needs anything to let me know.
I watch as he disappears in the crowd and I see another crowd forming behind some fencing. It's the Vandoos waiting to go home. I walk over to them and ask if any of them would like to go for a beer. The reply I get is a resounding yes.
I open the chain link fence and tell them to follow me. I know a place where we can go. And with that we make our way back to Cypress.