It's a late January afternoon in sunny Afghanistan. David Bowering is kicking back with the rest of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade when the call comes in on the radio: "Medevac! Medevac! Medevac!"
He's in the air minutes later. The medical chopper screams low over rooftops and lands in a cloud of dust and debris. Locals bring in one man and two boys, all wounded.
Bowering shrinks into a corner of the chopper as the patients come aboard. One has severe head wounds and sprays blood all over the chopper. One of the boys vomits.
The medics tend to the wounded. Bowering gives one worried boy a smile and a thumbs-up. The boy smiles back.
About 12 minutes later, the patients are treated and hauled into ambulances. The chopper crew refuels, cleans up, and gets ready for their next call. "Just another day in the life for these men," Bowering later writes.
Bowering, a photographer from St. Albert, has just returned from a 123-day tour with Canadian and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He went on his own dime, to tell the stories of the troops over there. This is what he saw.
Sand, stone, and dust
Bowering says he got the idea for the trip through conversations with friends in the military. Wanting to support the troops through his photos, he signed up to be an embedded reporter, publishing his photos and blog entries online.
He flew into Afghanistan on Oct. 15. His first impressions were of a flat, desolate place interrupted by massive black rock ridges that poked through the landscape.
"A fog-like curtain of dust is seen everywhere I look," he wrote that day, "and dust devils race across the land below. I am in awe of this."
By the time he left in February, he says, heavy rains had transformed that same landscape into a lush, flooded wetland. "It was just amazing how fast it changed."
Much of Afghanistan is undeveloped, Bowering says, with huge stretches of nothing interspersed with walled poppy, grape and pomegranate farms. "They grow a tonne of marijuana," he adds.
There's an obscene amount of dust, he says. "I ate a lot of dust. Enough dust to puke dust." He'd find it in his food, his teeth, ears and nose. "I'm still finding it."
Bowering split his time between Kandahar Airfield and remote field bases. The airfield had hot food and showers, he says, but also stank of sewage and filth. Field bases were often abandoned mud huts on the edges of villages. He'd wave to the villagers over the wall in the morning and fall asleep to the snap of mousetraps at night.
After a five-day delay due to lost luggage, Bowering says he hopped onto a Chinook helicopter and hopped off at the Folad Forward Operating Base near Kandahar City. He spent the next 16 days on foot patrol with the 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment, speaking with villagers and searching for roadside bombs.
He says he felt pretty safe the whole time except for a few days around Oct. 26, when he learned that fellow photographer Joao Silva had stepped on a mine and lost both legs.
"That basically scared the crap out of me," he says. He started watching his every step, making sure to tread exactly in other people's footprints. Eventually, one of the soldiers came up to him and told him to relax. "Just stay in line and walk. Take a deep breath, you'll be good." He was.
The troops would often go into the maze-like villages to talk with locals, hand out supplies and play with kids. "The people there have nothing," Bowering says, with many kids lacking shoes or even names. Most seemed to welcome the troops and the help they brought. Some would ask for repairs to walls or wells; others would ask where their children had gone after an arrest.
Others were far less open, he says. "You could just see the hate in their eyes." Men would spit on female soldiers, while children would cast stones at vehicles for sport, hoping to break the turret-gunner's nose.
He had one word to describe the soldiers he met: professional. He recalled one case where he saw one soldier passing out presents while another, just a few paces away, was firing warning shots at an oncoming truck. "They take the job seriously and do what they're supposed to do."
Medevac, Medevac, Medevac!
Perhaps the most intense part of Bowering's tour was his 22-day stint with the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade Medevac Company, an air ambulance unit based out of Kandahar Airfield.
The medics spent most of their day at base working on their helicopters, Bowering says, waiting for a call on the radio. When it came — "Medevac! Medevac! Medevac!" — they'd pile into their birds and take off in minutes.
The pilots flew full-tilt to their patients, Bowering says, "yanking and banking" maybe one storey off the ground to avoid enemy fire. Guided by smoke grenades, the crew would plop the chopper down, throw open the doors and sprint for the wounded. He recalls one awe-inspiring incident where medic "Mo" Williams ran without hesitation through a possible minefield to reach an injured U.S. soldier.
They'd see everyone from small children to soldiers, Bowering says, with everything from bullet-wounds to missing limbs. Little kids would arrive with sucking chest wounds and backs shredded by shrapnel. One man, a famous British photographer named Giles Duley, came in missing most of his legs and left arm.
The medics worked with speed and efficiency, judging from video shot by Bowering, keeping their cool no matter how horrific the wounds. Bowering ended up helping out on several occasions — he laughs as he recalls gripping an IV bag in his teeth.
Not every flight was successful. Bowering's voice gets tight as he recalls one U.S. soldier who lost both legs and an arm to an explosion. The man died before he reached the hospital.
He couldn't bring himself to look at the footage for a week, he says. "Some days you win and some days you don't. We didn't win that day."
A difference made
Canadian troops are making a difference in Afghanistan, Bowering says. They're digging wells, building schools, disarming bombs and treating wounded. "Anybody who says we're not making a difference over there is an idiot as far as I'm concerned."
But it's a very small difference, says Steven Staples, who has done extensive study of Canada's role in Afghanistan as president of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based think-tank. "In some ways, it's a drop in the bucket."
Violent incidents were up 70 per cent in Afghanistan in the first half of last year compared to the same time in 2009, notes the International Crisis Group, an international think-tank that studies conflict. Improvised bomb use is up 82 per cent; civilian casualties are up a third. "In every metric," Staples says, "the situation gets worse every year."
Canada and its allies cannot defeat the Taliban through force, says Staples. "Every time we kill one of them, we help them recruit 18 more." What's needed is a political solution, he says — a negotiated end to the fighting.
Soldiers can't organize international conferences, Staples says, but they can help in small ways — a well here, a child there. "There are things at the government level that should be done that would be able to take these small efforts and make them a thousand times larger."
It was hard saying goodbye to his new friends when he left Afghanistan on Feb. 14, Bowering says. "I found it very difficult to leave."
So difficult, it seems, that he plans to go back again. "I'd go back in a second," he says.
Bowering's blog and photos can be found at www.afghanistanthroughmylens.com.