A soldier’s life, outside the wire

It isn’t very often there are soldiers sitting at the front of a university classroom. But, for Dr. Anne Irwin’s presentation on Canadian soldiers’ lives ‘outside the Wire,’ there they were, swiveling in their seats, still slightly sunburnt from their tour in Afghanistan, their berets respectfully set aside.

An anthropology professor at the University of Calgary and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute chair in civil-military relations, Irwin presented her observations on the lives of Canadian soldiers while she was embedded with them on their missions in Kandahar, Afghanistan. She spoke at the U of C Thur., Nov. 9.

“The story I am going to tell today is not the story of the drama and excitement, but of the daily grind of wondering when you are next going to get a chance to change your socks or to sleep for more than a couple of hours,” she said. Irwin detailed the daily lives of a select group of Canadian soldiers who spend most of their time in the dangerous, Taliban-infested areas outside the wire of KAF.

Irwin focused on the defence side of Canadian military action, where she was embedded with the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry in the Eighth Platoon of the Charlie Company for eight months.

The Eighth Platoon spent most of its tour outside the wire. She noted that as soldiers prepared to leave KAF, their actions took on a ritualized quality, and through the little things–such as savouring that last cup of Tim Horton’s coffee–the soldiers conquered their emotions.

Despite the ritualized aspects, moves outside the base are often unpredictable.

“Often, after rushing to be ready to leave at a set time, the time is changed,” said Irwin. “Waiting is the name of the game.”

The soldiers leave the allied military compound not only to search out and kill Taliban, but also to cordon off and search areas, provide security for meetings with local leaders and patrol for medical personnel and humanitarian aid groups.

“What is most apparent about daily life outside the wire is that there is no ‘daily’ about it,” Irwin noted. “Of this disrupted time pattern, the lack of regular sleep is probably the most stressful feature. Because of this intense operational tempo, sleep is a rare commodity.”

Irwin debunked the myths of rigid hierarchies and cruel superiors portrayed in Hollywood military movies, pointing out that in the time she spent with the soldiers, no one raised his voice. She said the atmosphere was “nurturing and mentoring” and soldiers advised others to sleep so the incessant tempo of the operations outside the wire wouldn’t completely tire out the men.

“Often the chance to sleep only comes during daylight hours, but even this sleep is constantly interrupted by the bangs of artillery, the noise of vehicles starting up, and, at times, the sound of small arms fire,” said Irwin.

“Soldiers go to great lengths to structure meals in as normal a fashion as possible,” Irwin said, noting she was struck by temperatures in the 60 Celsius degrees range (at one point the thermometer melted)–and yet troops heated up food before consuming it, sometimes by placing the individually packaged meals on top of the light-armoured vehicle for half an hour. “Frequently, meals would be heated and ready to eat, and an order to move would come over the radio, resulting in the meals being set aside to be eaten hours later, or sometimes not at all.”

Irwin said that despite the vast desert, soldiers slept within centimeters of each other in tight, confined spaces.

“Social relationships outside the wire take on a particular pattern, which I am beginning to think of as enforced intimacy,” the silver-haired former Military Police officer described.

In this atmosphere, kindness and a strong ethic of sharing flourishes. Soldiers hold an implicit assumption that their fellow warriors share treats sent by family. Send gummy bears, not chocolate, Irwin advised.

Animosities and interpersonal problems were set aside during the mission using humour, as fighting amongst soldiers can interfere with the tour’s successful completion. Irwin noted that once soldiers reached the Forward Operations Bases squabbles were more likely to break out.

The FOBs are permanently-manned bases outside the wire in southern Afghanistan for resupply and rest. In contrast to the missions outside KAF, the FOBs have more amenities and beds. Irwin said the first priority is still to ensure all equipment and weapons are in working order. However, the soldiers tend to be more isolated from each other in the FOBs.

“Another stress factor outside the wire is the fact that plans and orders are constantly changing, and it is therefore impossible to plan or to pace oneself,” she said. “On any given day, we had no idea how much longer the mission would last. Soldiers were therefore always faced with mundane decisions such as whether to change into that one last clean T-shirt or socks, or to make them last one more day–or two more weeks in one instance–in case we stayed out longer.”

The heat, despite the benefits it provides of heating up food quickly, was a constant concern.

“The heat during [one mission] was so intense, reading as high as 64 C, that under their body armor soldiers would be soaked with sweat through their T-shirts and combat shirts, sometimes down to the knees.”

Soldiers are forced to sacrifice hygiene and comfort for hydration. On one mission, Irwin–in solidarity with the soldiers–didn’t wash for a number of weeks, and had only baby wipes available for quick cleaning.

“We routinely each drank 10 to 12 litres of water a day,” said Irwin. “The water was usually hot. Water cooled to lukewarm would be considered a treat. It was so hot that if you hung your shirt up on the [vehicle] while you slept for an hour or two, the shirt would soon be dry but it would be as stiff as cardboard with dried salt.”

Irwin, half-joking and half-serious, referred to herself as another stress factor for the soldiers. Untrained to fight the Taliban and carry out other routine missions, she stayed in the vehicle when the soldiers were in combat so their attention wouldn’t be distracted to protect her. Things didn’t always turn out so smoothly.

“I had to get out of the [vehicle] once to make room for casualties at the back of the vehicle under light arms fire when the troops were under fire,” remembered Irwin.

The lack of privacy during missions outside the wire, the strong social norms of sharing, the banter, humour and danger, all link the soldiers even after they return home to Canada, said Irwin.

“They will stay close forever,” she said. On their way back to Canada, soldiers spend four days being debriefed in Cyprus as part of a decompression tour, she said, noting this is necessary to help soldiers deal with common reactions to being in combat such as insomnia, being startled easily, nightmares, and night sweats.

There are more than 2,000 Canadian troops deployed in southern Afghanistan but only about 400 of them regularly leave the KAF. Those who routinely left sometimes spent 90 per cent of their six-month tour outside the wire where the lives of the soldiers, so very different from inside the wire, are mentally and physically grueling.

“While outside the wire, [the] attitude toward KAF is one of longing, and KAF represents a place of safety, rest and relaxation,” Irwin said, speaking for the soldiers. As the mission drew to a close, the fear that was replaced with determination and confidence while fighting with the Taliban crept back in, she said.

“There is fear of not returning back to KAF, when one is so close,” said Irwin. “The camp looks different [upon return]. The landmarks have changed, the food is not as good as you remembered, you had forgotten the stench of the sewage lagoon.”

Irwin also noted that soldiers whose missions routinely take them outside KAF identify themselves differently than those who remain in the camp. They are changed by the experience of being outside the wire, but gain little recognition and acknowledgement for their unique achievements.

“I believe [the resentment the returning soldiers feel] comes from feeling changed and special, but not being recognized for it,” said Irwin.

Since her return to Canada, Irwin has been vocal about the need to have these soldiers’ achievements recognized beyond the South West Asia Service Medal all troops receive after serving at least one month in Afganhistan, no matter the nature of their mission. Recently, Irwin has recommended Canadians contact their Members of Parliament to grant some special recognition to these troops.

Irwin hangs her silver medal, which has a Canadian sword transfixed over a multi-headed serpent representing evil, in her office. Since she was in Afghanistan to research she was not commemorated by the military bureaucracy, but by a soldier who gave his medal to her.

The amity of the soldiers toward Irwin is clear. As she ended her presentation, they rose to their feet, giving her a standing ovation, honouring her for sharing their lives, difficulties, and achievements.

“They get annoyed and angry at the lack of understanding about what they are doing out there,” said Irwin, emphasizing the soldiers’ desire to be recognized by the public and their commanders. “They are happy when they get a lot of Canadian support.”

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