Afghan war vet recalls sacrifice in a conflict with no happy ending in sight

When Sgt. Samantha Dean was caught in the propeller wash of a Chinook helicopter in a base surrounded by the Taliban, she’d unknowingly dodged more than a bullet.

Tossed by the powerful gusts of the twin-propped chopper, she was injured and evacuated from the often-embattled Forward Operating Base Masum Ghar in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province.

“I got sent out and that night the camp got rocketed,” said Dean, now 43.

“One of the interpreters and an Afghan National Army soldier were killed in the attack I just missed.”

But there were darker days during her six-month deployment in 2007.

On July 4 of that year, a roadside bomb west of Kandahar city destroyed the vehicle carrying her good friend, Capt. Jefferson Francis, who’d been spotting for the gunners of his 1 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.

An Afghan interpreter and five other Canadian soldiers, Capt. Matthew Dawe, Cpl. Jordan Anderson, Cpl. Cole Bartsch, Master Cpl. Colin Bason and Pte. Lane Watkins also perished in the attack, one of the costliest suffered by the country in the now 17-year conflict.

“I’m still kind of having to grieve … it was a really hard tour, we lost a lot of people,” said Dean of Edmonton-based 1 Service Battalion who served as a supply technician in Kandahar.

“We had a couple of those during our tour, but it was good to be there, knowing you were making a difference.”

Later, names of the fallen soldiers would be inscribed on stones plucked from the dun-coloured hills around the base and planted near a huge Maple Leaf flag made of painted rocks and gravel.

The safety of the huge base was only relative, given its targeting by Taliban insurgents, said Dean.

“There were a lot of rocket attacks over the six months. You kind of got used to them after a while, which probably isn’t a good thing,” she said.

“We’d look at each other, then the siren would go off and at the end of it, it’d be like, ‘We’re still alive.’”

“I was really lucky, always at the right place at the right time.”

Before Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan ended seven years ago, 158 of the country’s troops died, along with four civilians including Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang.

Since Canada’s exit, the Taliban control more of the country than they have since 2001 and last month, an insider attack at Kandahar killed the region’s top Afghan general and its intelligence chief while narrowly missing the U.S. military’s commander in Afghanistan.

The war was a virtual non-issue in the just-completed mid-term elections in the U.S., which still has troops deployed in the country.

Dean said she doesn’t follow the conflict much anymore but admits the war’s downward spiral is a tough pill to swallow given all that’s been sacrificed.

“It’s definitely disheartening knowing we’ve lost a fair number of Canadians and other people who’ve worked with the Canadians, like the Americans and Dutch,” she said.

But if nothing else, those losses have magnified the relevance of Remembrance Day.

“Remembrance Day, obviously, has a special meaning,” said Dean, adding she’ll honour those sacrifices at Edmonton’s Kingsway Royal Canadian Legion on Nov. 11.

Her husband, a member of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), will be manning one of the unit’s Leopard tanks at an Edmonton ceremony.

That military theme in her family extends to her son, who serves as an ammunition technician at CFB Dundurn in Saskatchewan.

Looking back, a grandfather was a vehicle mechanic in the British Army while another one narrowly missed fighting in the Second World War in the air force.

For as tough as some of the country’s current soldiers have it now, the challenges faced by her military predecessors were stark, said Dean.

“When I think back to World Wars I and II, it’s hard to wrap my head around, with the kit they had compared to what we’ve got now,” she said.

BKaufmann@postmedia.com

on Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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