Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On meeting a young warrior...

Last Friday (20 November) I was invited to attend a function of the Veterans UN/NATO Canada military association, of which I am a member. The occasion was the investiture of our three newest members. The three, Mcpl. Michael Trauner (3 RCR), Cpl. William Kerr (2 Bn., The Irish Regiment of Canada) and Cpl. Andrew Knisley (1 RCR), were young Canadian soldiers who had been seriously wounded while serving in Afghanistan. As we arrived at the Les Suites Ottawa Hotel, we were informed that due to personal reasons, Mcpl. Trauner and Cpl. Knisley would be unable to attend.

This was a bit of a let-down for the vets gathered there and we felt badly for these two young warriors. As if these two didn't have enough to deal with in their lives already. Nonetheless, we were honoured and privileged to have Cpl. Bill Kerr and his lovely wife Tracy join us. About 30 members has gathered for this event and they had traveled from Qu├ębec City, Montreal, Gatineau/Hull, Sudbury and other points, just to be there.

Cpl. Bill Kerr Cpl Bill Kerr joined the Irish Regiment of Canada in 2003. In 2005 he volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan and after deploying in 2006, returned to Sudbury in the spring of 2007. Shortly after his return to Sudbury, he volunteered again to deploy overseas, and began his pre-deployment training before the Afghan sand was even out of his kit.

After deploying again in September 2008 on this his FOURTH rotation or Roto as they're referred to, he was critically wounded while on foot patrol. On 15 October 2008, he and his team were investigating a house in a small Afghan village. Cpl. Kerr was the fourth man through the door. As he entered, the Taliban remotely detonated a concealed IED. Cpl. Kerr lost both legs and a portion of his left arm. He cheated death and survived his injuries, no doubt thanks to the medics on-scene and CF medical staff at the Base Hospital in Kandahar. He was subsequently evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany and from there he was transferred to the Rehab Centre here in Ottawa, where he has been recovering since.

Cpl. William Kerr proposed to his girlfriend Tracy Faye Lachance of Sudbury, as he lay in a hospital bed in Ottawa. She accepted. I find this speaks volumes not only for the type of person that Mrs. Kerr must be, but of the quantity and quality of the love that these two so obviously have for one another. They original plan was for them to get married when Bill returned from his tour. It was supposed to be a quick escape to Vegas on 09/09/09. But plans have a way of changing... Life has a way of intruding on you. Nobody could have foreseen this...

There are some who claim that she is the reason he came out of it. Being an incurable romantic at heart, I have no problem believing this. Their wedding took place this summer (2009) in Thunder Bay, Kerr's hometown.

CBC Newsperson Laurie Graham had the opportunity to meet Cpl. Bill Kerr and some of his wingers, as she was imbedded with Canadian troops in Afghanistan in 2006.

She posted the following in her CBC online blog: Kandahar Dispatches.

First convoy run
Thursday, December 21, 2006 02:46 PM ET
By Laurie Graham

My camera operator, Al Lawrence and I have to take a convoy with the Canadian military. It’s not supposed to be a long trip, just a jaunt from A to B. I can’t tell you where A begins and B ends, but suffice it to say, we are in southern Afghanistan.

This is not Al’s first trip in a convoy, but it is mine and I’m a little anxious. When I agreed to come to Afghanistan, it was the “convoy” that made me nervous. There have been so many reports of roadside bombings that it scared me to think of driving in one, but there really is no other way to get around.

As we get into our vehicle, we’re told the trip will take only an hour and a half. We get in the back with four soldiers: Corporal Jason Walter, Corporal Lee Willcocks, Corporal Billy Kerr and Corporal John Makela. They’re a Force Protection Unit and their job is to protect convoys. They’ve driven in dozens. In fact, they told me that by the end of their tour in February, they think they’ll hit the hundred mark. I’m thrilled. I figure if I have to take a convoy, these are the guys I want protecting me.

They immediately put me at ease. We start talking about life in the military. They tell me they are reservists which means they don’t actually have to be here, and yet here they are. We talk about the things they miss from home, food and how nice it would be to have a cold beer. "Just one," they say. (Canada runs a "dry" camp which means soldiers go months without a drink.) The conversation is easy and it really helps take my mind off where I am… cramped into the back of a Light Armoured Vehicle.

Then, out of nowhere, we stop. I don’t say anything, but I’m thinking, did something happen up ahead? Did one of the vehicles get hit? The next thing I know, the back hatch opens and a soldier outside starts giving orders. The guys I’m chatting with suddenly jump into "soldier" mode." They get out, secure the perimeter and start yelling, "left side clear, right side clear." They seem pretty calm, Al is okay and on the outside I am too, but inside, I’m thinking… "!#%*" my worst nightmare has come true… we’re stuck on the middle of a road in southern Afghanistan, like a giant bull's-eye.

Then, soldiers start talking on their headsets and within minutes we find out that the second vehicle in our convoy has broken down: a fuel line problem. "It’s not uncommon," the soldiers say. They remain in the ready position with their weapons in hand, looking for anything suspicious, watching vehicles in the distance to make sure they’re not driving toward the convoy. We wait. And we wait. And we wait. I watch the soldiers who are standing beside the convoy of vehicles and I think, "what if something happens, what would I do?" Then, we get word that another convoy is on the way and it could take about 90-minutes before it arrives.

Our Force Protection friends are fine. They’re pretty relaxed. They keep spelling each other off so that while we wait, there is always one of them inside with us.

In the end, it took more than 90 minutes, but after a while I stopped counting. I even stopped worrying. These four reservists from Ontario put me at ease, helped me get over my fear of driving in a convoy and more than anything else, made me feel safe. When we arrived at our destination, we all shook hands and said good-bye and I thought to myself, "I may never see them again, but I will never forget them."

For those of us who were there to welcome Cpl. Bill Kerr and his wife Tracy into our family, it was a sobering, emotional and uplifting moment. We inducted MCpl. Trauner and Cpl. Knisley 'in absentia'. They will receive their vests, crests and medals at a formal ceremony, to be conducted at a later date in Petawawa. There are few words to describe young men like Billy Kerr, Michael Trauner and Andrew Knisley, and yet it is people like them that fill our ranks.

As King Henry V said in his address to his troops, before the Battle of Agincourt:

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day."

The link below will take you to the Veterans UN/NATO Canada website, which contains pictures of the presentation:


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