Military honours bestowed this year on Vancouver Island soldiers and sailors offer a rare glimpse into the difficult and dangerous conditions military personnel face in war zones.Two Victoria soldiers received recognition for keeping cool heads in July 2008 after mortar shells rained down at their remote Afghan National Army outpost in Panjwaii district.
Capt. Slade Lerch, an Esquimalt high graduate who in 1998 was attached to the Edmonton-based third battalion of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, received the Canadian Expeditionary Force Commander's Commendation for his supervision over five Canadian and 60 Afghan soldiers at the remote outpost.
The citation praises Lerch's calm and firm command in the wake of a horrific enemy attack in July 2008."His mentoring and hands-on assistance ensured the [Afghan] company's leadership remained intact," the citation says.Mortar shells launched by insurgents regularly pummelled the area around the camp. One day the mortar shells hit their mark, which Lerch downplays."The bad guys got a couple of good shots in. We had a particularly effective mortar strike in the camp and half the camp burned down."
Canadian supplies were incinerated and the fire meant the Afghans lost money they used to buy goods and equipment. Three Afghan soldiers were hurt and airlifted to hospital.There was no one to call for immediate help: The camp could only be reached by a convoy of 65 vehicles that would travel 10 to 12 hours to get there "and they'd be fighting most of the way," said Lerch. Lerch and his colleagues did what they were trained to do. "We continued to soldier on. We held our ground. "We continued like nothing happened."
While many Afghan soldiers were brave and professional in their role defending their country, some were reluctant to leave camp to go on patrol and risk harm by roadside bombs or enemy gunfire. "I spent a lot of time cajoling them -- we have got to get out there," said Lerch. "If we just stay in our little camp, the bad guys could move around all they want and really ruin our day."
After 60 days at the remote camp, Lerch returned home. It was his second tour in Afghanistan and he's not ruling out returning for a third. "My wife has given me tentative approval for another tour," he said. The couple have four-year-old twin boys who were born while Lerch was doing his first tour in Afghanistan. Lerch is modest about his accomplishments and says receiving the commendation is humbling. "I was just happy to come home in one piece to my wife and kids."
Cpl. John Prior, another 3PPCLI soldier from Victoria, was under Lerch's command and received a Meritorious Service Medal for his initiative and understanding of logistical requirements of the operation.
Capt. Robert Peel, 36, a Victoria resident serving with the Canadian Scottish Regiment in Afghanistan, received the military medal of honour after a June 4, 2008 ambush by the Taliban. Peel was one of seven Canadian and 60 Afghan soldiers who were moving to a remote base when they came under fire from the Taliban.
"We were receiving fire from five different locations, basically from all around us," said Peel. The group had only one path to go, and that was the way they had come. An Afghan soldier was shot through the neck and killed. Then another Afghan soldier died. Two Canadian soldiers were sent out to a blind corner to secure a path out.
Peel and three other Canadian soldiers in February received Medals of Military Valour for their courage under fire. "I think all of us would agree that, yes, we deserved it, but last summer anybody in that element could have earned that medal and deserved it just as much as we did," said Peel.
The team leader, Capt. Jonathan Snyder of Penticton, was honoured posthumously. He died three days after this firefight when he fell down a well.
MCpl. Jacob Petten, also of Victoria and with the 3PPCLI, received the Meritorious Service Medal for mentoring Afghan soldiers in equipment maintenance, tactical decision-making and the use of Canadian support weapons.
Capt. R.M. (Mike) Soley, with the Canadian Scottish Regiment of Victoria, received the Canadian Expeditionary Force Commander's Commendation for leading his troops by example, exhibiting courage and resolve.
Cpl. Justin Cervantes of Nanaimo was also awarded the Canadian Expeditionary Force Commander's Commendation for his achievements in Afghanistan.
Cmdr. Kelly Larkin, commanding officer of HMCS Calgary from April to September 2008, received the Meritorious Service Medal for the maritime interdiction mission known as Operation Altair. Larkin was praised for her tactical acumen, leadership and effectiveness while patrolling the waters of the Arabian Sea.