Warrant Officer Stephen Thomas, MB, CD was born in Scarborough, Ontario and attended BIrchmount Collegiate.
In 2000, while attending high school and participating In a militia “Co-op” Course, he joined the 7th Toronto Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, a reserve unit, and duly achieved the rank of Master Bombardier.
In 2003/04, he completed hIs first tour in Afghanistan, In Kabul (OP Athena, Roto 0).
Subsequently, in 2005, he transferred to The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, a reserve infantry regiment also based In Toronto, later becoming a member of the regiment’s parachute company.
Thomas’ second deployment to Afghanistan occurred between July 2006 and March 2007, as part of Taskforce 3-06. At thIs time, he was based In Kandahar and operated through the NSE as force protection.
Then Master Corporal Stephen Thomas was awarded the Medal of Bravery for action in Afghanistan:
“On October 3, 2006, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Corporal Piotr Burcew, Captain Jason Demaine, then Lieutenant, Corporal Adrian Markowski and Master Corporal Stephen Thomas, then corporal, saved the lives of their fellow soldiers and local Afghan civilians by unloading ammunition from a disabled burning vehicle during a suicide bomber attack. Despite having to cross through flames, they repeatedly returned to the vehicle to retrieve mission-essential cargo and high-explosive ammunition that posed a deadly threat to those nearby. They moved away from the scene just moments before the fire raged out of control, detonating the remaining rounds.”
Excerpts from In Their Own Words – Canadian Stories of Valour and Bravery from Afghanistan 2001-2007:
Corporal Thomas, who was in the second RG-31 in the convoy, had a different perspective during the bombing incident. As he recalls:
Our job was to do runs to the different FOBs and we had to do a run to FOB Wilson, which was located down this stretch of road that was first called “IED Alley.” But on our tour, it was slowly renamed “Ambush Alley” because we always got ambushed on it. It was a typical run of ammo, food and equipment that the guys needed down at the FOBs. Heading down there was no problem. It was a typical run … busy traffic, warning shots and so on.
It was kind of funny that day. I had a crack in my windshield and I told my driver, Corporal Jason Vasquez, to go get it fixed and he said, “I did, and this is what they gave me.” I thought, “Oh, man … you start off with just one little crack.” I made a joke, and I said, “Because of this crack, I think we’re going to get hit.” And he said, “No, we’re not going to get hit. We’re not going to get hit. How do you even think like that?” We started joking around.
As we were driving down the road, the crack started spreading. Now it’s massive; it’s like a big web across my windshield. I’m looking at it and he says, “Well, you better hope we don’t get hit today because that windshield is going to blow up in your face.” I said, “Oh, great. Thanks!” But we made it to FOB Wilson safely.
After we unloaded everything and were preparing for the return trip, there were a couple of G- Wagons, lead by Lieutenant Demaine, which needed to get back to KAF. So that was all right. I put them in with the convoy.
At this point as well, the flatbeds carrying the damaged LAVs, mentioned above, were also added to the convoy. Thomas continues:
We asked the battle group for an escort, and they said, “Yeah, we’re not doing anything right now. We can help you guys out.” Three LAVs came out and they punched through alongside the road. It was awesome because we had two huge LAVs with one on each side of us just ploughing through the dirt, going through whatever fields they needed to go through to protect us. And then you’ve got the one in the front with the turret swinging left and right so that every-one has to get off the road. No one was coming near us. They made it to a bridge and they said, “Boys, this is as far as we can go, alright? Have a safe journey the rest of the way.”
They had taken us through most of the threat area – down “Ambush Alley” – from the FOB to the bridge, which was a stretch of about seven or eight kilometres. It takes about 25 or 30 minutes, depending on how fast everyone gets over the speed bumps. We got across the bridge and then we got to the busy part of Kandahar City, which is the market. I felt that the stress level had kind of died down by that point. So I was like, “Sigh, alright. No problem.” So we’re driving along and suddenly this guy on a motorcycle points at me. He pointed at me and then he just evaporated. His motorcycle looked like an old one and, from the front at least, he looked normal. Where were the explosives packed? I have no clue. I was puzzled and when this explosion went off, it engulfed my vehicle and the vehicle in front of us in smoke.
I remember everything slowing down to almost like what you would see in The Matrix movies. In my mind, it felt like I was moving fast but everything else around me was going in slo-mo. I remember seeing a piece of shrapnel come flying through the smoke, probably about the size of a flattened-out baseball; a little larger than a hockey puck. The shrapnel came flying through the smoke and hit my windshield, followed by smaller pieces that came flying along and hit the windshield again! I remember seeing the shattered impact of the shrapnel and I thought, “My God! The windshield held up!” If it hadn’t, I probably would have had one in the neck and one in the head, and probably wouldn’t have lived to talk about it. I was pretty lucky. I looked over and my driver slammed on the brakes. I said to him, “Koala” – our nickname for him – “are we dead, man?” He said, “No, man, I don’t think so.” And I said, “You gotta drive, man!” So he says, “Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” I can see that he was rattled too.
This was the first IED both of us had experienced. So he starts driving and I said, “Where’s the G-Wagon? The G-Wagon is not in front of us anymore. Holy smokes!”
We advanced, and I could just barely make out the G-Wagon through the smoke . . . the silhouette of it just off to the side of the road. It was hit so strongly that it had shifted to the right. It just kind of slid over and rolled to a dead stop. The vehicle was on fire and, when I saw the side of it, I thought, “Whoa! Those guys have to be dead.” So I told Corporal Markowski, who was part of the convoy with me, “Markowski, prepare for dead people.” He said, “Alright.” I just wanted to keep the guy’s mind focused. We were already going through shock as it was. So we both hopped out the back of the RG and I told Koala to move up a little bit and give us protection. There was a potential ambush site to the left, which was the building, so I told him, “Put up the shield for us.” 8 So we got to the G-Wagon and we saw the two guys; they were alive and doing okay, but they had been on fire.
So they’re patting themselves out and I remember the driver looked at me and he just had a stunned look on his face, like, “What the hell just happened?” But he didn’t say anything. It seemed to me like he just didn’t recognize that I was a friendly, or even more that I was a Canadian right in front of him, and he got up and started running to the rear. It was the same with the co-driver. He started running to the rear of the convoy until they saw a vehicle that they recognized, which was another G-Wagon. It seems that was the only thing they recognized even though there were several other vehicles between them and the rear. It’s amazing how their thinking couldn’t come together. They were just looking for one thing and they ran to that.
I was like, “Man, those guys were just on fire. Let’s get the hell out of here!” So I hopped in the back of my vehicle and radioed up to the lead vehicle and said we needed a medic because these guys were just on fire. “Let’s make sure they are okay!” Eventually we made our way up to the medic and the convoy commander’s position. The medic hopped into our RG and, while I was still talking to the convoy commander, my vehicle started heading back with the medic to the position of the casualties from the G-Wagon. I followed along-side on foot and we got to the rear and got the medic out. The two guys … overall they were good. They were like, “Wow! I can’t believe that just happened to us.” They were in shock but they had a really good attitude about it, in a sense. Most people would be flipping out,
but these guys were doing okay.
It was at this point that Lieutenant Demaine informed Corporal Thomas that he and Corporal Burcew had to go back to the flaming vehicle. Thomas remembers:
That G-Wagon was not initially part of our convoy’s manifest, so I didn’t know what kind of stuff they had in the back. Lieutenant Demaine came to me and said, “Corporal, there’s some material we really need to get out of there.” I said, “What are you talking about? Just let it burn!” and he said, “No, we need to get it.” When he told me that it was something on its way to ASIC, I said, “Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s go get it!” Usually we find out what’s in every vehicle, especially if it’s something important and that, no matter what, we need to bring back. I usually try to keep it on me instead of in the vehicle so that wherever I go it’s going to be with me. And if I go down, everyone knows it’s going to be in my right pocket or whatever, and they just have to get it. But this time they never told us anything. So it was a bit of a surprise when he told me that we had to go back to the vehicle and recover this material. I was under the impression that everyone was safe so we should just get behind our vehicles and wait things out.
So I said, “Before we go, the vehicle is on fire, so let me get as many fire extinguishers as I possibly can from the rear half of the convoy.” So I went around and got five fire extinguishers and there were four of us. I said, “Guys, we’re going to fight the fire. Hopefully those back doors are open. If not, we have some axes. We’re going to knock out the windows, get the materials and get the hell out of there.” So we went up to the vehicle and of the five fire extinguishers we had, only one or two worked. The guys didn’t even check the doors. They just started smashing windows. Then they realized that the windows were too thick and they couldn’t really get through them. So I spat on my hand a few times and I grabbed the door handle and ripped it open.
At this point, the flames had made their way inside the vehicle, and they were now eating up the top of the G-Wagon. The roof on the inside was catching fire and it was getting pretty hot. I went in and right away I saw the material that Lieutenant Demaine was talking about. I grabbed it, turned around, and handed it off to the guys. I said, “Okay, let’s get out of here.” Then I realized, “I’m in here already. I might as well just stay and get all this ammunition out. We could use it and, if it blows up, it’s going to do some damage to the rest of our convoy and all the people nearby.” I saw a C6. So I said, “Let’s grab this.” I grabbed all the ammunition and I handed it out and then I grabbed all the M72s and all the high explosive rounds they had and I ran out. But I still went back in and got a few more things. I was actually able to save some personal belongings, but by this point, every time I went back inside the flames were so hot along the roof that they were rolling.
I spoke later with a firefighter about it and he said, “You’re lucky because those are the hottest flames you can actually get. When they’re rolling, they’re not even eating away at the material anymore. The smoke is so hot that it’s reigniting.”
At that point, I realized my helmet was a little charred and crispy and I knew I couldn’t get any more stuff out. The heat was getting to be too much for me. I said, “Alright, guys, we’re getting out of here.” So we grabbed whatever we possibly could. The only things I left behind were a few grenades and a couple of smoke grenades that I couldn’t reach.
A few moments later, the rest of the vehicle cooked off . . . the diesel caught on fire and the grenades exploded. I probably had the most time inside the vehicle, but for the most part, we all, us four, took turns going into it to get everything out because if we hadn’t, there would have been much bigger fireworks. It’s all part of the training you have, responding like that to that kind of a situation. Doing what we did makes you more confident. I was very confident with the guys I had in my section. If I go down, these guys will come get me. It takes a lot of stress off your mind. Because we were able to get all of that stuff out, the blast was nothing compared to the suicide bomber. I couldn’t tell exactly how many grenades were left behind because everything was rattling around, but I think there were a few that detonated. But in such a small space like that, they still made a pretty good boom!
Unfortunately, civilians got hurt. There was an older man who was riding his donkey. He was thrown off the donkey and he had shrapnel in his chest. His donkey was injured and we had to put it down. But the one injured person that really got to the guys who saw it, including myself, was a child. There was a kid who must have been seven or eight years old and I remember he came up after we went through the whole vehicle. I had my translator with me, thank God, and the kid said, “My head hurts. My head hurts.” I asked why. From the side I was looking at, he looked fine, but when I went around to the other side, what had happened was a piece of shrapnel had actually taken a small part of his skull away. I was like, “I know my first aid. I know my combat aid. But how do I treat this? I don’t know how to treat this!” So I called the medic over and he looked at me and said, “We can’t do anything about this here. Let’s look for the missing piece of his skull. Let’s go look for that.” So we looked
around and fortunately found it. The Afghan police came by and we put it in a bag and said, “Take him to the nearest hospital. This needs to go with him.” What I found out later was that the kid survived. I don’t know how he’s doing today, but I heard at the time that he was doing alright.
Because of the way people reacted to the bombing, Thomas found it impossible to calculate how many people had been injured in the blast.
A lot of times people get hurt, but the adrenaline’s rushing, so their reaction is to actually get up and run away. They’re expecting more fighting to occur, so they want to get out of the area. Who can blame them? Because of that, we couldn’t really tell how many were injured with minor or serious wounds. The people who are stuck behind are usually kids and the elderly who have been hit so hard that they can’t do anything.
So, basically, once we had checked everything out, I led the convoy or what was left of our convoy – back home to KAF via the PRT. Even though my vehicle suffered a little bit of a blast, it was still able to be driven. It was still good, so we drove home and did our AAR.
Reflecting back on the incident, and the others that followed, Thomas reasoned it was, in a sense, both formative and positive.
Within our first month, we had a lot of IEDs . . . not only us but the whole battle group saw a lot of contact. It was a tour with a lot of action. With all that hardship, it brings your guys closer no matter what. You kind of look at each other like, “Man, we just went through that together.” It made the platoon really tight . . . especially the sections that had had a hard time getting it together beforehand.
When Corporal Thomas learned, to his surprise, that he had been recognized for his actions in Afghanistan, he first thought that he was in hot water or that there was something wrong at home.
When I found out, I was on my leadership course out on the east coast near Halifax and I got called into the platoon commander’s office. It was on a Monday and I thought, “Man, I did something stupid on the weekend!” My warrant was a quiet guy, so when he called me out I thought I was in trouble. He said, “We’re going to see the platoon commander.” And I said, “Warrant, am I doing the hatless dance by any chance?” And he said, “No. No. I just want you to talk to the platoon commander.”
As we’re making our way to the platoon commander’s office, I was thinking about my father, who had suffered a heart attack just before I had gone out east. So I thought maybe it was bad news. I thought, “Oh, my dad, my dad!” My morale and everything dropped big time. When we got to the platoon commander’s office they told me, “Call your unit chief clerk.” So I had to call back home to the regiment and I’m thinking it’s definitely about my father. I called the chief clerk up and the sergeant says, “Did you get nominated for anything overseas?” I said, “What? I don’t know. Maybe. No one tells me these things.” I’m having a joke with her and I said, “Why are you asking me?” She said, “A piece of mail came for you.” I said, “Well, open it.” She opened it and started reading and she wouldn’t tell me what she was reading but she’s yelling, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
Eventually she did tell me and, I don’t know, at the time I was more shocked and thought, “Why am I getting this?” I felt like I was doing my job. Honestly, we’re trained to do this. So when I hung up the phone, my warrant asked, “So what happened?” I said, “Warrant, I just got the Medal of Bravery.” He got really excited and he was giving me the big, warm, big-brother-punch-kind-of-thing to the shoulder. He was just excited and didn’t know where to go with his energy.
I didn’t know what it meant. I had never heard of anyone getting this. Eventually, word got around the regiment. Actually, I even got a letter from Buckingham Palace saying congratulations. [A congratulatory letter was sent from HRH Princess Alexandra of Kent, then Colonel-in-Chief of the Queen’s Own] I was like, “Wow, I guess this means a lot more than I thought. I’ve just become a part of history.”