NEWSMAKERS

FOR COURAGE AND SACRIFICE IN THE FACE OF TERRIFYING COMBAT, MACLEAN’S HONOURS THE CANADIAN SOLDIER

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI December 25 2006
NEWSMAKERS

FOR COURAGE AND SACRIFICE IN THE FACE OF TERRIFYING COMBAT, MACLEAN’S HONOURS THE CANADIAN SOLDIER

MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI December 25 2006

THE NEWSMAKER OF THE YEAR

FOR COURAGE AND SACRIFICE IN THE FACE OF TERRIFYING COMBAT, MACLEAN’S HONOURS THE CANADIAN SOLDIER

BY MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI •

Like it or not, Sgt. Patrick Tower understands why he is suddenly such a popular person. Six weeks ago, without any warning, the military he has served for 16 years nominated him for a Star of Military Valour—a bravery decoration second only to the prestigious Victoria Cross. It was a rare honour. So rare, in fact, that the 34-year-old infantryman now belongs to a club of his own. No other Canadian soldier has ever earned the award.

Needless to say, his inbox is overflowing these days with congratulatory emails—mostly from strangers—and everywhere he goes, soldiers and civilians alike want to shake his hand. Today, as Tower greets a reporter at the Edmonton Garrison, a young subordinate working in the battalion mailroom hands him a letter. It is from the lieutenantgovernor of British Columbia, his home province. “Wow,” he says, opening the yellow envelope. “Now that’s a first.”

Tower is not the type to boast. You won’t see him passing that note around the barracks. If anything, he seems slightly uncomfortable with all the attention, especially the photographer snapping away as dozens of fellow troops look on. “Another photoop, eh Sarge!” one soldier jokes. “He’s a handsome one, isn’t he?” quips another. Tower, dressed in green army fatigues and a matching beret, can only grin.

Some of the hecklers were with him that summer morning in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan. Those who weren’t have no doubt read the citation that accompanies his award: “Following an enemy strike against an outlying friendly position that resulted in numerous casualties, Sergeant Tower assembled the platoon medic and a third soldier and led them across 150 m of open terrain, under heavy enemy fire, to render assistance,” it reads. “On learning that the acting platoon commander had perished, Sgt. Tower assumed command and led the successful extraction of the force under continuous small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Sgt. Tower’s courage and selfless devotion to duty contributed directly to the survival of the remaining platoon members.”

Tower puts it another way: “I was just doing my job,” he says. “It’s what had to be done.”

Every day for the past year, Canadian soldiers have been doing just that. What has to be done. Thousands have served— with courage and anonymity—on the front lines of Afghanistan, bearing the brunt of Canada’s war on terror. Right now, dozens of allied countries have troops operating in the former Taliban stronghold, but in 2006, none did more heavy lifting—or endured heavier losses—than Canada.

Consider this: between 2002 and 2005, eight Canadian soldiers flew home in silver, flag-draped caskets. This year alone, the number is 36 and counting.

The enemy is dying, too. Hundreds of them. There was a time, even after 9/11, when the Canadian Forces were afraid to admit that their troops might actually shoot people. Not anymore. Over the past 12 months, Canadians have endured bouts of terrifying combat not seen by this country in two generations. The mission has its detractors—the latest public opinion poll says 61 per cent of Canadians oppose sending soldiers to Afghanistan—but the grunts themselves have never been more popular. Every person in uniform, from sniper to recruiter to medic, will tell you the same thing: I can’t walk into a Tim Hortons without somebody saying thanks. Indeed, 2006 belonged to the Canadian soldier.

“We got our orders that night,” Tower recalls, “and we pulled out around 2 or 2:30 in the morning.” It was Aug. 3, and he and the rest of the 1st Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry had been stationed in Kandahar for nearly six months. In a few weeks, they’d be heading home.

Charlie Company’s objective that morning was to seize a small white school near the volatile village of Pashmul, where hundreds of Taliban fighters were waiting and watching. Hidden by the early morning darkness, a Canadian convoy of green armoured vehicles left Patrol Base Wilson and headed west on Highway 1—“Ambush Alley,” as it is known to the troops. The mission was barely an hour old when an IED—an improvised explosive device—tore into one of the LAV Ills, killing Cpl. Christopher Reid, a 34-year-old Nova Scotian. Medics scrambled to apply first aid, but there was little they could do. “Because of the threat of more IEDs on the route to the objective area, the decision was made to go in dismounted,” Tower says.

9 Platoon’s commander was also injured in the LAV blast, so Sgt. Vaughn Ingram assumed the lead, directing two sections of troops—about 20 men—toward the school on foot. Their target was almost a kilometre away. “By now, the heat was becoming a problem,” Tower recalls. “The first IED strike was around 4:15 in the morning, and from that time we were just running around like crazy, doing different things. So now it’s probably noon or one o’clock in the afternoon. It’s hot and the troops are really starting to succumb to the heat.” Tower, now acting as the platoon’s second-in-command, helped a few weary comrades back to the convoy, crawling the entire way to avoid being hit. “We were taking quite a bit of fire

by this time,” he says, in typical understatement.

His comrades inside the school were also under intense attack, a steady barrage of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) spewing from nearly every direction. Word soon filtered back that the platoon was pulling out. Too many heat casualties. But before they had a chance to move, an RPG pounded the building where Tower’s friends were holed up. The radio crackled again. “We have a lot of wounded up here! ” a voice said. Without hesitation or cover, Tower grabbed a medic and another soldier and headed straight toward the school, sprinting through 150 m of open terrain and enemy gunfire. A bullet ripped through one of the men’s magazine pouches. “I tried not to think about getting killed,” Tower says. “All I know is that there were a lot of people shooting, and when we ran across that field it was just wide open.”

It wasn’t long before he saw the bodies. Three soldiers—Sgt. Ingram, Cpl. Bryce Keller and Pte. Kevin Dallaire—did not survive the explosion. Tower stared at one of the corpses for a moment, but not for long. “In the military, it is always pushed on us that the mission is first,” he says. “Yes, there are three guys dead. But there are all those other guys who are still alive and looking to you for direction. So the medic started working on the casualties and I just went to one of the buildings to make sure the other soldiers could give us some cover fire.” Nine troops were wounded, some severely. But as Taliban fighters continued their assault, the Canadians—exhausted, outnumbered and nearly surrounded—fought back. Tower spent most of his time ducking between the school and a small building nearby, making sure his soldiers didn’t let up. They never did, reportedly killing dozens of men on the other side. Two LAVs eventually rescued the survivors, steering through a maze of land mines to reach the school. “The best thing I heard all day was when those LAVs showed up,” Tower says, smiling. “Once I saw them I knew we were going to be okay.”

‘A LOT OF BAD THINGS HAPPENED, BUT ALSO A LOT OF GOOD THINGS’ -SGT. PATRICK TOWER

Recounting the events four months later, Tower sounds like a man describing what he ate for breakfast. He is humble and hesitant, as if everybody dashes through enemy fire now and then to save a life. He says absolutely nothing that might boost his own legend, answering every question with a kudos to somebody else. The badly wounded corporal who laid down cover fire. The medic who raced from casualty to casualty. The LAV drivers who rushed to the rescue. The men who died. “It was a shitty day, but I saw so many things that made me so proud of the soldiers that I led there,” he says. “You see these troops, and they are so young, 18, 19,20,21-year-old kids. And they are doing these amazing things and sometimes you’re just taken aback. I told my troops the day it happened: ‘A lot of bad things happened today, but also a lot of good things.’ ”

Today, Tower is back to his pre-deployment routine, reporting for duty every morning at the 1st Battalion headquarters, where he spends most of his time teaching young troops the ways of the LAV III. In the new year (a date hasn’t been announced) he’ll be off to Rideau Hall, where Michaëlle Jean, the Governor General, will officially present him with his four-pointed gold Star (three other soldiers—Sgt. Michael Denine, Master Cpl. Collin Fitzgerald and Pte. Jason Lamont—will also be in Ottawa to receive the Medal of Military Valour, a designation one notch below the Star).

Tower, however, is focused on another date: February 2008. That is when he and more than 2,000 other men and women will fly back to Afghanistan. His battalion is not scheduled to deploy, but he volunteered to fill a spot with another battle group that is short a few soldiers. “This is what we do,” he says. “You want to be there and be part of the fight. Every one of the soldiers believes in this mission, and everyone is there doing a job they love. They are not victims, by any means.” M