In 2007 I went to Afghanistan and Dubai on a goodwill mission with the Stanley Cup and some former NHL players. The chance to meet and personally thank our Canadian soldiers made this a pretty incredible experience so in honour of Remembrance Day, here’s a little bit about that trip.
It started innocently enough. My boss called to get the number of a former player he was trying to convince to go to Afghanistan on a goodwill mission.
I was managing community engagement for the Maple Leafs at the time and as the former Alumni Relations Coordinator, I was often in touch with ex-players too.
“Sounds awesome, wish I could go,” I said offhandedly, the way one would say “nice haircut”, or something similarly innocuous and untrue. But before I knew it I had a spot on the trip and I was left to tell my husband and mother that I’d VOLUNTEERED to travel to a war zone. For work.
The night before we left, I was having major second thoughts. My stomach was in knots, I was queasy and irritable. Daren and I went out for dinner and I ordered fish, figuring it was the menu item most likely to give me food poisoning so I’d be too sick to travel. But I woke up the next morning feeling well and, seeing no other option that wouldn’t get me fired, I boarded the plane to Ottawa to meet up with the rest of the delegation for our 18-hour flight to Dubai.
On board, I had an entire row of eight seats to myself and eventually I was able to relax and get excited about the week ahead. Travelling with former NHL players means you are in for some great stories, and the musicians kept us entertained. My seat mate and I spent a lot of time debating foreign policy and talking about who had puked in him and who had left him at the bottom of a pool. Eventually he asked to change seats.
The first part of the trip included two nights at Camp Mirage just outside Dubai.
Camp Mirage was, at the time, Canada’s forward logistics facility for the war in Afghanistan. When I travelled, its existence and location were heavily guarded secrets and the materials I received leading up to the mission provided only vague details on its purpose and location. Very “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill” type stuff.
My most vivid memory of Camp Mirage is the heat. When we first deplaned it was late morning local time and already 60 degrees in the shade, which equates to roughly a bazillion degrees on the tarmac, where we stood for an hour.
Camp Mirage included basic dorm-style accommodations with shared bathrooms, a mess hall, a gym, a store and probably a bunch of other secret things we never got to see.
On our first night we took a bus into the city and hit up – what else? – an Irish pub for dinner. As we found out upon returning to base, the Canadian Forces take the “no drinking” rule VERY seriously. When the soldier manning the front gates asked us to get off the bus so he could see us up close and smell our breath I was happy I’d had only one drink with dinner, for once.
Dubai is an incredible city, but not one I’m eager to return to. I found it too hot, too busy and too concrete. Everything is man-made and the ostentatiousness is over the top. Of course if you were staying at the Burj Hotel (pictured above) or any of the other luxury ocean-front facilities, you might have a different opinion.
After Dubai it was off to the main event: Kandahar. To say this is when things got freaky is an understatement. Here’s what I remember most about travelling between countries:
- Before boarding the plane we were each given a sticker with a unique ID that, rumour had it, was to help identify our bodies should things not go well.
- The soldiers standing at the windows of the plane? They would be on the lookout for anti-aircraft fire.
- Our flying time would be longer than usual since there were certain countries it was unwise to fly over.
- Unless hearing loss was on one’s bucket list, wearing ear plugs was recommended.
- My “seat” was actually about 14 inches of bench where we all sat shoulder-shoulder and knee-knee.
- The harness, helmet and flak jacket were not optional.
After three hours of feeling like a human boggle cube stuck in a wind tunnel, we began our descent into Kandahar Airfield. We’d been warned about the tactical or “corkscrew” landing and I’d been dreading it the entire flight.
“All first-timers puke, even experienced soldiers puke”, we’d been told.
The purpose of this manoeuvre is to make it more difficult for insurgents using surface-to-air missiles to shoot down the plane. So when faced with the alternative of not landing at all, the corkscrew didn’t seem so bad.
The process begins innocently enough, with the lowering and locking of the landing gear. But instead of a slow and steady descent from several miles out, a tactical landing begins directly over the runway. Once the landing gear is in place, the plane starts rolling and spiralling down, as though it’s planning to drill itself nose-first into the ground (a visual that is less upsetting than being blown up). Then, after several turns, the pilot pulls out of the spiral, straightens out and lands the plane. I think the whole thing took less than ten minutes and I’m proud to say I did not puke. But it was close.
Once safely on base, it was off to a briefing session. Immediately we began seeing really interesting sights, such as:
During our first night there was a rocket attack on the base and we were quickly herded into a concrete shelter. Although they took rocket attacks very seriously, we were assured the risk was minimal because most of the Taliban’s weapons were crude and inaccurate. This was only comforting to a point because I don’t care how cool you are under pressure, that shit is unnerving.
Over the next few days we saw a lot more of the base and its surrounding area, including the old airport, long since abandoned.
But the highlight of trip was, without question, the chance to meet and talk with the men and women serving in the Canadian Forces. The craziest part was, they were thanking US for coming. As though giving up a week to essentially be a war tourist was a big deal compared to spending months in a hot, dusty war zone away from children, parents and spouses.
But what impressed me most was the love these men and women had for the Afghan people. Everyone I talked to seem to truly believe that Canada’s presence was needed in order to help the Afghanis live peacefully and self-govern. As opposed to what was happening in Iraq, there seemed to be no dissension in the ranks, no disagreements with the purpose of the mission.
I came to realize that not every country in the world is suited to this type of job. Nation-building is a uniquely Canadian skill. The tolerance, patience, open-mindedness and respect we show one-another on the street in every Canadian city is also what we also bring with us across the world when other countries are in need of leadership and help. Seeing it firsthand was a unique and meaningful experience I won’t soon forget.