Richard Foot, CanWest News Service
Published: Monday, March 20, 2006
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Canada's front line combat troops in Afghanistan may belong to a national army, but much of their clothing and equipment on this mission is privately owned -- paid for out of their own pockets -- because the gear supplied by the military is inadequate, soldiers say.
More than a dozen soldiers, who were interviewed during operations this month north of Kandahar, say the non-shooting equipment issued by the military simply isn't comfortable, strong enough or safe enough for this rugged and dangerous mission.
While their actual uniforms are all military-issue, many soldiers say they spent hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of dollars of their own money on everything from desert boots to ammunition vests before coming to Afghanistan.
"I dropped a grand on gear before I came over here," says one non-commissioned officer with the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who asked that his name not be published.
"The stuff the army issues is useless."
While some soldiers do wear their army-issued desert boots, most appear to be wearing their own boots, purchased at a private kit shop back at their base in Edmonton or from mail-order military Web sites. They say the boots handed out by the army are too stiff and heavy for long, multi-day marches over the rugged Afghan terrain.
The army-issued tactical vests -- designed to carry ammunition, grenades, bayonets and other supplies -- are also inadequate, soldiers say. The vests supplied by the army, for example, carry only four magazines of rifle ammunition.
"Whose going to survive on four mags in a firefight?" asks another 1st Battalion soldier. "I carry 10 mags every time I climb out of the LAV [light armoured vehicle]. If we get into a fight with the enemy, four mags aren't going to cut it.
"The army stuff is OK in Canada, but over here your life depends on good gear," he adds.
As a result, most of the troops are wearing a mishmash of privately purchased "tac-vests," boots, rucksacks, cold-weather clothing, and other gear.
And while many infantry troops say they've grown accustomed to providing their own gear, what they can't understand is why they're being treated as what they describe as "second-class citizens" at the base at Kandahar airfield.
Of the 2,200 Canadian military personnel in Kandahar this year, only about 500 are front line combat soldiers. The rest are support troops -- logistics, planning and transport staff, plus supply clerks and other administration workers who, unlike the infantry, rarely leave the relative safety and comfort of this base.
While these rear echelon troops are being housed in dry, semi-private dome tents built upon concrete slabs, Canada's combat troops, also known as the "battle group," are being housed together, hundreds at a time, in three much-hated giant white tents, known by the soldiers as BATs, or "big ass tents."
The BATs offer no privacy. They leak when it rains. And instead of concrete floors, the ground inside is gravel and dirt.
The BATs are also filled with rows of tiny bunk beds, so small and flimsy that many soldiers can't fit on them.
Unlike the housing for the support troops, the infantry BATs are located far from the Canadian e-mail tents and recreation facilities on the base.
"It's fine for guys like us to live in the mud out on operations," says Master Cpl. Keith Prodonick, an experienced front line soldier. "That's what we do. But when I go back to base, I want a dry tent and a bed that doesn't break."
First Battalion soldiers grilled Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada's chief of defence staff, about the BAT controversy during his surprise visit with the troops in the field earlier this month.
"The boys were asking Hillier, 'Why do the support people get the good shacks and we get the BATs,' " Master Cpl. Prodonick says. "We don't want better, we want the same as everyone else."
Army officials here say the military is constructing better, more permanent housing for the infantry troops at Kandahar airfield, but the new accommodation isn't likely to be ready until the summer, when the 1st Battalion goes home after its six-month tour.
This is due to years of neglect, under-funding by former the Liberal Government towards the Canadian Military.
The new Conservative Government will soon start pumping money into the Military so they can afford the proper equipment they need to get the job done.
This is nothing new to Military's, in the U.S. Military Soldiers are facing the same problems with the lack of equipment.