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Mission to Afghanistan: One family's story
Part one of this story ran in the Wednesday, Dec. 4 issue of the Chilliwack Progress.
Find it online at theprogress.com/news/234322051.html
It took 36 hours total for Chris Robinson to reach Camp Eggers, also known as Lego Land.
Surrounded by large walls, guard towers and sniper netting, his new home was straight out of a James Bond movie. But even 007 would have a hard time getting into this place. Chris went through a minimum five checkpoints getting in, and found himself doing the same whenever he left.
Any lapse in security here would lead to catastrophic loss of life, and nothing was left to chance.
After all the flying and driving and getting onto the base, the jet-lagged Chilliwackian reached his new living quarters and found… a large metal container. Picture a cargo ship loaded up with shipping containers. Chris’s new pad was one of those, a Cannex room that was as wide as a king-sized bed and 16 feet long. Stacked one on top of another, many of these Cannex rooms were divided between four people, giving each inhabitant a whopping eight square feet to call their own.
Chris was fortunate to get just one roomie, an RCMP officer from Nova Scotia.
In a base filled with representatives from 38 different countries, this was a massive stroke of good luck. Not only was Cpl. Scott MacMillan on the same mission as Chris, but they had the Maritimes in common.
Jolene was from Sydney, Nova Scotia, and Chris lived and worked there for five years.
Over the next 12 months, Chris would come to appreciate Scott’s gregarious east-coast sense of humour – the laughs they shared on the tough days helped keep a lot of things in perspective. The men were on base seven days a week. They were always to be in uniform and they were always considered to be on duty.
When they didn’t have something to do, they took advantage of the Lego Land amenities. Camp Eggers had a small coffee shop, a selection of Afghan stores, two gyms, a games room and movie room. Chris took up yoga, and there was always something going on, from karaoke to tango dancing. It helped distract him, if only for a moment, from the constant presence of military vehicles, armed guards and arm drills.
* * *
The first time Chris skyped Jolene from Lego Land, she could read the shell-shock on his face. He held it together for the kids as they bounced around the kitchen, making funny faces and telling him about their days. But when he was alone with Jolene, his face filled her laptop screen with a blank stare and not many words.
“I could tell he was scared, afraid to be there,” she said. “I think it’s what he expected, but you can prep for it all you want, and until you’re there you just don’t know.”
For the first five weeks, Jolene continued to worry about him. Chris was always one to internalize, keeping things to himself that he thought might upset her or the kids. Jolene knew there were things he was leaving unsaid.
She wished they could go on one of their runs along the Vedder Trail, where he’d often open up.
In one conversation, he told her he could hear suicide bombers detonating themselves on the streets outside.
Stuff like that is why she didn’t want to watch the news. She didn’t want to turn on CNN and have her heart skip a beat every time an anchor said, ‘And in Afghanistan today...’
So she tried to put it out of her mind. She was busy enough that it worked, most of the time.
She made the breakfasts, lunches, snacks and dinners. Soooo much cooking. Chris was a great cook.
She took kids here and there. A hockey tournament in Penticton. Those 6 a.m. practices at Twin Rinks.
She changed light-bulbs. When did her house get so many lights and why were they all burning out now?
Caylin was really sad. The concept of a year was a tough one for a seven year old to grasp, and Jolene found herself answering the same question over and over.
“Is Daddy coming home today?”
“Oh. Is Daddy coming home next week?”
“Oh. When is Daddy coming home?”
The first three months were the toughest. Crying at night because there was no bedtime story with Daddy. Crying on the weekend because there was no date with Daddy. For her benefit, Chris and Jolene tried to separate the year into smaller segments.
“We tried to break it down with the visits,” she explained. “We told her, ‘Daddy’s coming home in this many days.’ Little bits of baby steps. She’s Daddy’s little girl and she missed him a lot. But she learned to deal with it a bit better.”
Jolene adapted to. Because she had to, she learned how to change those light-bulbs and do all the other things she never concerned herself with before.
“It’s funny because I don’t want to say I thought this year was going to be miserable but I knew it was going to be tough,” she said. “It’s ended up being awesome in a way, learning how to do everything and become more independent. It’s been a real eye-opener. But I can’t wait until he’s back and he can start cooking again.”
* * *
Work was therapeutic for the denizens of Lego Land. Confined to base with little else to do, Chris dove into his job.
Each night, he’d meet with his team to formulate a mission plan for the next day. Where were they going? What route were they taking? Who were they going to talk to? What were the security concerns?
At the crack of dawn the next morning, he’d be up for a briefing before heading out. Leaving the base, or ‘going outside the wire,’ was an uber-stressful process. After heavy consultation, some missions were delayed or scrapped due to road issues or threats to the convoy.
Chris could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief some days when they were told to stay put, because once they were outside the wire, they were a target.
Movements sometimes took just 15 minutes, but he spent the entire time on the edge of his seat, looking for anything out of the ordinary. No talking. Just watching. The convoys went through some of Kabul’s roughest areas, with locals chucking rocks or ripping the mirrors off the vehicles. The convoys rolled through several fully-armed checkpoints, a popular target for insurgents.
Any time anyone unusual approached the convoy, Chris could hear his heart pounding in his chest. Always on alert, never able to let his guard down, his anxiety level was ratcheted up the entire time he was in Afghanistan.
In early 2013, Chris and his team were scheduled to visit an off-base sight. They’d eaten breakfast there the previous day.
On this morning, 40 minutes prior to their arrival, it came under heavy attack. For six hours, insurgents laid siege to it. Retreating back to base, Chris couldn’t stop himself from thinking, ‘They attack one hour later and I’m there...’
* * *
Kabul is more than 3,500 years old.
Fourteen years ago, before everything truly hit the fan, the city’s infrastructure could keep 800,000 people moving about with reasonable efficiency. During and after the fall of the Taliban, that infrastructure took a beating. At the same time, millions who were living in the outer provinces made their way to the Afghanistan capital, seeking refuge from the fighting.
The population swelled too quickly for anyone to keep count.
By this year, Chris was hearing reports it had hit 6,000,000.
Imagine plunking an extra 4,000,000 people into Vancouver, and the chaos it could create. Put aside traffic issues for a moment and consider instead overtaxed electrical grids and plumbing systems. Inadequate food supply. Garbage piling up in the streets and a government too overwhelmed to do much about it.
Chris’s main concern coming to Afghanistan was traffic. When he first traveled the streets of Kabul, he couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing. Without functioning traffic lights, cars and bicycles darted this way and that like children after a Halloween sugar binge. Sirens and horns blared constantly and livestock roamed freely on the city streets. Imagine a herd of goats taking a leisurely stroll down the middle of Vedder Road at the busiest time of the day.
He was looking at that times a thousand.
Licensed to operate the armored vehicles used in the convoy, Chris adopted a driving style he dubbed ‘aggressive nice.’
“Aggressive, to make sure the convoy never got divided,” he explained. “And nice by smiling and waving while the locals flipped us the bird.”
On one trip outside the walls of Camp Eggers, Chris found his convoy stuck behind a mid-sized sedan. He was stunned as the driver got out, and let another seven people out of the car. “The driver is one. Two. Three. Four,” Chris counted in disbelief. “Five. Six. Seven. Eight!”
Just when he thought he was done, the driver let another two out of the trunk.
* * *
In the middle of Kabul’s traffic chaos stood completely ineffective Afghan police officers, waving hand paddles to and fro, trying to bring sense to this senseless mess.
It was Chris’s job to train them.
Supervising a team of three advisers, his mission was to help build functional and sustainable traffic departments.
To do so, he required the cooperation of the ANP, the Afghanistan National Police. Early on, he encountered resistance from locals who didn’t want them there, and didn’t hesitate to show it. Chris and his team took a measured approach, trying their best to avoid the perception of ‘Western’ influence. But there were times when the thought snuck into his mind, ‘Why am I helping you?”
But he pushed it aside, reminding himself that theirs was an occupied country, resentment was only natural and he had committed himself to this place and its people.
For those receptive to help, the next stumbling block was communication.
Chris found many ANP officers to be illiterate, most of them lucky if they could read or write at a Grade 3 level. Though interpreters were present at every meeting and training session, the back-and-forth between teacher and students was tedious.
It was the hardest thing he’d ever done, requiring tremendous amounts of patience. But when the message was sent and understood, when the ANP officers grasped a concept, it was also the most rewarding.
Finding a place to train them was, maybe, the biggest task of all.
A building had to be big enough to host a large group, preferably with heat, electricity and running water. Most importantly, it had to be secure.
That building that was attacked by insurgents? That was supposed to host a training session that Chris had spent months planning.
It literally went up in smoke.
Still, Chris and his team persevered.
In February, they successfully guided a class through a three-week logistics course, graduating every one. There were more successes in the months that followed. By the end, Chris could see tangible results and proudly find his fingerprints on a rebuilding country.
* * *
Chris knew his tour of duty was coming to an end because of steaks.
Every Friday at Camp Eggers was steak night, and he used it as a countdown. Forty eight steaks to go. 30. 23. 17. 12.
There was a lot he couldn’t wait to leave, a lot he would spend the next few years trying very hard to forget. But there was a lot he wanted to remember too. Spend 12 months anywhere and it becomes your home.
As flawed as it was, Chris saw the beauty beyond the devastation.
Above the rubble loom magnificent mountains. Kuhe-e Wayse Qarni Baba rises 11,125 feet into the sky. Chakari Ghar is just three feet shorter, and there are three more peaks topping 10,000 feet. The country has a surprising amount of green space, rivers and lakes. It is not the barren wasteland we picture in our minds.
Most memorable though is the architecture.
The Darul Aman, or King’s, Palace was built in the 1920s, set on fire in 1969 and again in 1978. In the early 1990s, heavy shelling by the Mujahideen left it in ruins. The Tajbeg, or Queen’s, Palace tells a similar tale. Sitting less than a mile away, it was built at the same time to house the Afghanistan royal family.
It too has been heavily damaged. Both overlook Kabul, and Chris could picture them in their former splendour. At the same time, he remembered the research he did before leaving Canada, seeing pictures of Afghanistan women in white dresses and men in cowboy hats. Prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979, the country was modern and western.
In a small way, he hopes he’s helped to set it back on that path.
And maybe one day he’ll return and see those palaces rebuilt, Kabul thriving and the Afghanistan people happy and content.
Until then, his true home calls to him.
* * *
Chris shipped out in late November of last year, and spent Christmas in Kabul.
The weather cooperated, coating the city with a fresh coat of white snow. Until it turned to slush, and then mud, it made everything look fresh and new. Chris and his Canadian comrades walked around in short sleeves, drawing stares from their international counterparts.
Chris told some Mongolian soldiers, all of them bundled up in layers of clothing, that Canadian people are born with anti-freeze in their blood.
“I think they believed me!” he laughed.
Last year, Christmas was done over Skype, the first time in 12 years wasn’t with his wife and kids. If the timing was bad then, it’s great now. After a stopover in Germany to debrief and decompress, Chris will head home, arriving just time to enjoy the holiday season.
And he returns feeling he’s already been given a great gift.
“I came here thinking I was going to help change others, but the reality is I’m the one who changed in the end,” he said. “I have been humbled and I’ve grown to appreciate the little things. I hope to pass this on to my children.”