David Winney | Nov 04, 2015

“He has seen the elephant,” Old soldiers, during the Civil War, coined this phrase for green troops who had survived their first taste of battle.

December 2003, 0600 hours, Camp Julian, Afghanistan: At 58 years old, the oldest Major in NATO to serve in a combat zone plods up the hill to the huge tent-type shelter that serves as the gym. Someone with no respect for rank is on my stair climber. A long haired guy. Begrudgingly, I take a machine beside Mr. Tom Cochrane, an aging Canadian rock star who is with the Rick Mercer show tour. They’ll be in camp for about 10 days and then go home just before Xmas. A great show.

I’m not a huge fan of celebrities. We don’t live in the same worlds. But these particular celebrities have volunteered their time to entertain our troops. I had heard Mercer tell the story that when he called Tom to convince him to join the tour, Tom’s only comment was “When do we leave?” …….I engage the rocker in conversation.

Tom is obviously delighted to be here. He talks about missing his deceased father and then he heaps huge praise on our young soldiers. Mentions how they are motivated, intelligent, and inspiring. He speaks of their dedication, courage and their strong sense of humanity. …… I like this guy!

January 27, 2004, Camp Julian: I blow past the sentries, at the camp gates, in a Pajero, civilian pattern SUV, filled with officers and a couple Colonel equivalent civilians. My #2 is Capt Dave Parker, and he is at the wheel. We’re trying to catch up to a convoy that has just recently departed. A procedural glitch held me up but I’m sure we can catch the convoy within a mile or two at most.

Unknown to me, at the time, I’m also racing to witness the events that will comprise a ballad that Tom Cochrane doesn’t yet realize he’s about to write. A song called “Rough and Tumble” and featuring Corporal Brendan Murphy (born in 1977 in Newfoundland, and died on Jan 27, 2004 “in a dusty road in Kabul.”) In his song, Tom will allude to the character required to be a soldier.

We’re about a mile outside the wire and expecting to see the tail end of the convoy at any minute. Then, in an instant, the whole day went pear shaped. Even though we’re inside the vehicle we feel the sudden, violent concussion and then we see a plume of smoke up ahead. I look at Dave and we know exactly what has happened. Dave drops the hammer and I pull out my handgun, rack it, safety on, round up the spout.

Within a minute, we pass a civilian bus on the left. Windows blown out, still smoking and a couple bodies still inside. Then we come upon the tail end vehicle of the convoy. Carnage all around! Body parts of the suicide bomber, that didn’t get vaporized, strewn about. A pink mist settled over ground zero and Cpl Murphy facing backwards in the driver side jump seat, still strapped into the seat harness of the non-armoured Iltis Jeep (the last time this class of vehicle was ever used in a combat mission): Corporal Murphy was dead!

Not a day goes by that people like us don’t relive these kinds of scenes. Sometimes in slow motion, sometimes, just fragments. There is no doubt that if I had caught the convoy, my vehicle with senior officers would have been the more attractive target. A young man would still be alive.

As has so often happened to many other soldiers, with only days left in my last mission and my career for that matter, the guy from Connaught Hill immediately qualifies as poster boy for survivor guilt.

On this coming Nov 11, as the first strains of the bugle playing the Last Post can be heard, war veterans will start to imperceptibly, internally, spin out of control. Jaws will tighten, their stance will noticeably stiffen rigidly to attention as they pay respect to comrades not present. You’ll almost be able to hear their minds, at warp speed, returning to some of their own experiences.

The killing grounds of Iran/Iraq, the ubiquitous minefields and mass grave sites of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Kosovo, and the dusty streets of Kabul and Kandahar.

You won’t be able to feel the turmoil the vets feel during the minute of silence. You won’t see the faces or hear the sounds they’re hearing. Sometimes they’re even convinced that the smells of those horrific events come back to them but normally that only happens at night when the demons come to call.

They have seen the elephant!

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