The first awards of decorations of military valour for service in Afghanistan were Mentions in Despatches to five men of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who were attached as snipers to the tactical headquarters of the American army's 1st Battalion, l87th Infantry as part of Operation Anaconda in 2002. At that time, American forces were still searching for Osama bin Laden and any remaining Al Qaeda fighters remaining in Afghanistan. Reports came in that a strong insurgent force appeared to have established a sanctuary in a remote mountain valley near the Pakistani border. In early 2002, one of the largest American operations in Afghanistan was mounted to destroy this force. This resulted in a hard fought battle between March2 and 11 in which the incoming helicopter assault wave found itself under heavy machine gun and mortar fire immediately on landing. For their "impressive professionalism and dedication to duty ... through valiant conduct while under direct and indirect fire" during this operation, Master Corporals Timothy McMeekin, Arron Perry and Graham Ragsdale, and Corporals Robert Furlong and Denis Eason were Mentioned in Despatches.
Apart from this action by Canadian snipers, Canadian forces in Afghanistan did not become involved in any major contact with insurgent forces during Operations APOLLO and the first phase of Operation ATHENA up to the end of 2005. Because of this, no MVDs were awarded during this period although they did carry out tasks which were inherently dangerous and suffered casualties from suicide bombing and IEDs. Over the first four years in Afghanistan, seventeen were Mentioned in Despatches while others were awarded decorations for bravery or for meritorious service.
The numbers of decorations being awarded increased when Canadian forces took over responsibility for Kandahar Province in 2006 and confronted an insurgency that was determined to regain control of the Pashtun heartland. The most intense fighting of the ten rotations of Phase 2 of Operation ATHENA took place in 2006 as 1 PPCLI Battle Group, followed by 1 RCR Battle Group, defeated all attempts by organized Taliban forces to seize control of parts of Panjwayi and Zharey Districts in what could be termed conventional combat. The largest number of MVDs was awarded in 2006 during the early fights around Pashmul, Ma'sum Ghar, and in Operation MEDUSA. Twenty two MVDs and 68 Mentions in Despatches were awarded in this year alone, with one Medal of Military Valour and two Mentions in Despatches being posthumously awarded.
The first action for which an MVD was awarded took place on 17 May 2006 during the first rotation for Phase 2 of Operation ATHENA. A platoon of 1 PPCLI moved forward in their LAVs towards the village of Bayanzi, an area in the Panjwayi district known to be occupied by Taliban insurgents. As they entered the village, the lead vehicle found itself in the confines of a narrow alley and there it came under intense rocket-propelled grenade, machine-gun and small arms fire. At this critical moment, unable to back up, the main weapons of the LAV misfired. Sergeant Thomas Denine and one other soldier attempted to return fire from exposed open hatches with their C7 personal weapons but this had little effect on the Taliban fire. Denine quickly realized that quick action had to be taken to prevent the vehicle from being destroyed. He therefore left the safety of the vehicle to reach the only other heavy weapon the vehicle carried, an external pintle-mounted C9 machine gun. From there, fully exposed to enemy fire, he brought heavy fire onto enemy targets, driving the attackers away from the vehicle. One RPG passed so close to Denine's head that it singed his hair. Sergeant Denine's actions that day saved the lives of the crew and significantly contributed to the mission's success, and he was the first to be awarded the Medal of Military Valour in Afghanistan.
This successful operation did not, however, permanently secure the Panjwayi area. Intelligence reports indicated that the Taliban were continuing to infiltrate the area, so combat operations continued. Early in the morning of 3 August 2006, elements of 1 PPCLI, made a night advance to disrupt a Taliban force reported to have re-occupied the area around Bayanzi. Even before reaching their objective, one of the Canadian LAVs struck an IED, killing one man and wounding the platoon commander. Shortly afterwards, another LAV also struck an IED and three more soldiers were wounded. The majority of 9 Platoon along with soldiers from the Reconnaissance Platoon then dismounted and advanced onto the objective on foot while the LAVs supported them with gun fire from the rear. The main Canadian force fought their way into the white schoolhouse compound that was their main objective but remained under heavy fire from three sides, so heavy that Master Corporal Matthew Parsons recalled the school being "enveloped by dust and smoke from over 30 RPGs." A number of the Canadians soon became casualties, including the commander, Captain Jon Hamilton. In addition, several other Canadians developed heat stroke as the daytime temperature reached almost 50 degrees Celsius. The survivors continued to fight back but Captain Hamilton knew they needed help or they might soon be all killed. Back at the casualty collection point, Sergeant Patrick Tower overheard Hamilton's radio call for help and immediately went forward to provide what assistance he could, taking with him the platoon medic, Corporal Lewis, and Master Corporal Tom Cole. Tower ran across 150 yards of open terrain exposed to heavy enemy fire and, on reaching the beleaguered schoolhouse, took command and successfully organized the defence until support could be brought up and the wounded evacuated. Sergeant Tower's actions were credited with contributing directly to the survival of the remaining platoon members. As a result, he became the first Canadian soldier to be awarded the Star of Military Valour.
Following the Taliban defeat in Operation MEDUSA in the fall of 2006, insurgents avoided open confrontation with the Canadians. They now shifted their focus to gaining control of strategic villages by intimidating civilians while relying on IEDs and ambushes to inflict casualties on the Canadians. This resulted in a war of patrols and local operations in which lives continued to be risked daily. By the end of the combat mission in July 2011, 417 MVDs and Mentions in Despatches had been awarded for courage under fire as shown in Table 9.1 below:
To gain some insight into the type of combat experienced in Afghanistan, the reasons for these awards can be looked at in more detail using the technique originally put forward by sociologists Joseph Blake and Suellen Butler, as was done previously for the gallantry awards for the Great War and the Korean War. This analysis was done only for the 380 awards for which citations have been published, the other 37 awards remaining confidential because the recipients are members of the Special Operations Forces Command. The results for the representative 380 awards are shown in Table 9.2.
|TYPE OF ACTION||OFFICERS||OTHER RANKS||ALL RANKS|
|Devotion to Duty||11%||22%||20%|
|Leadership Under Fire||76%||25%||34%|
Table 9.2 shows that the pattern of reasons for awards in Afghanistan reflects the character of the unconventional or asymmetric warfare. While Canadian battle groups aggressively took action against insurgent fighters when they were able to identify their location or intentions, these enemies were too often concealed amongst the population. The Taliban had the advantage of retaining the initiative to strike against Canadian foot patrols or road traffic at times and places of their choosing. In this sense, Canadian units (as well as all other Coalition forces) were most often fighting a defensive-style war - that is, reacting to IEDs, ambushes, and hit-and run contacts. The most frequent reason for an award was Leadership Under Fire, often involving the need to recover from a sudden ambush or to assist ANA troops when operating in either a joint patrol or an OMLT. Awards for Aggressive Attacks were only 2% of the total awards, indicating that there were few such confrontations (as was the case following 2006). Conversely, a high proportion of awards were made for Determined Defence, again indicating that Canadian units were often reacting to Taliban attacks, whether as a result of an ambush or an IED strike.