September 2006 was sort of a rough month for Derek Prohar.
He was fighting alongside Afghan and U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Over the course of 48 hours, he had been shot by a sniper, wounded by shrapnel and blown into the air by a roadside bomb.
And now, taking cover under a table in a school with bullets flying everywhere, he heard something strange.
“It almost sounded like a child screaming,” he says.
With 50 or 60 Taliban soldiers outside shooting up the place, he and a fellow soldier started thinking that they’d have to rush out into the hail of bullets and rescue some kid.
Moments later, a goat came sprinting past their position, “scared as hell” and screaming its head off. Allied Afghan troops had grabbed it from the nearby Taliban-occupied village and (presumably) sparked the attack.
“That was another funny moment,” Prohar says.
Lt.-Col. Prohar, 40, is now the commander of 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and lives in St. Albert. He’s served three tours in Afghanistan and is one of the few Canadians to have received the Medal of Military Valour – Canada’s third-highest award for courage in combat.
“It wasn’t heroics by any stretch,” he insists, when asked about the events of Sept. 5 to 12, 2006 that got him the award. He was just doing what he was trained to do, same as everyone else.
“Had they not, we probably wouldn’t have (gotten) back!”
Farm-boy from Saskatchewan
Prohar grew up in Avonlea, Sask., a tiny farming community of 398 some 45 minutes from Regina.
Lifelong friend Jaret Nelson says the two of them would often go on adventures in a chocolate-brown 1972 Oldsmobile 88 they dubbed “the Beast.”
Prohar was a bright student and excelled in pretty much every sport he played, Nelson says.
“He’s probably one of the toughest, bravest people you’d meet,” he says, yet he’s also really down-to-earth.
Jody, Prohar’s wife and childhood sweetheart, describes him as more of a “friendship leader” than a drill sergeant.
“It doesn’t matter who he’s talking to, he’s always genuinely interested in that person.”
At home, Prohar is usually the one wrestling or shooting pucks with the two kids rather than disciplining them.
“I think that’s partially because he’s a big kid himself,” she said.
Call of duty
Prohar got his degree in political science at McGill University. Looking for a challenge, he signed up to be a soldier instead of going to law school.
“I ended up loving every second of it,” he says.
Prohar’s first assignment was with 3 PPCLI, which deployed for training in Wales almost as soon as he arrived in Edmonton in early September, 2001.
“It was pissing down rain,” he recalls, and he was preparing his troops for a raid.
Suddenly, he got a message on the radio about the Twin Towers in New York being hit.
“I thought it was part of the (training) scenario at that point.”
It wasn’t until he saw all the commanders crowded around a 10-inch colour TV watching the BBC report on the 9/11 attacks that he realized this was real.
A few months later, he was in Afghanistan with the rest of his unit fighting the Taliban.
Prohar earned his medal for valour on his second tour in Afghanistan in September 2006. He was working with about 35 U.S. Special Forces troops and about 70 allied Afghan soldiers who had been ordered to take Sperwan Ghar – a strategic hill with a school on it flanked by two villages.
There wasn’t supposed to be anyone on the hill, so it was a surprise when they got there on Sept. 5 and bullets started hammering their Humvees from all sides.
Prohar later learned that there were at least 220 heavily armed and entrenched fighters on and around the hill, and that the whole area was booby-trapped. Prohar alternated between directing troops, calling for resupplies, and manning a .50 calibre machine gun over the next eight days, often for 12 to 15 hours at a stretch.
Prohar says he was “probably scared as hell” during the fight, but got through it with his training.
“You know what you’ve got to do, and you’re gonna do it, and if you don’t, everybody dies,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Day One saw him hit with shrapnel in the shoulder from a rocket-propelled grenade. On Day Two, an improvised explosive device blew up his vehicle while he was outside it, torching it and throwing him five feet through the air.
“I was lucky I got blown clear,” he says, noting that the soldiers in the vehicle were wounded by shrapnel.
He was also shot dead centre in the chest by a sniper’s AK-47.
“Luckily, I was wearing my vest at the time,” he said, and the armour plate stopped it. He was also lucky that the sniper was not using armour-piercing rounds like some of the other fighters.
Prohar says he never found the bullet that hit him, but he did keep the armour plate. It’s now in his office, adorned with a “Distinguished Member (of the) Loyal Order of the Conspicuous Target” badge his boss put on it as a joke.
Prohar was later promoted lieutenant-colonel and became commander of 3 PPCLI earlier this year.
“This, as far as I’m concerned, is the best job in the army,” he says.
“I’ve been very, very lucky.”