Each day Pte. Tom Eschak spends in Afghanistan marks another day of battle for Marj and Katie Eschak.
Tom serves in the second company of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, based at the international coalition’s Camp Mirage on the outskirts of Kandahar.
Since he arrived on August 4th, Tom has been living in a lightly armoured vehicle known as an LAV-III, and has been breathing sand and having nosebleeds.
This week, he found his sleeping cot coated with shrapnel from a mortar attack by the Taliban.
Last week, his best friend witnessed a Taliban suicide bomber set off explosives in his van. The blast killed a member of their unit, Cpl. David Braun.
Tom sleeps during the day in 45-minute bursts; at night he stays awake, anticipating an attack, his C-7 automatic rifle always by his side.
But his mother, Marj, and his 24-year-old sister, Katie, have no rifle to hold for security.
Instead, while Tom listens for the whistle of mortar rounds or ‘pop-pop-pop’ of machine gun fire, Marj and Katie wait in Whitehorse and listen for news.
“Every time I hear that there’s been soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and no names are given, I wonder if it’s my brother,” Katie says as we talk before Marj arrives.
“He always wanted to be in the Canadian military, so I’m happy he’s doing what he wanted to do. But my parents aren’t OK with it,” she says, candidly.
Marj arrives, her motherly concern at the ready.
“He’s still a baby,” she says of Tom, who joined the Canadian Forces three years ago, and who has signed for three tours of duty overseas.
“Now he’s on the frontline.”
“We try to stay busy. Whenever we stop, it becomes rather obsessive, thinking about what he’s going through while we relax in comfort.”
Canadian Forces troops have been in Afghanistan since 2002.
They were deployed after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, to mop up the Taliban, shut down their terrorist training camps and to support international peacekeeping efforts.
In 2003, Canadian defence staff and politicians talked of the second deployment of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan as yet another peacekeeping mission.
That mission ended in 2005.
In July, 2,200 Canadian Forces personnel based in Afghanistan became part of the International Security Assistance Force under NATO command, after the US relinquished control.
It was then that Canada’s role in the country increasingly became one of combat and not peacekeeping.
Since January, 20 Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan: throughout the previous three years, only seven had been killed.
Seven members of Tom’s unit have already been wounded.
The group is attacked almost daily. “I think it’s more than he thought it’s going to be,” says Katie.
She keeps in touch with Tom through e-mail and compiles his thoughts into an e-mail she sends to family and friends.
Though she often has to pry for information — “He probably tones it down because he doesn’t want us to worry” — her correspondence with her brother nonetheless offers a true taste of his life in the desert.
Tom says on their way back to the main base there were a bunch of six yr old kids that started to run after them waving, Katie writes on August 29th.
Then they started to pick up rocks and whip them at the vehicle and the soldiers. One of the rocks hit the captain on the head.
The captain was pissed and asked Tom, “Well aren’t you going to take action over that?”
Tom replied, “They are only six yrs old — they are no threat.”
Tom says he did not fire a warning shot at these kids because, if you do that, then you have to make sure you are able to follow through with it, she writes.
Both Marj and Katie wanted to send Tom candy and crayons to give to the Afghan children he sees.
He told them not to.
Kids have been planted with bombs in Afghanistan, Marj explains.
When they approach a Canadian Forces vehicle, the bombs can be detonated and kill Canadian soldiers.
“They have no problem blowing up their children,” she says, clearly bewildered at the thought, but adds “this is just a faction” of the people in Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, Taliban fighters attacked Tom’s company during a routine escort of Afghanistan National Army soldiers.
They waited for backup from two Canadian platoons, then returned fire and saved Afghan soldiers.
This battle took six hours and they ended up killing 71 Taliban members, Katie writes.
Many of the Taliban fighters are high on drugs, Tom tells Katie.
Their crazy state and lack of training make them poor shots, he tells her.
More snapshots: The buildings at Camp Mirage are filled with bullet holes; the lineups at the Tim Hortons at the base are 60-men long; the four uniforms Tom has are so drenched with sweat that they stand up vertical, on their own.
Tom works in a forward operating base for 10 days, then gets one day at the main base for rest.
It is an exhausting life, physically and mentally.
Katie writes on August 29th:
Tom called … sounded drained and tired — no energy or enthusiasm in him whatsoever.
He asked me what they were saying on the news currently. I wondered why he was asking me that. I went silent and thought about it.
Marj and Katie are disturbed by their relative comfort in Canada, and by what they see as the public’s lack of understanding or interest in what is really happening in Afghanistan.
Canadians are “totally unaware of what’s going on in the world,” Marj says.
Since Tom arrived in Afghanistan, Marj has come to realize just how safe and insulated Canada really is.
But the increasing body count seems to be waking some up.
A Strategic Council poll in July found that 56 per cent of Canadians oppose the mission in Afghanistan.
That number is up 15 percentage points from a similar poll taken in March.
Being a soldier in the Canadian Forces once meant being a peacekeeper — a soldier who likely would never fire a rifle in the heat of battle.
Tom signed up for that, Marj says, but now finds himself at war.
“When they did enlist I’m sure they didn’t think they’d be in the frontline in Afghanistan,” she says.
“But they’re up for it; they believe in what they’re doing.
“Canadians were peacekeepers (in Afghanistan) but now they’re at war, they’re in full warfare.”
The two hear from Tom only when “something bad” happens.
That adds to their anxiety, but they try to keep it under control, for Tom’s sake.
“It’s so different, because it’s so emotional,” says Marj,
When Tom calls, the family struggles to remain positive, because “Tom cannot afford any emotional baggage from us,” she says.
Until Tom returns home to the Yukon, Marj and Katie are reconciling themselves with the fact that he is positive about the mission in Afghanistan.
“He feels like they’re making progress,” Katie says.
“Now that he’s there, he really believes in what he’s doing,” Marj adds.
Those interested in contacting Pte. Tom Eschak can write to him through email, at firstname.lastname@example.org