Dust swirled around the Ford Ranger as it hurtled down the road at twilight, the blue paint the sole colour in the desert moonscape.
It was two days after Christmas and 33-year-old Chris McArdle, far from his Mission home, was heading for dinner with his friend Corrina, glad to be in the company of another British Columbian.
There was no sound or warning. The vehicle was violently showered with rocks, then screeched to a halt.
They only had a moment to turn to one another in confusion when the alarm sounded.
“Rocket attack. Rocket attack.”
The tinny, eerily calm voice recording came over the loudspeakers.
Chris floored the gas pedal as he scanned the road for the familiar 12-foot high, two-foot thick, steel-reinforced concrete blast barriers behind which to hide.
Pulling in behind the first one he found, Chris and Corrina spent the next two minutes in adrenaline fueled anticipation, neither speaking, their senses on high alert.As the tension subsided, the two decided it was safe enough to continue to dinner.
It was just another work day in Kandahar Airfield (KAF), Afghanistan.
Chris spent a year working as a civilian dispatcher for SNC Lavalin in Kandahar and, like many other Canadians, he spent the entire time “behind the wire.”
His journey to Afghanistan was a bit of a fluke. He had been living in Mission and working as a dispatcher in Surrey and wanted something different than the usual “nine-to-five” job. He started looking in places like the Fort McMurray oil sands, when he came across a newspaper ad for Kandahar.
Following some training in Ontario, he flew by civilian airplane to Afghanistan on May 20, 2010.
There isn’t anything that can prepare a civilian to end up in a place like that, says Chris.
His second night on the base was the first time the Taliban launched a coordinated rocket attack followed by a ground assault on KAF.
“Real nice way to say welcome to Kandahar,” he said, chuckling softly, then getting serious. “Never being in that kind of situation before, it was kind of scary, to say the least.”
Since civilians aren’t in a chain of command, Chris says it’s sometimes hard to know what to do, other than duck and search for a bunker.
Bringing a piece of home was important to Chris. Before he left for Afghanistan, he was given the District of Mission flag from Coun. Paul Horn. That flag ended up going with soldiers into a Canadian Chinook, which later became the first Canadian helicopter used as a medevac in the war.
Typically, Chris would work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week, as a rental coordinator and dispatcher for civilian vehicles on the base.
And although he couldn’t leave the base to meet Afghans, he dealt with those who came to maintain the vehicles. Chris says civilian workers are taught about Muslim culture before leaving, so they are better prepared for the Afghans’ customs.
He would talk to them, get to know about their family, their lives, and even help in small ways if he could.
He wouldn’t offer handouts, but did take their money to buy food or medicine for them that wasn’t available off base.
Afghans showed him respect and were interested in Canadian culture, including the popular Tim Hortons on base.
With Internet access, Chris says it was easy to keep up to date with news back home.
“Myself, every day I was looking on The Mission Record website, just to see what was going on in town.”
But he says he would read Canadian news articles about Afghanistan and it almost seemed biased and one-sided. He seldom read about the good things he knew first-hand were happening, such as schools being built, supplies brought in for children, roads being built, and Afghans making better lives for themselves.
“But you always heard about the death and destruction.”
Chris was in the Tim Hortons lineup one day, and ended up speaking to a Canadian soldier who a few weeks later, fell in combat.
It was hard to accept at first, but people sometimes die in a war zone, he says.
“It’s unfortunate, but if you keep dwelling on it you’re not going to be of any use.”
Despite casualties, he said morale was always high in KAF, and that was no different among the civilian workers.
Chris says the biggest event on base was Canada Day, exceeding even July 4 celebrations. Civilians and soldiers alike were given Molson Canadian beer and treated to a live music concert, which was interrupted by a rocket attack, and Chris wound up sitting in a bunker with soldiers.
The day wasn’t ruined. One of the soldiers had a guitar and began strumming Eagles’ music.
“We were singing Hotel California and drinking beer. I didn’t even think I was in Afghanistan.”
Now that Chris is back, he appreciates life more, and is taking the time to savour the comforts and safety of home.
“You get so used to life over there, and you come back here and wonder what people are complaining about.”
Even though Canada has ended its military commitment to Afghanistan, Chris says the people he spoke to there thanked him for the country’s contribution.
“I firmly believe that what has happened in Afghanistan must continue for the people.”
He says generations of Afghans have never seen peace — something many Canadians take for granted — and known nothing but terror and murder. But Canada’s commitment has always been a balance of fighting enemies and humanitarianism.
“I’m not a politician, but you know what? When I see a human being is suffering, we need to help.”