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Why would 4 young men join the army and serve in Afghanistan?


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This is an article which is from Novemeber but I was only lucky enough to find now. It's a really good read about 4 Vancouverites who served this past year in Afghanistan; what they experienced and how they dealt with the hardships. There is no political message in it, it's just a really good read. And for me personally it was gratifying because I've been looking for something on my highschool friend Dan Mazurek and here I have something. I wanted to post it before the story got deleted. Shouldn't be any problems with the names and OPSEC as the tour is over and the story has already been published. But if it is, Mods feel free to delete.

Produced under the fair dealings of the copyright thingy
Source: Vancouver Sun
By: Michael Scott
Date: November 11, 2006

Every six weeks or so, during the hellish, death-defying months that Bombardier Daniel Mazurek was dodging rocket-propelled grenades in the lawless wastes west of Kandahar, a package would arrive from his girlfriend back home in Canada.

In it there would be a pound of ground Starbucks coffee. Mazurek, a resourceful six-footer, would pull a battered hiking stove and a little Italian espresso pot from some hidey-hole in his armoured vehicle, blow the dust and spiders out of them, and brew a proper cup of coffee for himself and his buddies.

People loved Mazurek's field coffee. They loved it because it reminded all those dirty, dog-tired Canadian soldiers of home; and they loved it because Mazurek knew exactly what he was doing. Before he became a soldier manning a 105-millimetre howitzer, Dan Mazurek, who is 24 and grew up in White Rock, was a barista at Starbucks.

This morning, members of the Canadian Forces standing at cenotaphs across the country remembering fallen comrades won't all be silver-haired and thinking about Dieppe, Ortona and Juno Beach. A new generation of Canadian veterans, young people like Dan Mazurek, still in their 20s, have risked everything in the service of their country, and are returning from Afghanistan to our orderly world of Robson Street shopping and Kitsilano sunsets, forever changed.

This is the story of four young men who traded comfortable Lower Mainland lives for the duty and danger of military deployment in Afghanistan. Death was a daily possibility, but each of them says he would go back. They too will be at cenotaphs today, remembering their own fallen comrades.

Dan Mazurek was a counterman and later a supervisor at Starbucks before he became a field artillery gunner. Adam McLeod was a history and international relations student at UBC before he distinguished himself in Afghanistan as an officer. Charles Matiru moved from Kenya to North Vancouver when he was 16, and thought he might be a policeman when the situation in Central Asia caught his interest. At 26 he's the combat veteran of the bunch, having already served two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. Ellick Pau, born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, left his life as a pharmacy technician at Vancouver General Hospital to become a sergeant in the Canadian Forces Joint Signal Regiment.

There are about 2,500 Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan at any one time. As part of a UN-sanctioned, NATO-led force, Canadian troops have worked to stabilize the country in the wake of the U.S. invasion in October 2001 and the subsequent collapse of the ruling Taliban regime. Last November, Canadian involvement shifted from work in and around Kabul, the relatively stable capital, to the much more volatile region around Kandahar in the southeastern corner of the country.

Kandahar province, home to several Pashtun-speaking tribes, has a long and dramatic history of violence. Some international observers believe that the Taliban is now resurgent in this part of the country and that the situation in Kandahar has deteriorated to the point where the region is once again a war zone.

Canadian troops face suicide bombings, rocket attacks and ambushes on a daily basis. Forty-two Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002.

It is difficult at first to reconcile a university lecture hall in Point Grey or a quiet pharmacy counter with the blood and dust of southern Afghanistan. But something clearly drives our young soldiers to choose this life: it would be fair to say that no Canadian, either in the regular or reserve forces, is serving in Afghanistan against his or her will.

"If the first day, when I joined the Canadian Forces, you had told me that three years later I would be stuck in the middle of a firefight mission, I think I might have peed my pants," says Mazurek in his friendly, rapid-fire way of speaking.

He joined the reserves of the 20th Field Artillery in Alberta, where he had gone for university, after graduating from Earl Marriott Secondary School in Surrey. "I was 20, and you can bring up the violins as I tell you this. I joined for all the cliched romantic reasons: I thought it was noble; I was excited to be part of something bigger than myself; I thought the uniform was dashing; all those big ideals of serving your country."

He was the first member of his family, on both sides so far as anyone can remember, to have a military career.

"So there I was in the reserves, working part time jobs, a little bit in limbo like a lot of young men my age. And sometimes in the reserves in Canada you struggle with identity. You ask yourself why are you there. Of course you're there to aid in all the jobs that the army does: aid to civil force, fighting the forest fires, training, being prepared, guarding sovereignty.

"But I kept asking myself, what am I doing; when am I going to do that thing for my country I always told myself I wanted to do? And so when I heard about this tour of duty, it really rekindled that original flame from years before, and I realized that this was my chance."

Like all reservists, Mazurek had to apply for a specific position, what the Canadian Forces call "individual augmentees" to a mission. The job he applied for -- perfect for the handsome, wisecracking barista -- was with what's called a CIMIC detachment. CIMIC stands for Civilian-Military Cooperation, and the basic idea is a small group of soldiers who provide a link between combat troops and the civilian Afghan authorities. CIMIC cells are meant to be the military's smiling face, "a doozy of a warm and fuzzy," as Mazurek describes it. "The cliche would be the teddy bears being handed out."

But Mazurek never got a chance to hand out any teddy bears. In fact, he never really got a chance to coordinate any humanitarian aid at all in his seven months in the wilds of Kandahar.

"I don't like the term front line, because it wasn't really accurate to how it was," he says. "But we were posted right to the wild west. We were in Panjwaii, in Maiwand, out in the naked wilderness west of Kandahar. We were in an area that was so combat intensive that we were not able to adequately fulfill our humanitarian objectives.

"There were no NGOs for us to coordinate. When we would try to do things like clinics we would come under horrible ambush. Toward the end, we were still a CIMIC team, but you could almost say we were really just another four soldiers for the company. That's how wild it was."

Adam McLeod from Burnaby, who is also 24, was a member of the reserves all through his undergraduate years at UBC. On weekends, he would parade with his unit, the British Columbia Regiment, and then in the summers would go out to Gagetown, New Brunswick and do soldiering courses.

He joined the army to be an officer in an armoured vehicle unit. He went to Kandahar as a lieutenant. For the first month or so he worked as a duty officer coordinating the flow of information and materiel for a battalion in combat. He says it was like being an air traffic controller for 1,000 people.

Even in casual conversation, McLeod's intelligence and steady temperament are evident. Within a couple of months, he was seconded to the staff of Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, the highest-ranking Canadian in Kandahar, where he became the general's personal assistant. McLeod's chief responsibility was coordinating the intense security protection that allowed Fraser to move around on the battlefield. For his efforts, McLeod was promoted to captain.

He was posted to the main Canadian base at Kandahar airfield, but McLeod was never entirely out of harm's way. The camp was rocketed on a regular basis, some weeks almost nightly. At one point he was having a shower when rockets started raining on the camp. He was not happy. "I hadn't had a shower in maybe three days," he says. "So I was like, I'll be damned if the Taliban is going to take my shower away from me. If I left that shower, it was like the Taliban would have won. So I stayed put."

McLeod makes light of the danger, but he knows exactly how high the stakes were.

"It's just something you get used to," he says. "I was in enough weird, dangerous situations that you just kind of go on with it. I mean, I volunteered to go. I saw things and experienced things I could have lived a long, happy life without ever having been through. But it was something that was worth it, and I wanted to be there. And I'm glad I went."

"But yeah, it's a bit odd, being 24 and being shot at. None of my friends have experienced that. I'm the only soldier they know, or have ever met, so for most Canadians, yeah, this is a departure from daily reality."

McLeod says his friends and family were very supportive of his deployment, but that it wasn't until he got back that he realized how hard it was on his mother, who had trouble sleeping the whole time he was away. He tried to send a long group e-mail to his friends once a month, but every time the Canadian media reported a combat incident, he would find his e-mail box filling up with messages asking doltishly random questions.

"I didn't get it at first," he recalls, "people were asking me all these innocuous questions. But then I figured it out: people were just frightened for me, and all they really wanted was a response so that they would know I was okay. That got to be a little creepy, checking your e-mail and finding half the messages were subtle questions about whether or not you are dead."

He wrote a will, which he says was surprisingly easy: everything went to his sister and he wanted his casket to be carried in 15 minutes late to his own funeral. "It was pretty basic. But all my friends knew Afghanistan was something I wanted to do. I clearly support the [Canadian] mission, and it was something I felt very strongly about. And I still do."

He's been back home for two months, and is working full time as an operations officer, passing on his experience and training to other members of the regiment getting ready to go overseas. He says he thinks he will volunteer for another tour of duty, but not before he goes back to school. Law interests him, or maybe a master's degree in international relations.

Charles Matiru signed up as a fulltime infantry soldier in May 2003. He was 16 when he came to North Vancouver from Kenya: his father is Kikuyu and his mother is German. He says he likes to think of himself as both African and Canadian. There were warriors on both sides of his family: his grandfather and great-grandfather on his mother's side fought in the two world wars, for Germany; his Kikuyu ancestors were also fighting men.

After his first combat deployment, to Kabul in 2004/05, friends back home wondered why he would be going again. "It took a little bit of explaining that this is what I want to do," he says. "This is what I've always wanted to do. In the end they were all very supportive."

Kandahar was rough, although Matiru turns taciturn when asked about it. "There were some situations that were quite intense," he says, tersely. "It was definitely more action-packed than Kabul."

For now he's content to stay with his infantry regiment, barracked in Edmonton. He doesn't know if he'll be ordered back to Afghanistan any time soon but he's willing to go if he is. "I've always been quite strong-minded, you could say," he says. "And for sure, that serves you well as a soldier."

Ellick Pau was born in Hong Kong, but grew up in East Vancouver and graduated from Terry Fox Secondary School in Port Coquitlam. Older than the others here, he joined the reserves 15 years ago because he wanted to do something that was completed unrelated to what he calls his city life. His first overseas deployment was to Bosnia in the fall of 2002.

During his tour of Afghanistan in 2004/05, Canadian forces were still centred in Kabul. "It was an eye-opener of an experience," he says. Rocket-propelled grenades were regularly whistling into the camp where the Canadians were stationed. On New Year's Eve 2004, a routine patrol found a cache of a hundred weapons just outside the camp perimeter. The Taliban were so certain of the raid they were planning for early on New Year's Day, they hadn't even bothered to bury the guns.

"As you can imagine, there wasn't much celebrating for us that night," Pau says. He trained with the Joint Signal Regiment in Kingston, Ont., whose departure was delayed for several months. It meant Pau was away from home for more than a year. His life in the army, even as a reserve officer, has been hard for his family, whose notions of military life were shaped by their experience of China's Red Army during the 1940s and '50s.

"It was hard for them to figure out," Pau says. They carried a different view with them from China. Now they realize better what we are trying to do, but they don't want me to go back again."

Pau says that even though he would like to go back, his life is not his own any more. Two weeks ago, his first child was born, a baby girl.

Daniel Mazurek would like to go back, too. His new commanding officer has already invited him to consider deploying again. But Mazurek has a 57-credit plan in place to finish the poli-sci degree he started at the University of Alberta. And then there is the small matter of his girlfriend, Sharlene Babich, who faithfully supplied him with those Starbucks fixes while he was away.

"After what she went through when I was away the first time, and after all her love and support, I don't think I'm prepared to put her through that situation again," he says. "She is amazing."

Mazurek and Babich have just bought their first home, in Guildford, with the money Mazurek earned on his tour of duty. Currently he is working full-time as a recruiter for the 15th Field Artillery.

"You could probably sum me up as absolutely the poster child for Will Never Ever Ever Join The Army," he says. "I still don't know what the hell I'm doing here. I was loud and dramatic and outspoken and funny. In my adolescence I was kind of girly. I was almost too good a dresser. I was too artsy and too fartsy. Good God, I was in the drama club at school."

"I'm definitely not who you would have expected to see, but here I am. And I have grown to love the Canadian Forces. It's a huge organization and we do a lot besides fight. But when the fighting comes, maybe I just discovered my inner Hoo-ah."

Beneath all that ebullience and the hearty laugh, there are definitely some psychological scars. Dan Mazurek is still a 24-year-old who has been through hell and back. He had some "rough goes" as he says, and carried the bodies of two of his friends, in caskets, on to Hercules transport planes.

Sharlene noticed the change in him right away. Mazurek thought he was his old self, but his beloved partner said he was acting "strange."

"When I first came back, I was pulled over by the RCMP because I was driving, as the officer described it, like a [frigging] lunatic. I thought I was out for a Sunday drive. I thought I was driving the speed limit down my lane. I didn't know anything was wrong until I saw flashing lights behind me.

"And apparently I had been taking corners at 60 kilometres an hour without signaling, swerving all over the road, driving like an Afghan maniac through Kandahar.

"I came home. I was very aggressive. For a couple of months there I was prone to anger. I am not an angry guy. I do not use harsh words with my mother and my girlfriend.

"But I did.

"I'm very loved and I've got a lot of support. Now that I've had a few months, and I've gone for my post-deployment interviews, and my psych evaluations, and we've talked it over a little bit, I'm seeing that I'm only now returning to what I thought was normal.

Again and again in conversation, these men confound you with their steadiness and wisdom, qualities you would expect from people twice their age. They talk about the difficult things they've seen and done, about how proud they feel to be Canadian. They talk about the satisfaction of having served their country.

And yet they are still so young.

It's easy to forget, amidst the tales of incoming rounds and sniper fire and battle fatigue, that they are still finding their way in the world; still sorting out who they are.

"I am so happy-go-lucky," Mazurek observes. "I have a mother who loves me. I've got a great family. I had a really pleasant upbringing. And maybe I came in with some really good coping mechanisms. But there were lots of times in Kandahar when I was plenty miserable.

"To cope, you fall back on your buddies. It's the oldest trick in the military book. It sounds so cliche, but you've just come through some hell of an ambush, and you stop. You regroup. People's heart rates are coming down. You are having the Oh-my-God-I'm-still-alive feeling.

"And you would see cigarettes passed around. And smoker and non-smoker alike, you would have no problem sitting there, taking a moment to light up, and having a puff, and going: Wow, I am in fact alive right now."

Hearing himself, he pauses. "Oh God, he groans," no longer the battled-hardened veteran.

"God, don't tell my Mum I was smoking.

"She'll kill me."
good write up - thanks for the intermission

Nice article! I personally know WO Pau (then Sgt Pau) and he is one of the best NCO's I have ever had the pleasure to serve under. He's a real fun guy to be around and one hell of a good leader.
Thanks for posting that, it was a good read!
Yes, really good read. Inspiring. I am going in for my cfat, medical, and interview on the 30th, and would be honoured to one day serve my country with men like these.

I liked this article very much. Goes to show that the average CF soldier is just a regular, everyday Joe/Joette, just like the rest of the world.