By T. Robert Fowler
Psychological operations. Military commanders throughout history have used psychology to overcome their enemy’s will to fight. Over 2000 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Sun Tsu wrote “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” It is only recently, however, that armies have established units specifically tasked with carrying out operations to influence the attitudes of both the enemy’s fighting force and the affected civilian population by using the most advanced communications techniques available. This is PSYOPS.
The need for such a capability in the Canadian military became more apparent following years of experience in conflicts labelled as peacekeeping missions. As a result, Lieutenant General Rick Hillier ordered the army to develop its own PSYOPS capability. In January 2004 the first training course was held in the Montreal area, creating a cadre for future operations. Thus, when Canada was given responsibility for Kandahar province in 2006, the Canadian military was able to form and deploy its first PSYOPS unit.
One of the local soldiers to qualify on the first course was Corporal François (Franck) Dupéré, a member of the Royal 22e Régiment’s 4th Battalion, a reserve unit in his hometown of Laval, Quebec. Franck readily took to the novel approaches needed for a PSYOPS operator – he was sociable, could easily relate to others and was open to new ideas. He was ready to volunteer to go to Afghanistan when Operation Athena II was announced, and in August 2007 he landed In Kandahar Airfield as part of Rotation 4. For the next six months he travelled throughout the operational area as part of a five-man PSYOPS team, establishing rapport with local Afghans and gathering information to be sent back to the PSYOPS Command Group for analysis. The tour ended in the spring of 2008 and Franck returned to ordinary life back in Montreal. However, the experience had been so satisfying that, when he heard that some of his buddies were going back for a second tour at the end of 2010, he did not hesitate to volunteer again.
In late 2010, the International Assistance Security Force had finally realized the strategic importance of Kandahar province and had launched a series of offensives with reinforced American forces to clear the western part of the province that the Taliban had dominated for the past 18 months. Once this had successfully been done, combat outposts had been established there to prevent the Taliban from infiltrating back. The PSYOPS detachment that Franck now joined for this tour was not carrying out operations across the province but was located in a former Taliban stronghold, the village of Talukan, alongside an American infantry company.
The detachment kept fully busy going out on patrols every day, disrupting the insurgents’ sense of security and carrying out specially designed PSYOPS projects. One of the more successful of these was the Radio Literacy Program where they dropped off hand-crank radios by which villagers could listen to programs designed to help them learn to read. For Franck, the patrol on April 12 was pretty routine and had gone well as he had dropped off most of his heavy load of radios and instruction books by the time they were walking back along the main road through Talukan. Everyone in the patrol was relaxed because this part of the village was considered a secure area, protected by ANP (Afghan National Police) checkpoints. As they approached the gate of the base, however, François suddenly found himself flying through the air! The sound of an explosion stunned him. Then he was on the ground with a huge cloud of dust everywhere. His mind took a few seconds to process the situation: “What the hell! OK, something exploded. I must have hit a mine. Oh shit!”
Lying on the ground, he felt a weight on his leg. He managed to reach down and touch it. He felt sure it was his leg, broken. Touching it again, he found the foot was wearing a sandal. No, it wasn’t his leg; it was someone else’s! Confusion. His mind tried to grasp what was going on.
Shrapnel had cut his carotid artery and he sensed blood squirting out of his throat with every pulse of his heart. He just lay there and looked at the sky. The immediate thought that went through his head was: “OK, I’m dead! It’s over.” Surprisingly, that thought didn’t fill him with fear. He had already mentally prepared himself for such an event and could accept it because of the philosophy that he had followed all his life: he had had a good life and would not be overcome with dread if he were to die, so he just relaxed and lay still.
The suicide bomber had been waiting in an open-front motorcycle repair shop that was on the main road passing through the bazaar and leading to the FOB’s entrance, knowing that the patrol would have to come this way. The bomber had to just step forward a few steps and press the trigger as the column of American and Canadian troops filed past, each man about five metres apart in the line. Unfortunately, François was opposite the bomber and took the full force of the explosive. Behind him, his buddy Andrew Peddle got hit in his legs and in front, the American medic, Chad Bortle, had shrapnel hit his buttocks. Despite his injuries, Chad swung into action immediately, rushing to François’s aid. Chad quickly got a tourniquet on his leg, which was bleeding severely, then put pressure on his throat to stop the bleeding from the carotid artery, and someone else did a tracheotomy to keep him breathing. François credits Chad with saving his life.
While the uninjured men in the patrol were frantically trying to help the injured, some American Special Forces troops in the FOB had heard the explosion and knew it was close by. They dropped everything, jumped on Quad all-terrain vehicles, and dashed out to the bombing site. With their help, they got François and Andrew back to the FOB where they were fortunate to have a Black Hawk helicopter already waiting there to evacuate them. The PSYOPS detachment leader, Sergeant Reginald Obas, had been in the base when the explosion went off and was also waiting to make sure his corporal and friend, François, got off all right. Lying on the stretcher, François managed to see Obas and, although he could barely talk through the tracheotomy, he managed to gurgle, “Hey Regge, I’m dead.”
Obas replied with ironic humour: “Nobody dies here without my permission!”
Obas moved aside and the helicopter lifted off. When they landed at KAF, an ambulance was waiting to rush François and Andrew to the Role Three Hospital, only metres away from the landing pad. The next thing François remembers is waking up in a bed in the hospital hallway, with a friend beside him. François was in and out of consciousness for the next three days and, when he finally woke up, he was in the Canadian wing of the Landstuhl Medical Centre in Germany. There he found out that, among other and his vocal chords were paralyzed. One of the doctors also told him that, by remaining calm and not struggling after he had been hit, he had probably saved his own life. His wounds were so serious that, if he had been agitated, he probably would have bled out and died before Chad had been able to apply first aid to the most serious wounds.
François remained in Landstuhl for the next two weeks as the doctors waited for him to stabilize. He was then placed on an aircraft which took him back to Quebec City where he began a long series of reconstructive operations along with physiotherapy, occupational therapy and even speech therapy which he needed to recover from paralyzed vocal cords. He received great care from a number of excellent medical specialists in the area who continued to remove pieces of shrapnel from his body, reconstructed his nose, grafted on a new eardrum, corrected his broken jaw, and rebuilt his eye socket with a titanium web. He was finally released in June, but weekly physiotherapy and occupational therapy sessions continued for about a full year, as well as numerous appointments with a multitude of medical specialists. The quality of care given to him was exceptional.
By early 2012, François was back home in Montreal and, despite permanent weakness in one arm and in one eye, was ready for new challenges. His close brush with death in Afghanistan in no way diminished his urge to enjoy life to the fullest. When he heard that the True Patriot Love Foundation was going to organize an expedition to the Himalaya Mountains to bring attention to the challenges faced by injured veterans and their families, he did not hesitate to apply. As a result, on October 23, 2012, he was among the group of 12 former members of the Canadian Armed Forces who forced themselves to stagger up the last knife-edge ridge to celebrate their achievement on the windswept summit of Island Peak at 6,188 metres (20,305 feet). As far as he was concerned, this would be only the first of many future challenges that he would be looking forward to.