Twelve Years in Afghanistan: A Reservist’s Reflections

LCol Steve Brand served forty years in the Reserve Army before he was retired in 2010. He commanded the Queen’s Own Rifles 92/95 and completed two operational deployments; Sierra Leone (04) and Afghanistan (09). He has been an RCM I member since 1984

[This article was originally published in the May-June 2014 issue of the Royal Canadian Military Institute’s “Member’s News”.]

'Remnants of an Army' by Elizabeth Butler portraying Dr. William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842
‘Remnants of an Army’ by Elizabeth Butler portraying Dr. William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842

Upon entering the most impressive Officers’ Mess of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (‘Rileys’), you cannot avoid notic­ing a painting of Dr. William Brydon, reportedly the sole British army survivor of the massacre of MGen William Elphinstone’s army at the hands of Afghan tribesmen during the First Anglo­ Afghan War in January 1842. The haunting image first captured my attention fifty years ago over many afternoons watching my father Doug marching in splendid ceremonial events as a member of the Rileys. I had no idea that forty years later I’d be serving in this most inhospitable place.

I joined the Reserves in 1970, then languishing in the post­ unification and Vietnam anti-war era of drastic cuts. Reservists had little contact and few training opportunities with the Regular Army.We soldiered on with hand me down WW2-era equipment, pink pay sheets and “Trudeau rounds” when the sparse blank ammo ran out, as it often did. Opportunities to serve overseas were virtually non-existent with but only a few lucky souls ever getting a chance to join a flyover to Germany or FTX in Norway. Cyprus was the only “exotic” assignment for the Regulars.

The only contact most Reservists had with anything warlike in the 70s was listening to the tales of the Reg Force I staff who often were WW2 or Korean Vets, or attending MILCONs then largely staffed by the Regs.

On New Year’s Day 1980 in the Officers’ Mess, we first had an opportunity to discuss the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan a week before on Boxing Day and what it might mean.This was an ominous development and many of us thought it was the prelude to WW3 and a call to arms and deployment to Europe via the air bridge over the Atlantic. Training in the Reserves was about to take on more meaning. The issuing of the AVGP (Grizzly) vehicle to the Reserves was unprecedented. Regulars and Reserves were inching ever closer together with more and more joint training. Several operationally-tasked arrangements were forged in the early 80s with the most prominent being the airborne tasking assigned to the Queen’s Own Rifles and three other units across Canada. The QOR were op-tasked to support 3 Commando of the Canadian Airborne Regiment and this ushered in a new era of operational focus and physical fitness. Now, thirty years later, only the QOR airborne tasking has survived.

In the 90’s we witnessed the demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.The Cold War was officially over, the West had won, and politicians began to turn “guns into butter” and rapidly reduce their military forces. In Canada FRP (Force Reduction Plan) was implemented and thousands left the Regular Force. Reservists started to backfill more and more Reg force positions as Class B Reservists.image

By 1991 there was a call for massive UN in­ tervention in Yugoslavia. The Regular Army; not able to meet the operational requirements, called on the Reserve Army to backfill the hollowed out Reg force battalions headed to the Balkans, thus ushering in a new era of relevance for the Reserve Army. The professionalism of the Reserve Army was increasing rapidly as more and more of its members deployed, and while few above the rank of WO/Captain ever got a chance to do so, the lessons learned were not lost on those of us forced to sit it out back in Canada. No longer were Reserve units authorised to train in isolation on their own and brigading units became the norm. Standards increased with the advent of the highly effective Warrior Program and the Reserve Army was steadily improving despite the frustrating lack of resources and the ongoing political tug of war for Regular Force dominance over the Reserves.

The new “light” infantry in the GWOT: LCol Brand (L) and American colleage SFC Haag in front of an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle after a Combat Logistics Patrol to Tarin Kowt, July 2009. The full Canadian PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) and weapon can weigh close to 50 lbs (without rucksack).
The new “light” infantry in the GWOT: LCol Brand (L) and American colleage SFC Haag in front of an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle after a Combat Logistics Patrol to Tarin Kowt, July 2009. The full Canadian PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) and weapon can weigh close to 50 lbs (without rucksack).

The attacks of 9/11 initiated the Global War on Terrorism and once again Canada was called upon to support the Western Alliance. Once again the Regular Army was understaffed and Reservists were called upon to backfill the Regular battalions de­ ploying to Afghanistan. Not since WW2 had so many Reservists been called upon. At peak the Reservists accounted for up to 25% of the boots on the ground. This time Reservists of all rank levels were able to deploy and contribute to the war effort.

As we end our ground role in Afghanistan the verdict on how well we did in helping their nation building effort is still be­ing analysed by the pundits. No doubt the future of Afghanistan is fragile, and its prospects decidedly bleak, but the contribution to the operational experience and readiness of the Canadian Army has been outstanding. We have created a pool of soldiers whose collective experience will serve us well for another three decades.

The homecoming:A CC-177 Globemaster escorted by two CF-18 Hornets carries members returning from the last mission in Afghanistan to the Ottawa International Airport on March 18, 2014.
The homecoming:A CC-177 Globemaster escorted by two CF-18 Hornets carries members returning from the last mission in Afghanistan to the Ottawa International Airport on March 18, 2014.

Last year I had occasion to revisit the Riley Officers’ Mess with my father who commanded this fine Regiment twice and is now a fit 85-year-old. The haunting image of Dr. Brydon continues to dominate the entrance to the Mess and reminded me of just how far the Reserve Army has come in 40 years. In Pace Paratus.

-LCol (ret’d) Steve Brand

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"In Pace Paratus – In Peace Prepared"