First Soldiers Down: Canada's Friendly Fire Deaths in Afghanistan

Combination picture of (clockwise from top left) Sergeant Marc Leger, Private Richard Green,...

Combination picture of (clockwise from top left) Sergeant Marc Leger, Private Richard Green, Corporal Ainsworth Dyer, and Private Nathan Smith, members of the Third Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry based in Edmonton. The four Canadian soldiers were killed by a friendly fire bombing incident near Kandahar, Afghanistan in April, 2002. DND HANDOUT PHOTOS

Ron Corbett, Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 3:02 PM ET

On April 17, 2002, Canadian soldiers were part of a training exercise in Afghanistan. The exercise had been underway for seven hours when two American fighter pilots flew overhead. One, seeing the artillery fire below, and thinking he was under attack, dropped a laser-guided bomb. Four Canadian soldiers died that night. In a new book, Ottawa Sun columnist Ron Corbett recounts the events of that night and the personal stories of the soldiers killed. The following is Part 1 of an excerpt from First Soldiers Down.

* * *

Ray Henault had called a press conference at National Defence Headquarters for midnight. Despite the late hour, dozens of reporters stood in front of him, waiting to hear what the chief of the defence staff had to say about a story that had been circulating around Ottawa for two hours, a story that was already on news wires.

Quoting unnamed military sources, it was being reported that at least one Canadian soldier had been killed in Afghanistan, apparently by friendly fire.

Henault had been attending a dinner at American Ambassador Paul Cellucci’s residence, when he received a phone call telling him what had happened at Tarnak Farm. Apologizing to Cellucci, who had yet to hear the news, Henault went to his office at National Defence Headquarters. Now he stared out at the room of reporters and began the press conference by telling them the story was worse than they suspected.

“I regret to inform you,” he said, “that four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight injured, some very seriously, when an American F-16 fighter jet released one, possibly two, five hundred-pound bombs on troops of the battle group involved in a night firing exercise on a range fourteen to fifteen kilometres south of the Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.”

An investigation into the tragedy would be conducted by Canadian and American authorities, he continued, adding that there are inherent dangers to military service, but the Canadian Forces and federal government remained committed to the mission in Afghanistan. When he had finished speaking he took questions, the first one being the pith and substance of every question that would be asked about Tarnak Farm for the next three months: did he have any idea how such an accident could have happened?

Henault explained that the Canadians had been on a recognized training range, conducting a life-fire exercise that had been practised by all the coalition troops in Kandahar, and that American pilots fly “very well-controlled routes, under very strict controls.” Then he paused, as though perplexed, and the former fighter pilot said: “How this sort of thing can happen is a mystery to us. That is what the investigation will determine. I can’t speculate on it at this point in time. All I can say is that without a doubt, there was a misidentification of the Canadians and what they were doing on the ground and that was obviously the cause of this accident.”

* * *

On April 18th, 2002, a time before Facebook, Twitter, media apps, and smart phones, most of Canada learned about the deaths of Sergeant Marc Leger, Corporal Ainsworth Dyer, Private Nathan Smith and Private Richard Green at the same time. It was on the front page of their newspaper when they awoke. On the morning radio newscasts when they drove to work. The deaths of the four soldiers was a sudden mass shock, not unlike the terrorist attacks in New York City had been seven months earlier.

The passage of ten years makes it difficult to recall what that morning was like, how the country reacted to the first deaths of Canadian soldiers in a combat zone since the Korean War. Logically, Canadians knew their soldiers were on a combat mission again, after generations of peacekeeping, but it had been abstract, something unregistered and removed. That the deaths were the result of friendly fire only added to the shock, the incredulity and sense that overnight something had fundamentally changed.

By the end of the day a special website set up by the Department of National Defence, where people could post their condolences, was at risk of crashing. (A private website, started by an Edmonton businessman, soon had 80,000 postings.) Editorial departments at newspapers across the country were flooded with letters, many expressing outrage that Canadians had died at the hands of American pilots, saying the country should pull out of Afghanistan. The vast majority, however, were short expressions of sorrow, thanking the soldiers for what some called their ultimate sacrifice, what others called their patriotism.

In the House of Commons, while some politicians tried to get political traction from the tragedy -- Alexa McDonough and Conservative leader Joe Clark both criticized the deployment to Afghanistan, Clark saying it was time for hard questions, the NDP leader saying it was time the troops came home -- most of the Parliamentarians saved the jockeying for later sessions.

“At times like these we grasp for words of comfort and consolation, but they are just words. They can never do justice to the pain and loss that is being felt this morning,” said prime minister Jean Chretien. Acting opposition leader John Reynolds went so far as to read two verses of Flanders Fields, before crossing the floor of the Commons to shake Chretien’s hand.

“It should always be a great source of national pride,” Reynolds told the House, “that we have amongst us young people who volunteer to join our Armed Forces willingly and knowing that any day, at any hour, any minute, they may be thrust into perilous situations.”

The families of the dead soldiers were besieged with offers of help from neighbours, friends, strangers. Each was given a military attending officer -- someone who would be by the families’ side for days, if not weeks. The officers helped the families make funeral arrangements, talk to the media; some were sitting beside them months later, when the commanding officer of the first combat troops into Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Pat Stogran, came to visit them upon his return to Canada.

The country learned of the deaths on a Thursday and by the following Monday newspaper columnists and television commentators were finding it difficult to describe what was happening. Perhaps it was the lengthy break between combat missions, perhaps it was the pall of September 11, which was still fresh in many people’s minds, the troubling sense that the world had changed in ways that were unknown, destiny now some drunken and capricious troublemaker, some leering god; whatever the root cause, more than one commentator observed that this outpouring of national grief had never been seen for Korea, and was rarely seen for the Second World War. You almost had to go back to the battles of Vimy Ridge, or the Somme -- where most of the Newfoundland Regiment was killed in the first two hours of battle -- to find anything similar.

What was happening was shown in obvious ways -- editorial letters, website postings, Parliamentary speeches -- and in other, more private ways. One of the latter was the front lawn of Marc Leger’s parents, a front lawn tucked away on a crescent street in a suburb of Ottawa, where before April 17th you would never go unless you knew someone who lived there.

Within days of the tragedy the Legers were on their way to Trenton Air Base, to be there when the body of their son came home. When they returned to Stittsville the next day, in the rock garden on their front lawn they found four Canadian flags.

The flags had been placed there by children from a nearby public school. None of the children had ever met Marc Leger, or knew of him. They just knew a Canadian soldier had died in Afghanistan. His family lived in their neighbourhood. And they found that extraordinary.

First Soldiers Down is published by Dundurn. It is available in bookstores and on-line, at Dundurn.com.


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