BREAKING DOWN THE MYTHS OF WHAT OUR SOLIDERS ENDURE OVERSEAS AND AT HOME
(originally published Nov. 4/2008)
Dawn had barley broken, but the sun was already blazing, turning the air as dry as the cracked dirt underfoot. Cpl. Mitch Messom was fresh back from leave, ready to start what he thought would be an ordinary day- at least as ordinary as patrolling the Afghanistan desert can be. It turned out to be anything but.
“A few days before, other members of my company had got caught in a big firefight in that area, and as we headed out I was told to expect something,” Messom said. “I shrugged it off, thinking they were just pulling my leg, convinced that it would be a normal day.”
That conviction was shattered quickly, along with the morning’s silence, as one of their tanks hit a mine en route. It barely put a dent in the armor, but more shots were fired before their enemies in the distance scurried off.
After waiting a beat they moved in, and began their patrol. Messom and the others left their vehicles and marched along the streets for an hour without incident. But when they reached an intersection, Messom could see a figure pop up over a wall in the distance, and raise a rifle.
Their enemy’s shots sprayed everywhere, peppering the walls with deafening snaps, as Messom and his squad dove for cover.
“At that point I got a big jump of adrenalin,” Messom said. “You get tunnel vision for a second, and you have to fight that back before you can clearly look around. Everything happens so quickly, everything speeds up.”
Messom jumped, firing a few pot shots in their attacker’s direction. Then he fired a grenade that he knew was off mark, in hopes of discouraging the enemy as much as hitting him. A few frantic heartbeats later, Messom realized it was all over- their enemy had left, leaving them with only the echos of missed gunshots.
He said people back home don’t understand the fact that combat is so scattered. “It’s hard to tell how much danger you’re in, because the enemy just shoots, they don’t often aim.”
Born and raised in Kentville, Nova Scotia, Messom joined the reserves and went to Afghanistan in February of 2006. He fought there for six months, before coming back to St. Thomas to finish his arts degree. He’s now in his fourth year.
When he arrived back in the Maritimes, Messom realized another misconception people had- that soldiers are on the front lines, risking their lives, every moment of every single day during wartime.
“The biggest enemy over in Afghanistan is boredom,” Messom said. “It’s like a bait and pull- they choose when they want to fight.”
He said in between those patrols, he and his fellow soliders had allot of time on their hands. From dawn, when the heat grows too unbearable to sleep, they read, play video games, and take potshots at each other.
“You complain with each other, you debate and argue, then you make fun of each other,” he said with a slight grin.
“Sometimes, you get so bored you start reading the ingredients of everything you eat,” he said, chuckling. “You become a bit of a food expert. I became a big fan of crackers because they have 25% of my sodium, things like that.”
“Then you might go on patrol for a few hours, and nothing happens. And then you might go on patrol the next day, and find yourself diving for cover for your life. It’s all very uneven, very unpredictable.”
He said one of the biggest things that has been misconstrued is Hollywood’s depiction of shell shocked soldiers. That was something Messom and his comrades didn’t go through- for them, it was much more subtle than that.
“Most guys have to play what we call the ‘Where’s my rifle?’ game,” he said. For his first few weeks back home, Messom would feel a pang every time he left a room because of his empty hands.
“You sleep with your rifle oversees, it’s always in hand’s reach, always loaded,” he said. When he was at home, he would get brief bits jolts of anxiety because, suddenly, it wasn’t in reach. “But then it would take three seconds to snap out of it, and realize I don’t need it anymore.”
Cpl. Dave Lautard trained with Messom and served in Afghanistan during the same tour. But they never served side by side- Lautard worked in convoy force protection, in huge armored vehicles that escorted smaller vehicles between the bases.
He said that after the tour was over, the soldiers went to Cypress (an island in the Mediterranean) for decompression briefings.
“They had qualified people there, some that had dealt with post traumatic stress themselves, to help us unwind and know any difficulties we could expect,” he said.
“Another thing that helped, once we got back to Canada, is we were placed with the same people we were over there serving with,” Lautard said. “That way we could adjust to being back together at first. It wasn’t that difficult at all, nothing dramatic that you might see in movies or TV.”
Messom said big crowds can also make soldiers uneasy when they come back home. “When you’re in Afghanistan, you’re always keeping your distance from big groups of people for safety’s sake” he said. “The closest group of people you get to are the people in your section. You know each other, but unknown crowds can make any of us a little antsy. When I was back home that took me like, a week to shake.”
But he said the biggest misconception people have back home, especially during this time of year, is the meaning of Remembrance Day itself. He said it’s the one holiday Canadians have left that isn’t rotted by commercialization, but that many of us treat it as an ordinary long weekend.
“You can take Remembrance Day as an anti-war message and that’s fine” Messom said. “But we treat it like a holiday, and it shouldn’t be another day to go drinking. I think it’s a day for everyone to reflect.”
“I think people need to remember that, ever since Canada became a country, we’ve had our forces deployed all over the world to serve,” Lautard said. “It’s a huge part of who we are as a country.”
“People think Remembrance day is about glorifying the army,” Messom said. “I think it’s about remembering how hellish war can be.