By Rick Kurelo
As Canada’s mission in Afghanistan has come to a close, Rick Kurelo’s new memoir, Firefight, sheds light on his experiences as a Canadian PSYOPS specialist in Kandahar in 2008 and 2009.
Like many who served, Kurelo was injured by an IED while on patrol. Following his recovery, he finished his tour before returning home to Canada, where he was awarded the Sacrifice Medal.
After struggling to reintegrate into civilian life, Kurelo was diagnosed with PTSD. Thanks to prescribed medical care, he has been progressing well and is a strong advocate of mental health services for those suffering operational stress injuries.
Firefight also includes stories of Kurelo’s tour to Bosnia with SFOR in 2001; his early career with the Canadian Airborne Regiment; experiences as a reservist with the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada; and twenty-three years service as a professional firefighter with Oshawa Fire Services.
Excerpt from Firefight:
A different kind of warfare (Bosnia)
In the army, they say that you should never be first, never be last, and never volunteer. I went against that last piece of advice and volunteered to run an armed services radio program in Bosnia. It changed the direction of my military career in unpredictable ways.
I went to Banja Luka, in the northern part of the country, to attend a radio broadcasting course run by retired British Army Captain David Bailey. Capt. Bailey had previous experience running radio stations in England and combined this with his military expertise to establish Oksigen FM. Oksigen was a multi-cultural, youth-focused station that allowed us to communicate directly with local residents.
Following this training, three of us - including Duska, our Serbo-Croat interpreter, a radio operator and I - ran the station for four months. We played Canadian and Bosnian music as well as other content, and the idea was to establish rapport and a level of trust with the local population. With control over even a small portion of the airwaves, we could begin to influence public perceptions of our role there.
The radio station was housed in an old, bombed-out building in Kupres. We had just enough power and equipment to get on the air. Although headquarters dictated some of the content, we had a lot of autonomy in deciding what to play in both English and Serbo-Croat. I enjoyed it, and felt we were doing interesting and important work.
Little did I know then that this would affect my life six years later when the new Canadian Forces Psychological Warfare Operations (PSYOPS) unit was being formed. Thanks to this previous experience, I was asked to consider applying and was accepted.
During the months that we operated our shoestring radio station, Duska, and I had lots of time to get to know one another.
Duska was in her twenties and was trilingual, speaking English, Serbo-Croat and German. She had become a NATO interpreter, was a valuable asset, and was paid very well.
She told me stories of what it was like during the war as a teenager – stories of such brutality and inhumanity that would horrify even the most hardened of us. She had experienced things that no child, or adult, ever should.
Fortunately she had family in Germany and had been able to go there to attend university.
Duska asked me about life in Canada. Based on all the positive things she had heard, from me as well as from others, she said emigrating was something she might consider down the road.
One night we were sitting together in the bombed-out “station,” accompanied by a stray dog we had rescued. Sitting in the dark and eating our limited army rations, I asked her, “Duska, what on earth are you doing here? With your skills and education, you could go anywhere to live. Why stay, especially after what you’ve experienced?”
I expected to hear that she had no other options, or that NATO paid so well for translators that she couldn’t refuse.
What she said was, “Rick, it’s my duty to stay. I love my country and I want to do what I can to help rebuild it.”
She told me that despite the horrors she had endured, she was willing to risk her life to help save her homeland. I could not help but be inspired by such devotion to a cause that was much bigger than her.
The people you meet (Afghanistan)
I was part of a small, unique group of PSYOPS specialists in Afghanistan, which was not attached to a specific unit or base. During my tour I would receive individual orders geared to support specific operational needs in our area of responsibility. I often found myself arriving by helicopter at different forward operating bases (FOB) throughout Kandahar province. Due to this variety of roles and locations, I met a lot of different people, both military and civilian.
At one FOB, there was quite a mixed group that included soldiers, medics, nurses, aid workers and journalists. With so many of us living under one roof, it was inevitable that the stories – whether from the front lines or from back home – would start to fly.
It was the middle of the night and I had long since given up the idea of a solid night’s sleep. Due to the frequent attacks, or the threat of them, two hours of sleep was about all I could get.
A bunch of us were gathered at the back of the base. Some American aid workers had just arrived and were going to be with us for a while, so we struck up a conversation. About twelve of us sat around in a circle of plastic chairs and went through the basics: why the area was so dangerous; what to do in case of attack; medical procedures and protocol; and other information vital to survival in the desert warzone.
Even in the dead of night, the heat was oppressive. I spent half of the conversation just trying to stay comfortable, wiping sweat from my face and neck. I didn’t turn in when the others began plodding off as the evening wore on.
One young aid worker also remained and we started talking about his life in the United States. He told me about his mom and dad, and how much he missed them. He choked a little on the word “family,” and even though I couldn’t see his eyes in the dark, I knew he was fighting back tears.
He took a deep breath. “At least I can see them on Skype,” he said.
Skype had become important overseas. The technology enabled us to see, and not just hear, our loved ones back home. The signal wasn’t always the best and homesickness and heartbreak were common side effects, but being able to communicate with loved ones was an indispensable lifeline.
He nodded as if agreeing with himself. He was trying to put a positive spin on things, but it was obvious that even Skype was a poor substitute for seeing his family in person.
I told him more about life in country and we smoked and talked until the sun came up.
At last, he stood up and stretched. We both walked inside and stood next to each other to shave. He was visibly becoming excited about going out into the field and making a difference in people’s lives.
“There have been soldiers in my family,” he said, “but I’ve never been one myself. It’s a rush to be heading out to the front.”
I wondered if I had ever sounded that enthusiastic to people who had been in a warzone before me. He told me he was looking forward to doing the work he had come here to do and was anxious to get to his 8:00 security briefing.
“It’s a great thing we’re doing, isn’t it?” he asked as he rinsed his razor in a bucket of water. “I mean for the people here and for the people back home. We have a chance to make a real difference in the world.” He smiled. “I’m doing this for my family, you know.”
I splashed some water on my face and grabbed a towel from the rack. “Hey, that’s probably about the best reason to do anything.”
He laughed. We shook hands and I wished him luck.
“Keep your head up,” I said.
Three hours later, we were notified that a convoy carrying some of the aid workers had hit an IED and there were multiple casualties. The convoy was speeding back to the base for medical assistance. When they arrived, we set up a triage unit where we stabilized the injured and transported the more seriously wounded by Medevac to the nearest hospital.
By the time we had sorted through the chaos, there were three dead. Sadly, one of the deceased was the young man I had stayed up with the previous night.
Just a few hours earlier he’d been laughing, smoking and opening up about how he wanted to make a difference in Afghanistan. The sad and brutal truth out there was that IEDs struck indiscriminately - no matter who you were or what role you played.
Girl in the desert (Afghanistan)
We were patrolling beyond our remote FOB when we rolled into a small village to follow up on reports of Taliban activity.
As I climbed down from our RG-31 mine vehicle, a little girl hobbled over to me and stretched up her hand to offer me a small blue flower. I knelt down, accepted the flower and offered her some candy in return. She took it with both hands, smiled and limped ahead of me into the village where her father scooped her up in his arms.
I approached the man and asked why his daughter was limping. In Pashto, he told me that she had stepped on a buried explosive, which had destroyed her leg. He lifted the bottom of the girl’s dress to show me her crude wooden prosthetic limb. It was little more than a short shaft of untreated wood with two leather straps and a small buckle to secure it to the girl’s leg.
“I made it myself,” he said proudly.
I explained that we might be able to find a prosthesis that would fit her better. After I provided a bit more information, he agreed and so I told him we would do everything in our power to get his daughter a prosthetic leg. I stopped short of making a promise because, in Afghanistan, if you promise and don’t follow through, you lose all credibility.
Back at Kandahar Airfield, I went through the necessary chain of command looking for a way to get a prosthesis sent over from Canada. The amount of required paperwork was astounding. Fortunately, I’d hit a window of time where I was needed there for briefings, so I was also able to fill out the requisition forms and make the necessary phone calls.
Four weeks later, a helicopter arrived with medical supplies. Among the boxes were a wheelchair and a child-sized prosthetic leg. We transported the chair and the artificial limb to our FOB by helicopter then drove them to the village. As we presented them to him, the father hugged us, cried, and said we had saved his daughter’s life. The little girl peeked out from behind his robes.
I dropped to one knee. “They’re for you,” I said in Pashto.
With her father’s encouragement, she limped toward me and ran her small hand along the smooth curves of the shiny chair and the new leg. I showed them how the leg would fit and then she tried it out. Their smiles said it all.
A few days later, we were back in the village on patrol so I made a point to stop in to see how the little girl was doing. As I approached their home, her father came outside and clapped his hands with delight.
“She is such a happy little girl now,” he said. “She can get water in the morning and she moves around without pain.”
I told him that we were glad to help. It was our job to make life there better, not worse, like it must seem sometimes.
The grateful man thanked us a dozen times. When I turned to leave, at last, he grabbed my arm and turned me back around. He looked into my eyes for a long time, like he was searching for just the right words. I thought he was going to thank me again and I put up my hands to indicate he had already thanked us enough.
Instead, he took a deep breath, then whispered, “Do not take the left path today, sir.”
At first, I thought I had not heard him correctly, but he squeezed my arm, and repeated, “Do not take the left path.” I confirmed my understanding with a nod.
There were two paths that we normally travelled to get to and from the village. More often than not, we took the shorter left path to get back to the FOB. When I returned to our convoy, I told the driver what the man had said. We took the right path and it turned out to be the right path in more ways than one. We later learned that the Taliban had been in the village days earlier, systematically burying mines along the other route.
As we had experienced many times before, by showing our compassion and helping the little girl, we had likely saved our own lives. There is no question in my mind that the kindness that human beings show one another is by far more powerful, and with longer lasting effects, than all the weapons in the world will ever be.
Firefight, is a compilation of ninety-seven stories and forty-five photos that span Rick Kurelo’s experiences with the Canadian Forces and Oshawa Fire Services. Published by FriesenPress, Firefight is available at FriesenPress.com, Amazon, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other booksellers. Contact Rick Kurelo at firefight2014.com or @firefight2014.