Friday, November 7, 2014

Amazing Grace performed on Bagpipes.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

















 Across the Arghandab River, the area around the white school burns as the Canadians attack.



Operation Medusa: The Battle for Panjwai.


The Charge of Charles Company


Within sight of the infamous white schoolhouse, epicentre of the insurgency in Kandahar province, the hastily assembled Canadian force entered the kill zone. An enemy signal flare shot up across Charles
Company’s lead elements and there aren’t many polite words to describe what happened next.

Rick Nolan died. 7 Platoon’s warrant officer, its heart and soul, was sitting in the passenger seat of a lightly armoured G-Wagon when a rocket-propelled grenade came crashing through the windshield.

Sitting in the back seat were a medic and an Afghan interpreter, both badly wounded, Corporal Sean Teal, dazed but mostly unhurt, jumped into a hail of bullets and went to find help. The G-Wagon never moved again.

Shane Stachnik died. The engineer sergeant was standing in his armoured vehicles air sentry hatch when an 82-mm recoilless rifle round blew them apart.
Most inside were wounded or unconscious and the vehicle went radio silent. Call sign Echo 3-2 was out of the fight.
The enemy were hidden in their trenches and fortified building, firing from three sides. The Canadians were enveloped. Bullets kicked up dirt cinematically. Rockets screamed in. Every Canadian gun that could still fire blasted away at the muzzle flashes in the distance.

A Canadian armoured vehicle. Full of wounded and dead, reversed at high speed out of the kill zone only to crash backwards into a ditch, where it was hit by several RPGs. Call sign 3-1 Bravo was stuck and dying.

It never left the ditch.

The radios were full of screaming voices, some calling for medics, some just looking for help. As the firing and explosions continued, many soldiers began helping their wounded friends, focusing on their own rescue mission, fighting their own war. Time got all messed up. It went too fast or it went too slow; hours seemed like minutes and some seconds took forever. Wounded men crawled across the ground looking for cover.

Everywhere there were acts of unimaginable courage.

Yet, more would die. Private William Cushley, legendary joker friend to seemingly everybody, was killed alongside 8- Platoon’s warrant office, Frank Mellish, who came forward to see if he could help after he heard his friend Noland was in trouble. It went on and on for hours. An officer sprinted across open ground armed now only with his pistol, looking for his comrade. The enemy kept firing. The company sergeant major went down. They fought through one calamity after another. And the wounded piled up. Some were hit more than once. Others were wounded in ways that couldn't be seen.

Through it all the calm voice of Charles commander, Major Mathew Sprague, himself under fire, came over the net, directing his men through the chaos, calling in air strikes and artillery. But the enemy was dug in too deep and hidden too well. They poured unrelenting, if poorly aimed, fire on the trapped Canadian force.

When an errant 1,000-pound bomb, dropped off target by a coalition aircraft, came bouncing through the Canadian lines and ended up right in the front of them, there was little to do but retreat.

Captain Derek Wessan radioed Sprague at call sign 3-9er.

"We've gotta get the f--k out of here," he said. "And then we've gotta blow this place up."

Of the 50 or so Canadian soldiers that went into the kill zone that day, no fewer than 10 were wounded, four were killed and at least six became stress casualties. Even now, even with a years’ worth of hindsight, it's still hard for any one person to say exactly what happened that day.
What's known for sure is that five soldiers in that fight received Canada's third highest award for bravery---the Medal of Military Valour-- while another, Corporal Sean Teal, received the Star of Military Valour--Canada's second highest award, just beneath the Victoria Cross. One other soldier was Mentioned In Dispatches.

The ambush at the white schoolhouse took place Sept. 3, 2006, on the second day of Operation Medusa, NATO's first-ever ground combat operation, and Canada's largest combat operation since the Korean War.

That it was a huge battle fought heroically against long odds is clear. But what's less well known are the controversial circumstances that prefigured the battle. This was a struggle that saw a general's strategic instinct--his feel for the shape of the battle--lead him to abandon a carefully laid plan and overrule his tactical commanders in the field in order to send Charles Company on a hastily conceived and ultimately harrowing attack against a numerically superior enemy in a well-established defensive position.

That story, and more, will be detailed here which begins with the background to Op Medusa and the behind-the-scenes controversy that shaped the deadly Sept. 3 attack.

Op Medusa was the largest operation in Afghanistan since 2002 and it was intended to disperse or destroy the hundreds, if not thousands, of insurgents that had gathered about 20 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city, in a district called Panjwai.

In 2006, Panjwai was the insurgency's simmering heartland. For a whole generation of Canadian service members, the mention of Panjwai will almost certainly conjure hard memories of small villages and complex defensive terrain, intractable hostility and endless roadside bombs. Of the 66 Canadians killed in Afghanistan since 2002 (as of July 10, 2007), almost half died in Panjwai.

Panjwai is the spiritual and literal home of the Taliban movement. It's the birthplace of their as-yet-unaccounted-for leader, Mullah Mohammen Omar, and the place where the movement began in the mid-1990s.
The district is centred on the Arghandab River and the town of Bazaar-e-Panjwai. Bordered on the south by desert, Panjwai is dominated by a few massive, singular mountains--Masum Ghar and Mar Ghar. Since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Kandahar province had been mostly an American responsibility.

When the Canadian battle group moved south from Kabul to Kandahar in early 2006, they discovered quickly that Taliban activity was high, and it was centred in Panjwai. Throughout the first six months of the new mission, the first rotation -- largely comprised of soldiers from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry--routinely fought insurgents in and around Panjwai. Op Medusa was meant to change all that.
It was going to be a decisive victory in the Battle of Panjwai.

Brigadier-General David Fraser controlled Medusa from his headquarters at Kandahar airfield, the sprawling coalition base just outside Kandahar city.
Fraser was not only Canada's highest-ranking man on the ground, but he was also NATO's commanders in southern Afghanistan.



A Canadian soldier ducks as a helocopter lifts off during Operation Medusa
Operation Medusa
Out in the field, the battle group was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Omer Lavoie, the tough-talking commander of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, a man described by several of his men as a soldier's soldier. The Canadian component of his force was comprised of the 1RCR, a complement of 2 Combat Engineer Regt., 2 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, medics from 2 Field Ambulance and various support staff for a total of about 1,050 Canadians.

While trouble had been brewing in Panjwai for some time, when Lavoie and his RCR battle group arrived in Kandahar in Early August 2006, just as NATO was taking command from the Americans in the south, the situation there reached a critical point. Expecting to conduct a counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan, Lavoie was surprised to discover that a threatening number of enemy fighters had gathered just outside Kandahar city.

"We took over right on the threshold of the transition to NATO," said Lavoie. "So I think the Taliban decided that they would either test or show that NATO didn't have the resolve to conduct combat operations to the extent that U.S. forces did."

Within hours of the Aug. 19 ceremony that marked his assumption of command over the Canadian battle group, Lavoie got a first-hand look at the real situation in Panjwai.

A few days before, Lavoie had ordered a small company-sized force to go camp out on the high point Masum Ghar and observe the area for enemy activity.
Three hours after taking command, at about 7:00 p.m., Lavoie received a message that between 300 and 500 insurgents were attacking his force out at Masum Ghar.

"What happened, of course, was the Taliban, seeing our vehicles up on our hill and not liking the idea, decided to launch a fairly significant attack," said Lavoie.
Medusa
"I finally got forward to the position at about 4:00 a.m. In the end we killed about 100 Taliban and took no friendly casualties, so it was a god way to start off.

"But the significance of that was that it sent a very strong message to us, and by extension NATO, that if they could mass that size of an attack there was a significantly greater proportion of enemy in that area than was anticipated, based on what our predecessors had noted; so that battle of Panjwai on August 19 was the precursor to Medusa.

"Almost immediately I was called back to the brigade commander (Fraser) and given a warning order to anticipate having to conduct a major combat operation in the Panjwai area to defeat and push this sizable enemy element out--so Medusa started from my perspective right at that time."



The town of Bazaar-e-Panjwai with Mar Ghar in the background.

Back in Kandahar, Fraser too noted the shift in Taliban tactics.

"We also found out the Taliban had changed their tactics. They went from small group hit-and-run to conventional come-and-get-me. Their intent was to prove to the world and the Karzai government that they could take us on. It was the culmination of their 2006 idea, I won't even say campaign plan. It was their idea of how they wanted to finish off the fighting that year, and finish off the fighting in total. They thought they could win it then.

“What they underestimated was that I was onto their plan, I knew what their intent was, “said Fraser. "I had determined they wanted me to attack them head on, a la World War I, at enormous cost in soldiers, both Afghan and coalition. But I would not accept that as an acceptable course of operation.
"So we adapted and wrote a plan to counter their intent, designed to mitigate collateral damage to Afghans and their fields and their huts, and also to mitigate the threat to my soldiers, both Afghan and coalition.
"We circled the wagons, so to speak, around the Taliban, and forced them to pop their head up so we could lop it off."

The plan for Medusa was big and seemed quite solid. In total there would be almost 1,400 coalition soldiers on the ground with the battle group and thousands more supporting them. According to Fraser, he spent much of August working up the plan.

"This was a big effort, from a brigade point of view; I pulled in troops from my entire brigade, which comprised nine nations across four provinces, down into Panjwai because the Taliban were not going to win. I was very firm. I said "you've taken on the wrong guy if you want to take on Dave Fraser, 'cause I'm going to beat you here."

On the ground, there were several distinct forces ready to close on the enemy. Lavoie's Canadian force was Charles Company in the south, coming through Bazaar-e-Panjwai, with Bravo Company in the north, fighting southward.

On one flank was Task Force 31, comprised of coalition--mainly U.S.--Special Forces and also Task Force Grizzly, an American company. With a Danish squad in position to the west and a Dutch company patrolling the perimeter to the north, the enemy were pretty much surrounded.

Op Medusa began at first light on Sept. 2 with an attack on two axes, with the main effort being in the south. There, Sprague and Charles Company in the main, were to seize the high features around Panjwai--Masum and Mar Ghar--and isolate the town of Panjwai itself. They would advance right up to the south bank of the Arghandab River, but not across.

"At 5:30 a.m., we moved out. The entire operation was based on my H-hours, which I had chosen as 6:00 a.m.--that being the time at which I intended to launch my forces to secure Masum-Ghar," said Sprague. “As it turned out, at 6:00 a.m. sharp we had secured Masum-Ghar. By 6:15 a.m. I had declared no pattern of life across the river in Pashmul, save for groups of insurgent with whom we began to trade fire."

According to the original plan, having seized the high points around Panjwai and to the north, the battle group would take the next several days to batter the Taliban--who were now trapped in a fairly small area, perhaps five square kilometres--into submission.

However, that carefully prepared plan began to change almost immediately.

"In the original brigade instruction, once I had confirmed that there were no civilians present, a pre-arranged air strike using precision guided munitions was supposed to simultaneously hit between 10 and 20 known insurgent command and control nodes,” said Sprague.

"For whatever reason, this didn't happen and the strike was cancelled by the brigade."

Nonetheless, on both high points, the Canadians set up firing lines of armoured vehicles and proceeded to blast away at targets of opportunity across the river throughout the morning and afternoon of Sept. 2.

"The intent then, “said Lavoie, "once that area was seized and the enemy was hemmed in from the north and the south, was to continue to engage the enemy for the next three days with primarily offensive air support but artillery and direct fire as well, in order to, from my perspective, determine where the enemy actually was, and to degrade the enemy's ability to fight before we actually committed the main force into the attack."

And it was quite a place to attack, If Kandahar is the strategic centre of Afghanistan, and the Panjwai district is the key to Kandahar, then the area around the town of Bazaar-e-Panjwai, which includes the small village of Pashmul, is at the very heart of the whole situation.

This, roughly speaking, was Objective Rugby--the area just across the Arghandab River, centred on the white schoolhouse, where Charles Company would cross the river to be ambushed in just a few hours.
Objective Rugby was a place the Canadians knew well. On Aug. 3, 2006 (click on the date link), the PPCLI was involved in a hellish battle at the white schoolhouse that let to the deaths of four soldiers--Sergeant Vaughn Ingram, Cpl Christopher Jonathan Reid, Cpl. Bryce Jeffrey Keller and Pte. Kevin Dallaire  (Dallaire is my son)-with six more wounded. Also during the fight Sgt. Patrick Tower was awarded the first Canadian Star of Military Valour.

"This was the ground the enemy had chosen to defend, “said Fraser, who, having been in command on Aug. 3, just one month prior, was well aware of what happened that day. "Rugby was where we assessed that the Taliban wanted us to fight them on. That was their main battleground. Their whole defence was structured to have us coming across the Arghandab River in the south and fight into Rugby. And the schoolhouse was the area in the centre, where there were big killing fields to the east and the north."

Given the recent history of Objective Rugby, and the evident build-up of enemy forces in the area, the battle group was looking forward to taking their time before going across into Taliban territory. According to the plan, they had lots of time. "There were a series of deceptions and feint planned in those three days to cause the enemy to react,“ said Lavoie, "so that we would be able to see where he was so we could plan the final attack."

But this was not to happen. The plan was about to change.

At about 2 p.m. on Sept. 2, Fraser visited Masum-Ghar to check out the situation. At that point in the afternoon, insurgent activity had tapered off.

Seeing this, Fraser gave the order to cross the Arghandab. While many of the guys on the ground were wary of heading off into enemy territory with so little preparation, shortly after, as ordered, Sprague led 7 Platoon and an engineer detachment out into the riverbed to map out the crossing.

The order then came down to leave 7 Platoon camped in the riverbed for the night. This was duly arranged, and the platoon began to hunker down.  However, a short time later a conference of senior leader at Masum-Ghar decided there was no tactical advantage to leaving the platoon dandling out on the edge of enemy territory, and they were pulled back just as darkness fell.

At about midnight, Lavoie was again ordered by Fraser to launch an attack across the river.
To the guys on the ground, this order made even less sense. But for Lavoie, managing to get that order postponed was no small feat. According to several sources, the conversation about whether it was a good idea to launch a spur-of-the-moment midnight attack into what was probably one of the most heavily defended hostile positions in Afghanistan did become quite animated.


Soldiers fire across the Arghandab during the Sept. 3rd battle.



Lavoie got on the radio and told Fraser that to cross now was not a good idea. It was too risky. They didn't know the river's flow rate or its depth, nor were any fording sites marked. And they had little intel on enemy positions.

While Lavoie's stand earned him the undying respect of his soldiers, it was not an easy thing to do.
"(Lavoie) and I had some pretty serious discussions, because we were talking about the hardest fight either one of us had ever done in our military career," said Fraser.

"So the fact that we could have a frank and open discussion attests to the level of trust and co-operation we had, that we weren't afraid to speak our minds. And you need that, because as commanders we're dealing with lives of soldiers, and lives of Afghans. We were talking about the big step of going across the river, metaphorically and literally, to finish off the Taliban."

Nonetheless, this argument was merely to get the midnight attack postponed. The orders were now to attack at first light on Sep. 3, still a full 48 hours earlier that planned and without the promised bombardment.
Several questions remain to this day for the men who had to follow out these orders, but they can all be reduced to this “why abandon the plan and bring forward the attack?

Indeed, it's hard to see what caused the need to hurry--the Taliban were trapped and surrounded, it was now just a matter of lopping their heads off. As Fraser himself notes, the very heart of the Taliban strategy was to draw them into costly ground conflict.

As one RCR officer said,” it's not like they were racing to save Ottawa from an invading force. " What's the rush?" said another RCR officer. "We know where they are, it’s a free fire zone."

There was, in fact, no rush. Though Fraser agrees there was pressure from above to get things moving, he says that wasn't a real factor.

"There was pressure from every quarter. I told people above me that we were going to play this the way we intended to play this. It was gonna take time and it took a long time."

Instead, the decision to bring the attack forward was based, in large part, on Fraser's appraisal that the enemy had weakened and was ready to be exploited.

"So, the intelligence I was receiving, from my other task force commanders that were part of this battle, not just Omer Lavoie, and talking to Afghans” we were ready. We were at the point where we could press this thing home, Yeah, we could have stuck to the plan but, again, you start to ignore the enemy, what he's doing, what intelligence is on the ground. "You fight the enemy guided by a plan. You don't fight a plan. If you fight a plan and ignore the enemy, you will fail. You will incur lots of casualties and you will fail. A plan only gets you thinking and gets you to meet the enemy. And the enemy has a vote. So, on (Sept. 1) or (Sep. 2), I had decided the situation was changing so that we could attack. I gave (Lavoie) the orders on the 2nd to attack. It was in advance of what the plan said. Well, I don't care about the plan."

Despite the fact, made apparent the next morning, that Fraser's appraisal of the situation turned out to be demonstrably optimistic, the bottom line for the general is that he believes there was nothing to be gains by 48 hours of additional bombardment.

"Well, I listened to what they had to say," he said of his cautious tactical commanders. “I know a lot of enemy were there. But, you know, you do two more days of bombardment, how many do you kill? How do you know that? You guess.

"No matter if you went in on the 2nd, the 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th, guess what ladies and gentlemen? I t is a difficult thing to cross a river and to go into a main defensive area where the Taliban were waiting and wanted to fight on. It would have been gut-wrenching, whatever delay was picked to go across that river."

Gut-wrenching it may have been but according to the soldier who did it, it would have been a much different event if they had stuck to the original plan. As Sprague notes, the extra time would have given the Canadians several major advantages in addition to reducing or destroying the building that were to give the Taliban such excellent cover and concealment.
"We could have used that time to conduct feints, force the insurgents into reacting to our manoeuvre. We could have used our manoeuvre to draw them out into positions where our firepower could have decimated them and at the very least we could have seen their reactions to our movement."

"The old adage is, "time spent in recce is seldom wasted." We never got to do a recce. Therefore, we never had a tactical plan because we never had time to make one."

Despite the argument of his tactical commander, Fraser would not be deterred.

"The decision was 'we're gonna go in' and 26 years of experience in seven different operations told me now was the time to go in there and finish this thing off."

In the end, of course the only think that was very nearly finished off was Charles Company.

As for Lavoie, he'd made his stand, but order were orders, and, one way of another, the attack was going in.
"He's my commander, “noted Lavoie diplomatically. "And I guess in his mind he thought that was the course of action to follow."

At first light the next morning, Sept. 3, Sprague gathered his platoon leaders and supporting officers for hasty orders. With less than 15 minutes to make a plan, what was said didn't amount to much more that,

'We're going across. Follow me.'

It was to be an old-fashioned WW I-style assault into the guns. Albeit on a smaller scale. It was the charge of Charles Company.

So, with little if any battle procedure, no reconnaissance and intel that was either insufficient or wildly wrong. Sprague led his force down the bank and into the river. This was Canada's first company-sized mechanized combined arms attack on a fixed position since Korea, at the heart of NATO's first-ever battle, and it was like nothing they'd ever trained to do. It was rushed and it was risky--doctrine was out the window.

Across the river and onto the far bank, the engineers made their breeches and Charles crawled up into the fields beyond.

They moved into enemy territory, unaware of what was about to happen. Everything was quiet. It was all to come.


Op Medusa.

A Canadian dozer breaches an irrigation ditch in Panjwai during Op Medusa.

Having just been blown up, Corporal Richard Furoy lay on the hard Afghan earth bleeding, in untold kinds of pain and probably close to shock.

Beside him lay the body of his friend, Warrant Officer Rick Nolan. Enemy rounds were tearing up the ground and cracking past, slapping into the burning G-Wagon from which Furoy had just escaped.

The only Canadian soldier Furoy could see was Cpl. Sean Teal, who was frantically fighting off the enemy, who were just there—in the distance—bobbing and weaving in the high marijuana fields near the white schoolhouse, firing fat waves of bullets at the Canadians.

Furoy was the 7 Platoon medic, seconded to Charles Company from 2 Field Ambulance.

When he arrived Nolan had taken him under his wing, shown him how to get by. Now Nolan was dead and Furoy couldn’t have done anything about it and the situation was beyond horrible. Over on the right flank of the Canadian advance, Sergeant Shane Stachnik was already dead and the attack was quickly turning into a self-rescue mission. Furoy kept thinking about his friend. In the midst of battle, he leaned over and squeezed Nolan’s arm.

‘Sorry brother, sorry, ‘he said.

Teal and Furoy were alone and their communications were down. Furoy was slipping in and out of awareness. He figured maybe he was finished. His feet felt like they were on fire, and his face was wet with blood. He passed out. But Teal was not letting him go; he brought back to his senses with the butt of his rifle.

Teal placed Nolan’s C8 rifle in Furoy’s hand and said

“Enemy 50 metres to the front, defend yourself.”

Furoy did.

Suddenly help arrived, In the maelstrom, Teal had manager to signal the nearest LAV, call sign 3-1 Charlie, that he needed help. Sgt. Scott Fawcett grabbed two soldiers—Cpl. Jason Funnel and Private Michael Patrick O’Rourke—and took off running through the marijuana fields.

Furoy, still lying on the ground, looked up at Funnel and saw tracers flying by his friend’s face, rockets flying just overhead. Surely Funnel would die any second, thought Furoy.

Later, Funnel would say he though the same thing about Furoy, as he watched bullets plow into the dirt around the wounded medic.

They’ve been to war, these Canadian soldiers, the veterans of Panjwai; they’ve been to a place beyond the normal world. They’ve seen their friends lying wounded on the ground, see them die. And they’ve seen their own death: it was right there, in the rockets flying by—the end of everything. It’s a place without illusions; a place where fear and courage are the same thing: live or die, you do your duty or you don’t. It’s a place from which any return is difficult.

Don’t feel sorry for them, they don’t want that. They are professional warriors and the first thing the men of Charles Company want you to know about the battle for Objective Rugby is that they didn’t lose.

Not on the day. Not on the mission.

The attack failed and it was bloody chaos. Yes. But the task force kicked a mighty amount of Taliban ass that day. The enemy were lined up and hidden, hundreds of them, firing from three sides. And the Canadians went forward, despite it all; they faced up and went into the guns, into the rockets, they attacked.


Charles Company of The Royal Canadian Regiment is the most decorated, most bloodied company in the serving Canadian Forces. By the end of this story the unit will be worse than decimated, but even that’s not the end of it. Without exception these men protect their memories fiercely—and they don’t tell storied lightly—but they want you to know what they did, what they fought against.

Here is what happened:

It was Sept. 3 2006, the second day of Operation Medusa and Charles Company was leading a hasty attack straight up the middle onto Objective Rugby, a small plot of heavily defended land in the middle of Panjwai district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

While this is primarily the story of Charles Company on Sept. 3 and 4, it should be known that Medusa was a huge operation---NATO’s first ever ground combat assault and the biggest Canadian-led battle in more than half a century. The plan for Medusa had Charles Company in the south acting as the hammer, with Geoff Abthorpe’s Bravo Company in the north playing the anvil. To the east and west other coalition forces—Dutch, Danish, American--hemmed in the insurgents and attempted to block their escape routes. While the Canadian forces were mainly comprise of 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regt. Out of Petawawa, Ont., there were sizeable contingents of 2 Combat Engineer Regt., Royal Canadian Dragoons, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, an ISTAR (Recce) Squadron led by Major Andrew Lussier and then, of course, there were the men with no names—Canadian and allied special forces—flitting in and out of the shadows.

Medusa was intended to counter the sizeable enemy force that had gathered in Panjwai, just a few kilometres south-west of Kandahar city. Historically, this is notorious land for those foreigners who try to exert influence on southern Afghanistan. The British suffered heavily here as did, more recently, the Russians, who were never able to gain full control of the territory during their Afghan war in the 1980s.

Difficulty in conquering the district comes not only from its inhabitants—the birthplace of the Taliban, home of infamously intransigent Pashtun tribals—but from the terrain itself. Technically, some people call the Arghandab River area an oasis, but that image belies its strange desolation.

The Red Desert lies a few kilometres south like a big giant furnace, making the air crispy dry and sucking all the moisture from the land. And so, despite the lush greenery, life is hard, the people are hard, even the dirt is hard.

The landscape around Objective Rugby is a guerrilla fighter’s paradise, crafted by literally generations of insurgents to be the ultimate redoubt. There are interconnected systems of irrigation ditches that look pretty much like a deep, wide trench system.

Plus, real trench systems and fortified compounds and tunnels and endless bisecting tree lines and fields of corn and dense marijuana growing so high you could only see the antennas of the Canadian vehicles as they moved around the battlefield.

And Rugby, centred on the white schoolhouse, was right at the centre of all the insurgent activity. So, it was a tough nut, perhaps the toughest. And everyone knew it. This is not hindsight, it was foresight: several sources report that the Canadian-produced intelligence at battle group and brigade level indicated that Rugby was the enemy’s main defensive position in Panjwai. But beyond the intel, the enemy position on Rugby was something proven in Canadian blood on Aug. 3 one moth prior, when the PPCLI lost four soldiers in their aborted attempt to take the white school.

It was early on the morning of Sept. 2 and Charles Company had seized Masum Ghar and Mar Ghar, both highpoints overlooking Objective Rugby and the area around Pashmul. As the RCR LAVs lined up and began blasting insurgent targets across the river, the engineer troops, led by Lieutenant (Now Captain Justin Behiels, began plowing new routes down into the riverbed.

Looking north from Masum Ghar Rugby had several key features. A small road festooned with enemy bombs and mines—dubbed route Comox/Vancouver—hemmed in the objective from the east and north. To the west lay the white schoolhouse. And to the north just a few hundred metres was the village of Pashmul proper, which would have to be cleared as well.

But before they ever got to that stage, there were many problems for Major Matthew Sprague to solve.

The initial task was how to get his force across the Arghandab River and onto the objective.


Soldiers exit a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter during Op Medusa.

Now, one thing to know about Sprague is that he is a leader. He doesn’t dither or vacillate. What he says will happen, happens. But he has that other quality indispensable to leaders: he cares about his men like nothing else and they know he will be loyal. As a result, his men don’t snipe at him, even subtly, and they don’t question him

If you are to get a sense of the battle—the wild misfortune and endless calamity of it all—you have to picture Sprague at the middle of the chaos, trying to orchestrate two thing at one: rescue his wounded soldiers from the battle field and find a way to counter, on the fly, the huge enemy force that had them all trapped and pinned down.

And that’s the other thing you’ll have t picture, constantly, is what the atmosphere was like there on the ground, with hundreds of enemy soldiers firing insane amounts of incoming from three sides and the even greater amounts of Canadian outgoing fire, including almost constant coalition artillery, close air support and suppressing fire from Charles’ 9 Platoon up on Masum Ghar.

Though the Arghandab River was shallow at this time of year, the riverbed itself was very wide, about 1,000 metres in some places. The force going across was comprised of Charles’ 7 and 8 platoons complete, a group of engineers, a small convoy of Afghan national Army soldiers with their American embedded training team, an American route clearance team and Sprague’s tactical headquarters, which included a forward air controller to help guide coalition air support.

A lot of the soldiers knew the enemy would expect them to cross here, but the assault force had few options. The only place with over watch that morning was right there, right in front of Masum Ghar. And they had to avoid Comox/Vancouver, so they were channelled from the very beginning.




They crossed the river without incident, made their breaches and moved up into the fields beyond. Scattered on the ground were the leaflets dropped there by NATO, warning the locals that an operation was coming trough. The locals had also been warned over the radio and all the local Afghan troops knew the plan as well.

This was no surprise attack.

Before going across, the soldiers had heard from higher that the enemy had abandoned their position on Rugby. Despite the rosy warning, many of the soldiers felt something was up, their ‘spider-senses ‘were tingling. But as yet there wasn’t a shot fired and no sign of the enemy force hidden a few hundred metres away.

The place they made initial beachhead was about the size of a football field. It was hemmed in to the north and east by route Comox and the West by berms, ditches and high marijuana fields. Things got briefly confused here, as at first, 7 Platoon had struck off to the north and run into route Comox. Seeing this, Sprague got on the net and ordered them to reorient themselves back toward the school directly. The platoon then passed through company lines to spearhead the attack on the school.

After the engineers made their second set of breaches, 8 Platoon’s leader. Lieut. Jeremy Hiltz, (who has since been promoted to captain) stood on the berm that bordered the main company position and watched Nolan ride through the ditch in the passenger seat of a G-Wagon, Nolan jokingly pressing his face up against the glass as if he were trying to escape. Then Hiltz saw Sgt. Shane Stachnik cross the ditch in a crouch. Stachnik gave him a funny look as if to say ‘this is crazy, but let’s do it.

Capt. Derek Wessan gave a quick set or orders to 7 Platoon, who were to move through the engineer’s breach and shake out into a battle line with the four LAVs—3-1 Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, plus the engineer section in Echo 3-2 Alpha—slightly in front of the G-Wagon, call sign 3-1 W, which the soldiers who rod in it jokingly liked to call 3-1 ‘woof,’ for the last noise you’d hear as the vehicle was engulfed in flames. They were to advance to within 30 metres of the white schoolhouse, then halt and observe. Wessan, a hulking, tirelessly competent man, would normally have been riding in his own LAV, but it had broken down and was in for repairs, so he rode in the back of 3-1 Charlie instead.

The four LAVs crept up through the breached irrigation canal and into the marijuana fields, which were so dense the drivers and gunners weer having a hard time seeing through their sights. Behind them the G-Wagon bumped through the breach, followed by Sprague himself in call sign 309er, who’d come forward to add firepower, in case it was needed.

In 3-1 Charlie, Fawcett was observing the situation from the rear sentry hatch and, seeing they were about 30 metres from the schoolhouse ordered his driver to stop.

Seconds later Fawcett saw two thing happen almost simultaneously. To his right, Echo 3-2’s turret seemed to explode into pieces. He ducked down to report to Wessan what he’d seen. Then, to his left, he could see Teal waving his hands and yelling behind the G-Wagon, which was blackened and smoking.

Fawcett jumped quickly back down from the hatch into the belly of the LAV, where he gave Wessan an update and reported that he was heading for the G-Wagon.

“Follow me,” Fawcett yelled to O’Rourke and Funnel, before taking off in a sprint down the back ramp.

Running through the marijuana towards the G-Wagon, the noise of the guns was deafening and the enemy fire was shredding the tall plants. It was raining marijuana on the sprinting soldiers.

Moments before, in the G-Wagon’s rear passenger side seat, Cpl. Furoy was leaning forward, trying to get a good look at his digital camera’s rear display. He’d just passed the camera to Nolan, who’d taken some pictures and now wanted to know if there were any good ones.

Suddenly everything exploded.

Furoy’s first thought was that his camera had somehow detonated in his hands. But it hadn’t. It was probably an RPG and it hit the front of the G-Wagon and exploded through the windshield, right into Nolan’s face and chest. Shrapnel tore Furoy’s shoulder apart and badly wounded the Afghan interpreter sitting to his left.

Now, with O’Rourke and Funnel treating Furoy and the interpreter, Fawcett and Teal put their attention to fighting off the enemy. Before long, Fawcett ordered his guys to take the wounded back to 3-1 Charlie, which they did one at a time, traversing the distance twice under heavy fire, an act of bravery that resulted in a Medal of Military Valour for both soldiers.

Despite his own wound, once inside the LAV Furoy began caring for other wounded soldiers, something he would do right until he was evacuated from the battlefield several hours later.



Coalition airpower attacks a compount during Op Medusa.


Fawcett and Teal were now alone with Nolan’s body at the G-Wagon. The incoming and outgoing, literally hundreds of weapons firing at once was deafening. At the G-Wagon, the rounds were coming in from three sides, even spraying underneath the vehicle.

Lying on the ground, Fawcett thought to himself: ‘If the enemy rounds are coming under the G-Wagon, then why am I lying on the ground?’

He jumped up and yelled for Teal to do the same and they used the back of the vehicle for cover.

A few dozen metres to their left, 3-1 Bravo’s main gun jammed after firing just a few rounds, Master Corporal Sean Niefer sat up in the hatch, exposed to enemy fire, laying down a barrage of his own from the turret-mounted machine-gun. For those who saw Niefer up in the turret totally exposed as bullets and rockets flew in against him, this image would become almost emblematic of the who battle. Niefer received the Medal of Military Valour.

On the right flank, Echo 3-2—Stachnik’s LAV—was looking pretty bad. For a few scary moments, everyone pretty much thought the vehicle was a catastrophic kill. Its turret had not only been blown to pieces, but it wasn’t moving and there was no radio traffic coming from it. Almost immediately, a rescue operation was launched to get Echo 3-2 hooked up and pulled out of the kill zone.

Just as a soldier was about to attach the cable, Echo 3-2’s driver regained consciousness and had the presence of mind to reverse out and drive up the rear of the battle line, leaving the soldier holding the cable, standing in the field.

The first place Echo 3-2 stopped was at Sprague’s LAV, where Cpl Derick Lewis and MCpl Jean-Paul Somerset jumped out to begin treating casualties. Lewis climbed up onto the LAV and after finding Stachnik was dead, moved on to begin treating the wounded crew commander.

Just moments before, Lewis had seen something very rare—an actual enemy fighter running in the open, just about 75 metres in the distance. He raised his rifle and put his eye to the sight and fired. His first shot missed. He fired again, and again. The enemy fighter crumpled and fell dead.

Some guys remember well, and for some it gets hazy. Lewis is a whole other story. He remembers these events in crystalline detail, recounting shot-by-shot, second-by-second events like they happened 25 minutes ago.

Now though, Lewis had switched to first aid instead of fighting.

Almost out of nowhere, an American soldier, a medic embedded with the Afghan National Army, showed up and began to help with the casualties. Once it was clear they were all taken care of, Lewis volunteered to take the American back to friendly lines and so the two began a massive long-distance run across basically the entire battlefield, some 700 metres each way for Lewis. While the two were pinned down once on the way to the American position, and Lewis was blown off his feet on the return trip, they both made it without a scratch.
Across the radio, Sprague had begun to organize 7 Platoon into a retreat out of the encircled kill zone and back to company lines.

To this end, 3-1 Bravo pulled up to the G-Wagon and dropped its ramp. Fawcett began dragging Nolan’s body towards it. The first soldier out of the LAV saw the situation and stopped dead in his tracks near the bottom of the ramp and the soldiers behind piled into him.

In short order they loaded Nolan inside and were about to take off. Quickly, Fawcett saw it wasn’t going to work, the LAV was packed to the roof and there was no room left. Fawcett looked at his fellow section commander, Sgt. Brent Crellin, and made a pretty hard choice.

“Get out of here,” Fawcett yelled to Crellin, over the sound of battle.

He and Teal would stay, fight, and try to find another way out.

Crellin hit the switch to raise the LAV’s ramp.

“Good luck,” he shouted to Fawcett.

Teal and Fawcett then moved back to the read of the burning G-Wagon and began firing at the enemy again. Despite being in the relative safety of the LAV’s armour, 3-1 Bravo was about to find a whole new kind of misfortune.

Cpl Jason Ruffolo was the LAV driver. Now, Ruffolo is the kind of guy you want on your side in a fight. From the look in his eye, the way he holds his head, you just know he's going to be there when he's needed.

With round crashing off the LAV, Ruffolo took off at speed through the marijuana field and, missing the single breach, slammed heavily into the irrigation ditch, which was eight to 10 feet deep.
At first, when they crashed into the ditch, all Ruffolo could hear were people screaming on the intercom and his immediate thought was that he’d killed the whole section.

So now things had gotten even more complicated. Not only was 7 Platoon caught in a wild crossfire, three of their six vehicles were either partially or totally out of the battle.

But this wasn't even the only action going on. Far on the left flank, beyond the kill zone where 7 Platoon was stuck, 8 Platoon was fighting a woolly battle to secure a group of compounds down by the bank of the Arghandab. The platoon had dismounted from their LAVs and were fighting compound-to-compound, kicking down doors and clearing rooms, gunning down enemy fighters.

On the far right flank the ANA soldiers had been launched into a marijuana field and were fighting north toward route Comox. While undoubtedly aggressive, the ANA were kept kind of quarantined from the main force, basically holding the northern flank, because nobody was sure of their weapon control and the risk friendly fire was too high.

Meanwhile, back at the G-Wagon, Teal and Fawcett were still in the fight of their lives. At least half a dozen rocket propelled grenades screeched past and the pair were running out of ammunition. With no good options left, Fawcett and Teal took off on a hundred-metre sprint to get back to 3-1 Charlie. They made it in one piece, despite the odds. Teal received the Star of Military Valour; Fawcett the Medal of Military Valour.

There is more than one kind of insurgent in Panjwai. First, there are the part-timers. These guys are mostly farmers or young men with nothing better to do. Maybe the Taliban pays them to fight; maybe they chose to fight for their own reasons. In general, these guys are amateurs. They do thing like fire an AK-47 at an armoured column and then try to get away by running across an open field. LAV gunners have little trouble picking these men off, so, they don't last long.

A rough estimate going into Op Medusa was that maybe as many as half of the bad buys in the district were part-timers. A big part of the reason for this is that, through a series of blunders and corruption scandals, the local government had angered everybody to the point that Panjwai was nearly in open rebellion. However, at the other end of the enemy spectrum there are the A-listers. The all-star team. These guys have command and control. They have tactics. They stage co-ordinated attacks. They're devious and they’re not that easy to kill. By all accounts, the force currently pounding Charles Company were the serious shooters, the A-Team.

Intel reports would later confirm that the Canadians blasting away at the muzzle flashes did kill dozens of these guys--maybe more, including one reputed medium-level commander. With the evacuation of the forward position underway, the objective was now all about extracting 3-1 Bravo from the ditch. In the ditch, Ruffolo, could hear the 'tin ting ting’ as small arms fire hit the LAV and he felt the vehicle rock as first one and then a second RPG slammed into the rear hatch area.

The plan was to tow it out using a dozer. In order to do this, two soldiers were ordered to get out and hook up 3-1 Bravo's tow cable. In the confusion though, they couldn't find the cable, which had been stored on the front of the vehicle. Seeing this, and not wanting to stay trapped in the kill zone any longer, Ruffolo himself got out of the driver's s eat and, exposing himself for several perilous minutes, hooked up the cable. But the heavy vehicle wouldn't budge, it was no use--the LAV wasn't moving. The order came down to abandon 3-1 Bravo, and slowly the men trapped in the back--several suffering badly after the crash--began to crawl out the hats as the ramp couldn't be lowered. Ruffolo got out again, this time to unhook the tow cable from the LAV, allowing the doer to churn off, the cable dragging behind it.

Ruffolo, now without a vehicle ran up to another LAV, but they told him there was no room left. So, with no other options, he ran all the way back through the breach to the company position on his own.

In 3-1 Charlie, which was on scene to help the recovery, Wessan turned to Fawcett and said he was going to see if everyone escaped from 3-1 Bravo. Fawcett swears that Wessan covered the 20 metres to the irrigation ditch in a single leap.

Nolan’s body was still in 3-1 Bravo, stuck in the ditch.

Now, just as Sprague was gearing up for the counter-attack. Two things happened almost simultaneously which effectively cost the Canadians the battle for Objective Rugby.

Back in the main battle position, a hasty casualty collection point had been formed by Cpl. Lewis in the shelter of the big Zettlemeyer front-end loader and a big loose pile of dirt. While still under heavy enemy fire, the place seemed safe enough that no one really expected what came next.


The big round—probably from an 82-mm recoilless rifle—crashed into the side of the Zettlemeyer. The blast killed Pte. William Cushley pretty much outright.

Funnel felt the heat of the blast and the next thing he knew he was on the ground 15 feet away. Lewis too caught the blast hard and was knocked sprawling, his arm and leg torn open. Company Sergeant Major John Barnes was also knocked down by the concussion, heavily injured. WO Frank Mellish was there too, he’d come around from 8 Platoon’s flank to see if he could help extract Nolan. By all accounts best friends, there was no way Mellish was going to stay back in this situation.

Mellish was blown back away from the Zettlemeyer, badly wounded. Ruffolo had just arrived on the scene and immediately began first aid, out in the open, with no cover and enemy bullets cracking all around. Ruffolo tried to stop the bleeding, he worked furiously, but after a few minutes he realized Mellish was gone. Just a few feet away, Funnel picked himself up of the ground after the blast and immediately saw Lewis crawling, obviously badly wounded, in the wrong direction.

“I’m hit. I’m hit,” Lewis yelled.

Funnel yelled at him that he was going the wrong way, going into the bullets instead of behind cover.

Just then, already wounded, a bullet ripped into Lewis’ arm, jerking it out from under him. His first thought was “F—k, I just got shot’ and the next thing he knows someone is grabbing him around the waist, lifting him up and dragging him to safety. It was Funnel.


Soldiers use a wall for cover during Op Medusa

At about the exact same moment the rocket hit the casualty collection point, Sprague heard the ‘bomb away’ call as a coalition aircraft dropped in on a nearby enemy position.

Everybody knew the bomb was coming, they just didn’t expect the 1,000-pout-laser-guided weapon to land on their heads. But it did, pretty much.

The bomb landed just north of the main position and bounced in toward the ANA and the Canadians, coming to rest just metres in front the company’s tactical headquarters. Sprague saw it and his first thought was that it was over for the lot of them. In the engineer LAV, the driver called up Lieut. Behiels, the engineer leader, on the intercom.

“Um, sir, a giant bomb just landed right in front of us, “ he said.

“We’re still alive,” Behiels replied. “Keep firing.”

No explanation was ever found for what went wrong. It was just one of those things.

With the right flank closed off by the 1,000-pounder, and the casualties piling up, there were few choices left except to get out and try again later. But there was one more thing to do.

Sprague wasn’t going to lose any more men retrieving Nolan’s body, but he wasn’t going to leave him there either.

So on his orders, pretty much the entire force faced forward and laid down an absolute barrage of suppressing fire leaving just one thin corridor for an 8 Platoon LAV to make the perilous run up to 3-1 Bravo and retrieve Nolan’s body. That was the last piece of business Sprague thought they could accomplish, and with that done, they started to withdraw back to the middle of the Arghandab.

As everyone was gathering up for the withdrawal, there was one further, final misfortune. As Hiltz was doing a check on the men of 8 Platoon, to ensure everyone was accounted for, he discovered that one section was still out in the compound on the left flank. One way or another, their section commander had ended up back at the LAV without them and now it was up to Hiltz to go get his men. With just a quick glance, Wessan, who had appeared suddenly beside Hiltz but had misplace his rifle in the chaos, signalled he was good to go as well and the two of them took off.

Wessan hit the berm first with Hiltz still sprinting across the field behind him, cursing the heavy radio in his backpack for slowing him down.

The two officers, platoon leaders, stood on the berm at the forward edge of the position, with enemy bullets cracking past. They could hear the trapped soldiers screaming for help. Hiltz raised his C8 and fired towards the flashes.

Wessan fired his Browning pistol and the two of them hoped the covering fire, such as it was, would give the trapped section the courage to get up and get out of there. They did.

Charles Company headed back across the Arghandab and back onto Masum Ghar. During the night they traded fire with insurgents and watched as coalition aircraft destroyed the vehicles they’d abandoned earlier.

In their official reports on the day the military calls what happened on Objective Rugby an ambush. In some sense, that’s true, but largely it is not. On Aug. 3 the PPCLI was ambushed at the schoolhouse. Calling Sept. 3 an ambush is sort of like calling what happened at Dieppe an ambush. A small Canadian force was sent on an attack against a numerically superior enemy in a well-established defensive position.

That said, nothing is certain. It’s impossible to know whether the decision to commit to the attack on Rugby 48 hours in advance of the schedule cost lives or saved them.

However, military minds are trained to grapple with probabilities, and while nothing is certain, it’s hard to see how two days of heavy air strikes, direct fire and tactical manoeuvres could have failed to weaken the enemy.

In the end, it just didn’t make sense to the soldiers. Here we have one plan, long developed and founded on encirclement, deliberate tactical advance and careful attrition of enemy forces in a well-established free fire zone, working at cross purposes with a run-and-gun frontal assault which depended more on surprise and the enemy’s weakness than Canadian strength. While perhaps either tactic might have worked, using both didn’t make sense.

The enemy know the Canadians were coming, because the leaflets told them. There was no attempt at deception because deception wasn’t a part of the plan.

The enemy was surrounded, cut off and wildly outgunned. As one soldier said, quietly, as if it were no big thing, ‘we held all the cards, and we played their hand.’

Sometime you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.

Ultimately, the battle that day, in the bright Afghan sunshine, lasted about four hours—the force moved out at about 6 a.m. and the retreat began at about 9:20 am, which is known to be the exact moment Cpl. Lewis was injected with morphine, as it’s written on his helmet cover, which he has kept all this time but plans to maybe donate to his local Legion one day. While the battle cost the lives of four Canadian soldier and wounded 10 other, if you want to know the hidden cost of this battle, and of this mission, all you have to do is sit down and talk to the veterans and you’d know a couple of things.

First is that you can often hear the experience in their voices—they crack and waver a bit when they talk about these events.

Second, and this is the dead giveaway, you can see it in their eyes. They look around, down, up at the ceiling, often wincing, as if the story itself was causing pain. Sure, they still laugh, and they tell funny stories about the day, but they describe it almost like it happened to somebody else. Maybe that’s what they have to do.

As for the others, the ones who escaped without physical injury, while they don’t wear wound stripes on their uniforms, many of them seem to carry that place in their head like it’s a piece of shrapnel. While these injuries are unseen, they are no less real.

And while many would like to forget, others want to remember. Like Ruffolo, when he came home he got a tattoo on his neck to remember his buddy Cushley. He takes endless crap fro it from the Army, but he doesn’t care. He did it for his dead friend, to remember.

While Medusa started badly for Charles Company, it got worse the next morning.

In just a few seconds, the pilot of an American A-10 Thunderbolt close air support fighter made a mistake that cost one more life—Pte. Mark Anthony Graham, a former Olympic sprinter—and wounded more than 30 others, some badly, including Sprague himself.

In the early morning have, the pilot had mistaken a garbage fire lit by the Canadians for smoke from an enemy position and, lacking vital situational awareness, fired his fierce 30-mm chain gun at the unsuspecting target.
When the place struck, Ruffolo was just over a rise with 7 Platoon. The plane hit 8 Platoon and the tactical headquarters. Ruffolo cam running over the hill and saw what looked to him like a mass grave—men lying everywhere, pools of blood, and just unbelievable carnage. He thought the whole platoon was dead.

For Sprague, right in the middle of the friendly fire incident, it was like watching a whole bunch of sparklers going off while he got the crap kicked out of him. What he remembers most is the concussion—or rather the amount of concussion—kind of like getting punched in the nose hundred times really hard.

Sprague suffered serious shrapnel wounds to the head and body and was evacuated to Germany and then back to Canada, alongside several of his men.

Charles Company was done. They’d lost their commander, a great chunk of their junior leadership and almost 50 soldiers in total. For s short time there, the unit was combat ineffective, and where it used to be Medusas’ hammer, it now largely disappeared. The emphasis would now shift to Bravo Company, the new hammer, striking down on Rugby from the north.


As for Charles Company, not all of its soldiers were out of the fight. Wessan would stay in the field and his patched together force, against all odds, would be among the first Canadians on Objective Rugby when it eventually fell to the battle group, 10 days later.


Whatever the new rotation of Canadian soldiers were expecting to find when they rotated into Kandahar in August 2006, it wasn’t this.

They had trained for counter-insurgency warfare, but what they found was a lot closer to conventional war. What they found was the battle of Panjwai. It was force-on-force battle against an enemy that employed a classic Soviet tactical defence. It was 16 weeks of pitched battles, air strikes and bloodshed.

The Canadians didn’t choose to fight Medusa, not exactly. It was more like they had no choice. Enemy troops were massing; and they were threatening everything, they had to be stopped.

So, the battle was on.

Between Aug. 3 and Oct 14, 2006—from the first major fight at the white school in Pashmul to the last big attack during Operation Medusas’ reconstruction phase—19 Canadian soldier died in the battle of Panjwai and many dozens more were injured.

One statistic really tells the tale: of the 19 soldiers killed during this period, 11 died as a result of direct enemy fire. In the six years Canada’s been in Afghanistan, only two other soldiers have ever been killed by direct enemy fire.

Panjwai district, southwest of Kandahar city, is where the Taliban movement began at a little mosque in a village called Sangisar. The district itself is somewhat larger than the Medusa battlefield. Which was focused on a serried of Taliban defensive positions in and around the village of Pashmul, which became known as Objective Rugby.

The pocked was bordered to the north by Highway 1, the busy main road between Kandahar and Kabul. To the south and east the Arghandab River formed a solid geographical boundary, while to the west there was an endless warren of villages and rough terrain stretching into neighbouring Helmand province.

In this third and final part the Canadian battle group, splintered by the loss of Charles Company, regroups and executes a methodical, phased attack from the north led by Major Geoff Abthorpe’s Bravo Company, of the 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment.

Meanwhile, in the south Maj. Andrew Lussier’s ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance squadron-- a nearly company-sized unit largely comprised of Royal Canadian Dragoons—took the remnants of Charles Company and reformed into Task Force Grizzly under the command of call sign Grizzly Six, and American colonel name Steve Williams who was now in charge of holding the southern battle line and disrupting enemy forces across the Arghandab River.

Bolstering the RCR forces in the north was Alpha Company of 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, led by Maj. Charles Wright. In addition, Task Force 31, comprise mainly of U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, were also involved in the fighting. Backing up the whole brigade were the big 155—mm guns of 2 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, led by Maj. Greg Ivey.

Leading the Canadian battle group in the field was Lieutenant-Colonel Omer Lavoie, the RCR battalion commander. Back at Kandahar airfield, Brigadier-General David Fraser was the brigade commander, issuing orders to Lavoie while simultaneously commanding the NATO operations in southern Afghanistan.

In the classic military sense, failure was not an option here. Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier the commander of Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command, was in a good position to see the high-level strategic pressure pushing thee Canadian’s into action. “NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assumed responsibilities for operation in the south of Afghanistan in (early) August,” explained Gauthier. “And so in the south of Afghanistan—and this is in the context of Afghan perceptions of the coalition and whether or not they are there to help, and Taliban and insurgent perception of the coalition—we have this new command responsible for the south of Afghanistan.


“So you have this dynamic where clearly the Taliban are showing intent to test ISAF. And this is all about credibility of ISAF in relation to Afghanistan and the Afghan government and so I would say there were all sorts of pressures on ISAF to demonstrate to the people of Afghanistan that ISAF and NATO were committed to protecting the people of Afghanistan. And that’s not propaganda, that’s real. I mean, this was reality at a strategic level in the south of Afghanistan.

“There was very real pressure, real present danger from this Taliban force which was adopting a conventional posture in Panjwai and clearly demonstrating an intent to cut off Kandahar city and cut off Highway 1. None of which boded well, obviously, for the future of the south of Afghanistan. So, something had to be done in a couple of different respects both to gain the trust of the Afghan people, start to win their confidence, and to get those bad guys out of there so that the threat was removed.”

Op Medusa was going to end the threat and bring peace and stability to Panjwai. It was going to be the first Canadian-led brigade in no-holds-barred mechanized ground combat since World War II, and it was about to get off to a very bad start.

It was Saturday, Sept. 2 the first day of combat operation and Maj. Matthew Sprague’s Charles Company had just roared up on their initial objectives—Masum Ghar and Mar Ghar—unopposed and begun hammering the Taliban across the Arghandab.

In the north, Abthorpe’s company was already in position south of Highway 1 and beginning to trade fire with enemy forces there.

This operation was not a surprise. The enemy knew the Canadians were coming. It was part of the plan to give everybody in the area fair warning, to get all the civilians out of the way.

With Sprague and Abthorpe having seized their first-day objectives, according to the plan, they would begin a period of observation and intelligence collection and commence a 72-hour preparatory bombardment of enemy forces in the pocket before putting in the ground attack.
In support of this, NATO allies had stacked the air space around Panjwai with all sorts of air assets—fighters, bomber, attack helicopters, unmanned drones and even spy planes.

Down on the ground just south of Masum Ghar, Lussier and his ISTAR squadron were about to witness something horrible. “Sir, take a look at this,” yelled one of Lussier’s men, as soldiers started looking at the sky, not believing what they were seeing.

Lussier came out of h is LAV, looked up, and saw a big four-engine British Nimrod MR2 spy plane arcing across the sky, engulfed in bright orange flames and going down fast.

Lussier, alongside his men, stood and watched as the plane hit the ground and exploded just a few kilometres away.

Once it was down, the race was on to get to the crash site. Lussier sent his reconnaissance platoon off without hesitation. Any survivors might need help and it was imperative not to let them, or the crash scene, fall into enemy hands.

But nothing is simple in Afghanistan, and navigating the small roads and villages in order to get to the crash scene proved difficult. Fortunately, an American Apache attack helicopter appeared overhead and guided Lussier’s force in the right direction.

Arriving on the scene, it was obvious no one had survived.

There were 14 men aboard the Nimrod when it crashed. It was the worst single-incident loss of British military life since the Falklands War in 1982. The plane was reportedly brought down by an electrical fire. As soon as the Canadians secured the site, an American rescue squad landed and together they started the grisly task. The plane had exploded and disintegrated on impact and the wreckage was strewn widely about. “We swept the scene for human remains as well as any sensitive materials, “said Lussier. “It was carnage and it was gruesome work. I think the biggest piece of human remains was maybe a little bit bigger than a soccer ball. There was all kinds of crap all over the place. It was a toxic jungle.

“I tell you, it was a strange case of irony here. Medusa hadn’t really started, everybody was just posturing, and we were the first ones to see all this blood and gore and crap. And so, you know, my guys are kind of in shock.”

As the night dragged on, Lussier and his squadron stayed at the crash scene, beginning work again early the next morning, Sept. 3. “So morale was low, of course, and the guys were feeling sorry for themselves. Then Charles Company goes across the river and they get smoked and we hear there are four guys dead and guys wounded and everything like that.

“It was quite an experience. I’m listening to the battle on the radio as I was walking the debris field. We were close enough we could hear the shooting and explosions and everything. We could see the aircraft coming in and out, helping out. Listening to the thing on the radio was gut wrenching. You just wanted to get the hell over there and help them out.

“I’ll tell you; at that point my guys stopped feeling sorry for themselves. It was like, ‘what the hell do we have to feel sorry about?”

What Lussier was listening to were the sounds of Charles Company running head first into a huge and very well prepared enemy force on Objective Rugby.

Medusa was not going to be derailed so easily, but at mid-afternoon on Sept. 3rd the situation was not looking so good. The first ground attack had failed and 18 coalition soldiers were dead. And there was more bad luck ahead.

A few kilometres north of Rugby, Abthorpe’s company was spread out in a thin line south of the highway.

By the time Charles Company went across, Bravo Company had already been in position for a few days.

“We were given a very simple task,” said Abthorpe. “We were to give a feint south of the highway to distract the enemy. Everybody knew the battle group’s focus was going to be south, but by pushing across the highway from Patrol Base Wilson, it was hoped that we would establish a guard, protect the highway and our lines of communication, but also draw some of the Taliban attention from the south to the north.”

Bravo Company spread out along the edge of their first objective, dubbed Cracked Roof, which was a very deep ditch and road system that went through Pasab, a small village north of Pashmul.

Shortly after Bravo moved into position, they were attacked by two very ambitious insurgents who figured maybe they could take on an entire platoon of LAVs with nothing more than their AK-47 assault rifles.

 “It was the most surreal thing,” said Abthorpe.

“The two Taliban stood up in the open on a mud wall and started shooting at the LAVs with AKs, nothing else.”

Having none of it, 5 platoon, led by Lieut. Jeff Bell, mounted a hasty attack on the compound from which the men were firing. They called in air burst artillery and rolled in, ending the resistance. Despite a detailed search, they only ever found one body.

“This stage (of Medusa), “said Captain Piers Pappin, leader of Bravo Company’s 4 Platoon,
“I liken to the phony war almost, like back in World War II, just because we conducted our feint and we sat on this line for quite a number of days and didn’t see a lot of enemy activity. We know they were there but there was no movement or anything, That was the phony Medusa.”


On the morning of Sept. 3, Bravo was still patrolling up and down Cracked Roof as Maj. Abthorpe came to terms with the new tactical situation in the wake of Charles Company’s surprise attack.

“Now, the call for (the attack) came as a big surprise. Our orders, my orders, were to do the feint south of Highway 1. Charles Company would move up on Masum Ghar and the two of us, from either end, would observe patterns of life for at least 24 hours and then we’d start the 72-hours bombardment. I briefed on that fire plan. So, all of it seemed good.

We rolled across on the 1st and 2nd and we engage the Taliban. We see the Taliban really are here, so we’re starting to build a picture. Then the night of the 2nd, I get the call saying ‘Standby. Charles Company is going across. Pass the word.’

“OK,’ I thought. ‘This is interesting.’

“They cross over. We know what happens. They redeploy back south across the river.
“So we go into holy f—k mode.”

Given the amount of resistance Charles Company faced on Rugby, Bravo’s soldiers assumed they would be going into a huge fight when they moved across Cracked Roof and onto their objective, dubbed Templar, directly north of Pashmul.

In the meantime, on the morning of Sept. 3rd, Lussier’s squadron had to come up north, to Patrol Base Wilson, just near where Bravo was deployed, to drop off one of their soldiers, Corporal Kelly Dove, whose husband, Warrant Officer Rick Nolan, had been killed that day.

Lussier was then ordered t join Bravo Company as it prepared to assault across Cracked Roof early the next morning.

“The next day we were set at the start line at first light, I think it was 5:30 a.m.,” said Lussier, “and we were all along just south of Highway 1.”

The plan was for Bravo and ISTAR to charge across Cracked Roof to focus enemy attention northward.

With orders for the attack hastily given, the soldiers were in their positions, getting ready for battle. “And that’s when we got the news:

‘Stop, stop, stop. Charles Company has just been f—strafed,’ “said Lussier.

On the morning of Sept. 4, Charles Company, which had been ordered to gear up and recross the Arghandab for a second attack on Rugby, was hit by an American A-10, killing Private Mark Graham and wounding more than 30 others, including Sprague, the commanding officer.

Everything came to a stop. Offensive operations were largely halted as the Canadian leadership figured out what to do next. Lussier’s ISTAR squadron moved out into a temporary position in the desert while Bravo held the northern battle line.

It was time for a serious reappraisal of the battle plan. Everyone held fast while the men at the top conferred.

“Well, (Lavoie) and I talked a lot after that friendly fire incident,” said Fraser.

“I actually called (Lavoie) into my headquarters, so we could determine when we were going to cross the river.

“We changed the plan because there was a significant event that day and I used it as an opportunity to make the Taliban believe that we were going to continue to cross the Arghandab as they thought we would. And then, instead, move the focus to the north, come from the north to the south in an area the Taliban didn’t think we would come from.

“That’s where Task Force Grizzly came into play. We took the remnants of Charles Company, gave them some snipers, gave them some people controlling direct fire and close air support, and I said to Colonel Williams, ‘I want you to make yourself look like a thousand-man organization, make the Taliban believe you are still Omer Lavoie.’

“And that’s what we did for the next three to four days; we kept squeezing the Taliban from three different directions, coming from the north, Task Force Grizzly from the south and Task Force 31 to the southeast. And we did that until we actually got onto Rugby.”

With the operation now focused firmly on Bravo Company, things started to happen up north. In one memorable event, soldiers caught a few Taliban leaders trying to ‘get out of Dodge.’ “ A white sedan pulls up, “ remembers Abthorpe, “and they’re trying to leave our security bubble. So we’re like ‘where’d you come from ? Why are you leaving ?’

So we’re talking to these three older guys and that’s when their cell phone rang. The interpreter (working for the Canadians) grabbed the phone and started talking. It was a senior Taliban commander yelling at these three guys, saying’ why aren’t they attacking the Canadians. Because they had great success in the south, they should be attacking in the north. ‘Well, these guys were trying to flee at that point.”

On Sept. 5, Bravo took their first casualties—four wounded—when a group of enemy fighters tried to flank their position and targeted one of their LAVs with rocket-propelled grenades and recoilless rifle.

Despite the enemy activity, Bravo soldiers were patrolling up and down Cracked Roof the deep ditch, trying to get an understanding of the terrain and gather intel on enemy positions.

With all the forces in place, Bravo eventually put their breach in and got across the ditch and began heading south.

For the next few nights, the Reconnaissance Platoon would head out into the darkness, scouting the way ahead for the troops to push through the next day. It was a classic advance and Bravo cut south through the light resistance and onto objective, Templar. “The Taliban, from the time they chose to fight conventionally, mimicked, almost to the letter, Soviet-style tactics from the Cold War that many of us were trained on as young officers, “ said Abthorpe.

“They had two-man observation posts, a very thin outer defensive line, but as we get into it, very very solid defensive positions on both Objective Rugby and (the other objectives). Very, very detailed, very well dug in. In hindsight it’s easy to analyze and go ‘textbook, absolutely textbook conventional tactics.’”

Meanwhile, down south, on Masum Ghar and Mar Ghar, Lussier and Task Force Grizzly were inflicting major damage on the trapped and surrounded Taliban.

“My orders were simple,” said Lussier. “Disrupt the enemy.

“The Taliban did us a big favour; essentially they had kicked all the civilians out so it was very much a linear battlefield at that point.

So there were my lines and there was the Afghandab River which was essentially in no man’s land and then everybody on the other side was Taliban. It made life so much easier for us. Essentially we just shot and bomber the crap out of these guys for the better part of four or five days while the battle group made their way from the north.”

Lussier and his surveillance team spent a lot of time listening in on the Taliban as they spoke on the radio.

“They had voice procedures on the radio just like we do and during that time you could tell that we were not letting these guys get any sleep whatsoever, they were getting no rest. We were bombing the crap out of them constantly. And you could tell after about the second or third day there were a lot of arguments on the radio, a lot of names being used and so we garnished a lot of intelligence from them just from what they were saying.

“For example, Ahmed is calling Haji on the radio and he says, ‘Hey are you going to supper?’ And the other replies, ‘No, the commander told me I can’t leave the white bridge.’

“So I look on my air surveillance photo and I say ‘hey, there’s the white bridge.’ So as I’m calling an artillery mission on it, he comes back on the radio and says ‘We’re just all meeting at the barn just behind you.’ So I blow the snot out of the white bridge and blow the snot out of the barn. And then we hear: We have lots of casualties, send the trucks.’ So we wait and watch and see the trucks show up and blow the crap out of the trucks, too.

“There were 80 guys killed that day. We saw it. We watched it. So, this isn’t speculation here. So it’s all things like that: people making mistakes because they’re exhausted and stressed. We killed a lot of people, you know, we killed a lot of Taliban. And they’re just not set up to take a couple of hundred casualties. They’re not set up to evacuate them. They‘re not set up to look after those kind of wounded. So they just fall apart. And so that was part of the disruption task.”

However, thing weren’t entirely going to plan in the south. Colonel Williams, the American in command of Task Force Grizzly, had a uniquely aggressive approach to war fighting. Described variously as ‘ballsy,’ and ‘a cowboy.’ Williams was always out in front, leading the advance, but he had some difficulty convincing Lussier and the other Canadian officers that his run-and-run approach was really the best idea.

The situation came to a head several times, but most notably in the second week of September, when Williams ordered Lussier and the remnants of Charles Company to cross the Arghandab and head into enemy territory with little preparation or intelligence.

“Well the thing is that I was the senior Canadian there attached to him and he wanted to just go, “recalled Lussier. “He basically said ‘OK. Let’s go. We’re going across the river right now.’

“And I told him ‘no.’ But that’s not an easy thing for a major to tell a full colonel, but I told him, ‘No,’ I said, “Listen, there’s some things we need to find out about this.’

“I wanted to send reconnaissance across the night before to check the bank at the other side, to make sure we could actually get the vehicles up and over, because what’s the used in trying to do an assault river crossing if you can’t get a toehold on the other side of the river?

“So I ended up winning the argument. I said ‘look we’re not going to go half-assed. We’ve tried that, we got f—king smoked.; So I told him we’re going to send the reconnaissance patrol across.

So we did, and then we shot across the next day.

“I just wasn’t prepared to put Charles in that position again. There was just no way. It just didn’t make any sense. The thing is, in the end, time doesn’t mean anything over there. If it doesn’t work today, we’ll go tomorrow. It’s not like they’re advancing on us. It’s not like they’re advancing on Ottawa.


“He pulled me aside afterward and he said, ‘Listen,’ he goes, ‘I’m sensing a little hesitation in you to act.’ And when I explained to him exactly what I was thinking, he was OK with that. But I mean I could have got my ass fired right then and there.”


In the end, Charles Company did go back across the Arghandab. This time they didn’t use the same crossing, they went across farther to the east, near Mar Ghar, and they encountered little or no resistance.

Captain Derek Wessan, leader of Charles’ 7 Platoon, was attached to Task Force Grizzly and he was among the first soldiers onto Rugby proper in the coming days.

Wessan recalls a slightly chaotic scene as units were tasked to advance toward Rugby rapidly in a search for the enemy. “There was minimal information coming from Grizzly Six, “ said Wessan. “He would just go, ‘Ah, push two kilometres that way.’ And every time, we’d achieve our limit of exploitation, and then we’d get the order, ‘go another kilometre.’ Essentially we were advancing to contact, without saying it I guess. “We weren’t/t doing it as deliberate as I would have liked to have done it.

“So we keep pushing. We push again. And all of a sudden we’re in this field. We weren’t/t geographically f—cked up, we just didn’t know exactly where we were, and where we were, was where Frank Mellish and Will Cushley got killed on Sept. 3rd.”

It was dark when Wessan arrived on Rugby. He climbed out of his LAV and saw the remains of the vehicles they’d left behind nearly two weeks before, now destroyed by coalition air strikes. ”We were the first troops on that position since the 3rd.: Wessan noted, quietly.

Then, the next morning, they got the order to head north into the maze of compounds and tight defensive terrain in Pashmul itself. Again, they were advancing with no real plan, just following Colonel William’s directive to move. “I kind of lost it at that point,” said Wessan. “I said ‘This is not how we do things. We’re gonna lose somebody.’
“The platoon itself wasn’t operating in a careless manner, but the scheme of manoeuvre was not as tight as I would have liked.


“The thing was, why I lost my temper, was because I made a promise to my guys, from here on out we’re going to try to do thing as deliberate as we can, so we weren’t going to push anyone else home early.”


Fortunately, by this point the Taliban forces had been torn up by almost 10 days of constant airstrikes, artillery and direct fire from the LAVs and , aside from a few small contacts, there was no major fighting as Rugby fell. “We established a line just north of the school, and then all of a sudden we start seeing LAV antennas to the north,” explained Wessan. “It was crazy. And that was it, Rugby was secure and everything was good to go.”

In the end, Grizzly Six was a man heralded by one and all as a brave combat leader, most often seen driving into the direction of enemy fire. However, his willingness to risk the lives of the men under him in a similar fashion didn’t go over quite as well.

One of the constant themes of Op Medusa has been this struggle to find a balance between aggressive operations and reckless operations. What lies in the balance is battlefield intelligence. Or the lack thereof.
Without sound intelligence, any advance will entail great risk and possible calamity. Certainly Charles Company learned this the hard way on Sept. 3.

However, as Fraser notes, battlefield intelligence is never certain and even the best estimations of the enemy situation are apt to be wrong.

“Here’s the other thing I think Canadians have got to appreciate,” said Fraser. “You don’t ever have 100 per cent intelligence, OK? Metaphorically speaking, on a good day I would get 20 per cent. You can follow all the theoretical lines of A through Z of all the things you have to do, but at the end of the day, you fight an enemy and you’ve got to work in a truncated world and this is hard stuff.”


Meanwhile, for the commanders on the ground, it is no doubt the unreliability of intelligence that leads them to rely on methodical tactics and deliberate advance.


While the military is by no means a democracy, neither is it a dictatorship. The Army has doctrine and planning specifically to build consensus on how operations are to be conducted. Even still, doctrine can be ignored and plans can be abandoned—the tactical commander still has to decide whether to follow the order or not. As Gauthier notes, “this is combat operation and its tactical operation, and there are no black and white answers and there are no 100 per cent correct solutions to the problems that you face in combat. And I guess it comes down to judgment at each level, whether a particular decision on a particular day was appropriate or not appropriate.”

As for command and control during Medusa, Gauthier said he has no reason to challenge or second guess any of the decisions made at the brigade level during the operation. Despite instance of tactical commanders like Lussier, Lavoie, Sprague and Wessan making reasoned objections to certain orders, for Gauthier, the issued comes down to the military necessity of heeding authority in the chain of command.

“If (Lavoie) was not comfortable doing what he was asked to do to the point where he just thought it was no the right thing to do, he wouldn’t have done it. And the same applies to Sprague. And so notwithstanding the fact that they probably didn’t think this was the best way to skin the cat, there are many different ways to skin the cat.”

In any case, now that the combat phase of Op Medusa was theoretically finished, the reconstruction phase of the operation could begin. The effort to rebuild Panjwai and connect it more deeply to the Kandahar economy was focused heavily on the construction of a new road, called Route Summit, which would run directly north from the town of Bazaar-e-Panjwai to meet up with Highway 1 near Patrol Base Wilson.

For the next month, and, indeed, for the next several months, much of the battle group’s focus was on defending Route Summit and holding the territory for which they had just fought.

While the major combat operations were over on Sept. 14, the Taliban didn’t seem to accept their defeat. And indeed, it was this period of reconstruction that proved to be deadlier that the operation itself, as a combination of roadside bombs, suicide bombs, combat and mine strikes killed another 10 Canadian soldiers in the month that followed the capture of Objective rugby.

The problem for the Canadians guarding the construction of Route Summit was that while they could ably defend their new road, they lacked the manpower to sweep westward in order to kill the enemy, or at least push them back.

“We did not have enough combat power to do that kind of sweep,” said Lussier. “You need a brigade to do that. And the other thing that people don’t take into consideration is that our leaves started at that point. So a third of the force is gone."

“You know, even if we would have had the full combat team or the full battle group there, I still honestly don’t think we would have had enough combat power. I mean, even for us, to take Pashmul we had American help. And we were the priority for all air in the theatre, which all kind of went away after that. I mean, we always had it when we needed it, but we certainly didn’t have it stacked like we did in Pashmul.”


The issue of finding sufficient combat power was something Fraser was well acquainted with. In the end though, there were only so many troops available. “NATO was politically hamstrung to give me anything more than I could get (from inside my brigade),” said Fraser. “The other NATO countries were politically constrained as to what they could provide me. And that’s not Dave Fraser’s thing to comment on, it was what it was, OK? That’s my favourite saying, it was what it was and you deal with it.”


The reality was that there weren’t enough troops, NATO or Afghan National Army, to clear and hold the ground in order to prevent the Taliban from attacking.


Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to claim that all of the NATO allies are truly making the Afghan mission a priority.


The combine military forces of the NATO alliance total slightly more than nine million men, and yet only 38,500 are in Afghanistan—less than half a per cent of the total force.


In contrast, Canada’s 2,500-strong Afghan task force represents about 2.6 per cent of its total military forces, regular and reserve. If NATO countries were contributing on par with the Canadian commitment, there would be 238,225 troops in Afghanistan.
It’s hard not to see the NATO effort as an attempt to win a complex and difficult war with the smallest possible commitment. The result of this seems to be that NATO is too strong to lose and yet, too weak to win.

In the end, Medusa was deemed a tactical success. The operation cleared the Panjwai pocket and ended Taliban hopes of knocking NATO out of Afghanistan in one fighting season.

However, the battle for Panjwai isn’t over yet. Canadian troops continue to die there.

While it may be too soon to say whether Panjwai will ever enjoy a NATO-secured peace, what is clear is that between Aug. 3 and Oct 14, 2006, the Canadians fought to clear the district. They killed a lot of men, but they lost a lot too.


This WAS a historic battle.







These men died:




Cpl. Chris Reid,
Sgt. Vaughan Ingram,
Cpl. Bryce Keller,
Pte. Kevin Dallaire,
Sgt. Shane Stachnik,
Wo Rick Nolan,
Wo Frank Mellish,
Pte. Will Cushley,
Pte. Mark Graham,
Pte. Dave Byers,
Cpl. Shane Keating,
Cpl. Keith Morley,
Cpl. Glen Arnold,
Pte. Josh Klukie,
Sgt. Craig Gillam,
Cpl. Robert Mitchell,
Tpr. Mark Wilson,
Sgt. Darcy Tedford
And
Pte. Blake Williamson.

You can also go to the following for another chapter: battleatthewhiteschool.blogspot.com