Ambush At The White School
One of the first battles for the infamous white school in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan occurred on Aug. 3, 2006—one month prior to the launch of Operation Medusa, which has been the subject of a three-part series in Legion Magazine. In the August battle, Canadian soldiers fought with great courage despite being seriously outnumbered by the enemy. What follows is one soldier’s account of that chaotic situation. Master Corporal Matthew Parsons is a transplanted New Zealander who served in 9 Platoon of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
We were sitting at Forward Observation Base Spin Boldak near the Pakistan border, laughing about an infection I had in my right testicle, and the uncomfortable feeling it was giving me. It was approximately 1830 hours on July 30, 2006, and it was dark. The tower was manned and the poker games had started. There were 16 days left until I flew home, with the troops leaving a couple of days before me and the sergeants leaving a couple of days later. The war right now was perfect: air conditioning, good food, single rooms. All we had to do was a couple of more “zam-zam” patrols, and then head back to Canada—at least that’s the way I thought it would play out until Major Bill Fletcher called Warrant Officer Shaun Peterson into the command post.
It was only natural for us to speculate about the reasons for this meeting. Maybe we were going home early or going back to Kandahar airfield for burgers or pizza. But deep down inside I think we all knew the reason, but nobody wanted to say it: Panjwai.
The word is more than letters. It is memories. Memories of heat, dust, lack of sleep, enemy, ambushes, firefights and casualties. We had already lost two Canadians there—Captain Nichola Goddard on May 17 and Corporal Anthony Joseph Boneca on July 9. This is not to mention the more than 15 who were wounded.
And so no one really wanted to go back, but we knew it was coming and there was no way out of it. To be honest, we non-commissioned officers were actually a bit keen to get back there to have one last go, I guess. So we sat there playing poker, smoking cigarettes and lying to each other about what else we could be doing.
When Peterson emerged from the meeting, and saw us sitting there, he smiled, but it was not a happy smile; it was more of a here-we-go-again smile. We gathered in his room to get the scoop, and from his lips we all heard him say it: Panjwai. We would leave the next day—July 31—and head to Kandahar airfield where we would conduct battle prep and receive more details on our role in the operation.
Straight away I knew I was going to miss out on the mission because of my infection, which I believe was the result of spending a lot of time sitting in my armoured vehicle. So I found the medic and told him I was good to go—that the antibiotics were working. He said no, and I was crushed. I eventually got the nod to go, so long as I held to my promise to visit the doctor at Kandahar airfield.
Morale in the group, meanwhile, had dropped—at least that was my impression. They knew what Panjwai meant, and all of them had only 13 days left in Afghanistan. It was not that they were scared to go—they weren’t; they had all been in firefights before. It was just that the end was in sight, so they didn’t want to push their luck.
We told them to pack light—pack the car (a LAV III armoured personnel carrier) with water, and grab every last round of ammo we could find. The gunner and the driver were to do maintenance on the LAV while the rest of us cleaned our personal weapons to a high standard. We expected we would get into a fight, but prayed we wouldn’t.
The next day—at Kandahar—the medic had me drop my pants, and while my infection hurt like hell I explained I was feeling great. I would get to go. Meanwhile, my gunner—Private Gerry Conlon—and my driver—Pte. Ben Weir—had cleaned the turret weapons and checked the hydraulic and coolant fluids in the car. They had jammed water bottles everywhere, and had prepared and cleaned the ammo. So we went back to the tent and chilled out while waiting for Peterson to return with orders from the commanding officer.
We were to push out the next morning—Aug. 1—to Patrol Base Wilson on Highway 1. Once there we would receive further instruction, but it appeared we were going to be in a blocking position to the west while B Company conducted an operation on the white school in the village of Pashmul.
The morning rolled around and we were all at the cars while the sky was still dark. Everything was ready and so we rolled out as soon as we had confirmation from headquarters. We stayed in the middle of the road to assist in preventing IED (improvised explosive device) damage. Vehicles moved out of our way, and not one got close to the rear of the convoy. That was good because we would have no idea whether they were a vehicle-borne suicide bomber or just plain dumb.
We travelled over the Tarnak Bridge; a well-used enemy ambush area, and headed towards the two hills straddling the highway. These features dominate the route, but fortunately offer little cover to the enemy.
The smell of Kandahar city at that time of day is a combination of burning wood, crap, vehicle exhaust and garbage. A couple of dead dogs were in the street, and people were moving around normally. The drive through the city was always nerve-racking—a sensory overload. There was always so much going on and people were everywhere—anyone of them could be an insurgent or suicide bomber. We saw people on cell phones, and you had to wonder if they were giving information to the enemy.
A concrete barrier runs down the middle of the city’s main street, and so any oncoming suicide bomber would have a hard time of it. However, there are a lot of narrow side roads people could race out of to try and get in front of the convoy. This is what you had to watch for—that and all the cars parked along the road. It was a perfect place for one of them to blow up.
We also had to be mindful of the rooftops because someone up there could fire a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) down onto the thinner armour on the roof of the car, or through the turret hatch. That would really suck. Conlon and I stood up in the hatches, each with our 9-mm pistol out. I also had a shotgun ready. If we were to get into it in the city, we could not use the LAV’s cannon as it would cause too much collateral damage.
We went around the traffic circle and then headed to the bridge that signalled the entrance to Panjwai. This is where you really start to get nervous. Once over the bridge, the grape fields start. The vines are about six feet high and there are dips—about two feet deep—between the rows; enemy fighters can move freely through them without being seen.
On we rolled into what is called Ambush Alley. We heard over the radio that the patrol base was under attack with rockets, mortars and small arms fire. We were told to slow down until they had dealt with the problem, but soon came across their vehicles lining the highway, with guns pointed into the vineyards. We travelled behind them and soon entered the base, named after Master Corporal Timothy Wilson who had been killed at the start of the tour.
We lined the cars up and dismounted. It was good to see some old faces in B Company. Our men milled about smoking and joking about the ride up. Eventually, we received our orders for that afternoon and the next day. The task for the afternoon was to get onto the high ground to the south of the Arghandab River and observe any movement in and around the southern white school, located on the northern riverbank. The next day—Aug. 2—we were to move out under darkness to a position along the highway oriented south to secure it for a huge convoy coming from the west. We were also to entice the enemy into a fight, fix him in position and then let the Apaches (helicopters) finish him off, if possible.
For the afternoon task, we moved out and got into position quickly. We took notes and really got to memorize the area. There was nothing going on, but we noticed that the glassless windows of the school had been boarded up since we had been there last. The market was empty of people, as were the town and the fields. This is normally a good indication of enemy presence. We returned to the patrol base and passed our observations on to higher up.
We then set our minds to preparing for the next day. I would lead the platoon to the east along the open desert to the north of the highway. I planned the route and entered the grids into the LAV’s tactical navigational system. It was only about four kilometres to the waiting area, but in Afghanistan you never take chances with navigation.
Departure was at 0400 hours. Movement was slow as the dust from the vehicles was blinding, and the lack of moon was difficult for the NVGs (night-vision goggles) we were wearing. We do everything with lights off and night vision gear on. This means that a small-looking dip could actually be a 30-foot cliff—another reason why movement is slow.
We arrived at the waiting area at 0445 and then moved into a defensive posture, observing south towards the vineyards. Off to my 10 o’clock was an Afghan National Police checkpoint. We sat in that position until 0530 hours, all the time observing traffic and trying to develop a pattern. When we moved off we went straight for the highway in single file. I was the first on and turned west. The rest of the platoon and our engineer car followed.
We pushed west for two kilometres until I saw the cars (LAVs) behind me peeling off to the left where they established positions facing south. We pulled off and placed ourselves behind a small wall between two groups of trees. The sun was rising and we could see we were in a good position. To our front—about 100 metres away—was the grape field. It stretched left and right and had four or five buildings placed throughout. It went back about 400 metres to a line of trees, behind which was a canal. There was a group of buildings about 300 metres to our left, just off the highway. Peterson had his car and the engineer car placed there. Sgt. Austin Williams and Sgt. Patrick Tower were placed further to the east.
We sat there for most of the morning, moving the car around to prevent the enemy from getting a fix on it. At approximately 1130 hours, Williams and his crew saw two enemy with weapons advancing on them. They initiated contact with machine-gun fire, but the shots went into the ground. Then Tower moved forward with his section and Sgt. Vaughan Ingram. They came under small arms fire and Tower and Ingram responded by throwing grenades at the enemy, but one was a dud. The rest of the soldiers kept up with small arms fire. When they swept forward they found lots of blood, but no enemy. The tactical situation did not allow them to advance further as the LAVs would not be able to support them. So they returned to their positions and waited.
That afternoon we moved back to the base.
The reconnaissance platoon and our battle group’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope, had arrived. This was good because we all had good friends in the recce platoon, and Hope was a good man to have on the ground with you at any time. As the guys fuelled up the car, I went to visit the recce boys and scrounge some coffee. Peterson was told to report to the CO because there had been a change of plans. As far as we knew we were to be relieved by A Company the next day, so we sat there, smoked nervously and drank coffee.
We soon learned that we would move out at 0230 hours, east down Highway 1, southwest along Highway 1A to the town of Panjwai, which the district is named after. From there we were to cross the Arghandab and seize the white school and all those there. Intel was reporting a mid-level target in the school area, with an estimated body guard of 20 plus fighters. It was our job to go and get them. We knew, however, that these types of targets do not travel alone; they always have plenty of security.
The CO would lead us to the town, and once there my platoon would take the lead. We would cross the river and with the aid of the engineers sweep the road for IEDs. Once it was deemed safe we would move to the school and into attack positions. We would have three vehicles in extended line to the front, one in the rear as reserve. Recce platoon would follow with the CO, and we would dismount and take the school by force. Once we had taken all occupants prisoner, we would return to base.
We awoke on Aug. 3, 2006, at 0130 hours. It was another day in Afghanistan and if we had known how it was going to end we would have had second thoughts about getting up. After receiving our confirmatory orders, we boarded our vehicles. As always I sat on the turret with my gunner and had a smoke or two or three or four. It helped to ease the pre-mission jitters and also substituted for breakfast.
When Hope gave the word, the LAVs moved out in single file. We turned east and waited to pick up speed. The move to the south side of the river was uneventful, but we knew that our direction had been reported to the Taliban commanders. Once in the town of Panjwai, the CO fell back behind the platoon and gave the go-ahead for us to continue. As I recall, the order of march for the vehicles was: 33B, E15C, 33, G13, 33A and 33C. I was commanding 33A.
Under darkness, we picked our way across the river without any problems and moved up the north bank. As soon as we were up on it, M.Cpl. Tony Perry in 33B picked up 12 to 15 enemy at the corner of the road—approximately 150 metres ahead—setting up an ambush.
Car 33B stayed put and the rest of us moved into position where we could engage with cannons. 33C opened up first, dropping two enemy within a second. Then all the cars opened up. As my gunner fired the cannon I engaged with the machine-gun. Through the thermal sight I watched the enemy fall as we hit them. Within 30 seconds it was over and the enemy were dead, we hoped. We fired into other possible ambush positions, then ceased firing. The area where the enemy had been glowed on the thermal as the warm blood covered the cold ground.
Peterson, in car 33, gave the order to continue the advance. So we rolled on. Less than 20 metres later there was a huge explosion in front of us—right under 33. It rocked the ground and stunned me. I ducked down into the turret and looked through the thermal at 33. It was an IED. I then stood up with my NVG and saw 33 smoking, and tilting to the left. Men were getting the crew out. Somebody was on the radio saying that the turret wasn’t working and the guns were damaged. There was a call for the medic to come forward ASAP.
We had two men down, but had no idea how bad they were. My gunner was traversing his assigned arcs and reporting to me every minute on what he was looking at. I decided to move my car up on the left side of 33, to shield it from any fire coming from the west and the school which was in plain view through my NVG. My men, meanwhile, had dismounted and were assisting with first aid and establishing a cordon. One of the men handed me a piece of paper with writing on it. I was to send a nine-liner casualty report higher. I sat in the turret and looked at the piece of paper. One man, Peterson was Priority-3 (wounded, but able to move around) with shrapnel and concussion injuries. The other soldier, Cpl. Chris Reid was VSA (Vital Signs Absent). He was the driver and the IED had been initiated by pressure plate right under him.
Recce platoon moved forward to assist with the casualty evacuation. The CO had sent the regimental sergeant major, Chief Warrant Officer Randy Northrup, forward with his vehicle to get the injured back to the LZ (loading zone) for helicopter extraction. The medic told them Reid could not travel that far in his condition. So the LZ was moved closer, and as soon as they were at the LZ the American Black Hawk medevac flew in with gunship cover.
I was concerned with the ground in front of my car—it was long grass and weed, so the Apache scanned it for enemy. Tower and I discussed my vehicle position as I wanted to move out to the west some more. There was an open field that allowed me to move closer to the school, and see into the market. I moved to the west some 200 metres from the road, placing 33C about 100 metres to the south of me. 33B, meanwhile, stayed where it was on the road as it had already driven over one IED without hitting it. From where it was, it could cover to the north.
G13, commanded by Capt. Andrew Charchuck moved in behind and right of me. He was our artillery spotter and was very helpful in the hours to follow. E15C stayed on the road and the engineers looked for other IEDs. The dismounted soldiers, meanwhile, moved between the cars.
As soon as the sun started rising, the CO wanted the enemy ambush site swept. Capt. Jon Hamilton came forward with his recce platoon. My car and 33B moved forward with them, providing flank security. They found blood, guts and weapons, but no bodies. Here the road turned to the west, and beyond it was a huge marijuana weed field six feet high. Blood trails led into the field. I moved my car further west and waited. It was 0900 hours.
The town and school were free of movement. As I looked around—after having another nicotine breakfast—my gunner pulled me into the turret. He laid the sights onto 15 or so people with rockets about 400 metres away, moving west down a road in the town. He asked for permission to fire, but I said no. They were too close to buildings. There would be no firing until I gave the word. The enemy acted as I hoped they would and soon reappeared from behind the building. They were now in an open area and five more had joined them.
We were the only car to see them, and they could see us clear as day, but they did not react. Conlon lined them up with the cannon and I reached for the manual trigger of the coax machine-gun. The cannon fired high-explosive ammunition, mini grenades. As soon as I gave the executive to fire, he had rounds downrange. Immediately, Perry in 33B saw our rounds impact and he too opened up. We fired for 30 seconds and then had to stop due to the dust and smoke obscuring the target area. I radioed the CO and gave him a contact report.
Silence covered the battlefield and when the dust settled it looked as if someone had sprayed the area with a big can of red paint.
The CO wanted the engineers to move up the road to link up with 33B. Sgt. Vachon acknowledged, and his car started forward. Almost immediately there was a huge explosion beneath it, and the LAV disappeared in the smoke. My first thought was that they were all dead. As the smoke cleared, I could see them getting out, and it appeared that all of them had been wounded in some way. The ammunition was cooking off as the vehicle was on fire. A nine-liner was sent and another helicopter arrived to get the wounded out. There were no serious injuries, mostly concussion and flash burns. We had to make a new plan.
Ingram was now the platoon commander. He and Hamilton, the commander of the recce platoon, conferred with Hope. It was decided to approach the school on foot, with the vehicles supporting from their current positions. Half the troops would move from the south of the road while the rest from the north. Some Afghan police had arrived and they would be the first ones across the open ground. My car and 33C would give pre-emptive fire on the school. H-hour was set for 1130 hours. I dismounted and received confirmation that Reid had died. I also got an update on the other injuries. Once back in the car I told the bad news to my gunner and driver.
The soldiers moved into position and at a predetermined time we opened up on the school. We shot through the windows and doors with high explosives for two minutes. The soldiers on the ground began to move as soon as Ingram gave the thumbs up. Right away they were engaged in the rear by enemy of unknown size. The rear section turned into the enemy and attacked. The amount of fire was insane. Cpl. Jason Hoekstra led his section to assist and they moved closer to the enemy. The enemy withdrew, and I was given the word to again engage the school for 30 seconds, then the soldiers would step off again. At this time the CO was on the radio asking for artillery. All I heard was that it had been denied by higher up. I was a bit stunned at this, but thought nothing more of it.
At the same time, the local town was being mortared by the enemy and a car bomb had exploded. Twenty plus people, mostly children, had been killed. This fired us all up. But there were more bad times ahead.
The Afghan police and the first group of troops reached the school at 1203 hours. They cleared the school and confirmed it was empty. Then the enemy opened up. Initially there was RPG fire to the south, aimed at 33C. Then the school was enveloped by dust and smoke from over 30 RPGs. I recall seeing a wall of smoke and dust from explosions. In front of it I remember seeing Afghan police running towards safety, and through it you could make out Canadians running forward towards the enemy.
The enemy was firing from all around us, 270 degrees around the school. And there were a lot of them. I personally counted over 60 RPGs in the first five minutes. Then the enemy fighters entered the back rooms of the school. There was some violent close fighting going on with the troops in the school until they withdrew to the school’s outbuilding. In this building were no more than 15 Canadian soldiers. I had a canal in front of me with enemy no more than five metres away. I got on the radio and had Tower throw grenades into the canal, but out of three only one went off. By that time my car had become the focus of lots of enemy fire. We were rocked from RPGs hitting around us and the ping of bullets hitting us was deafening. I got my gunner to engage the closest building and he set it on fire with tracer. It burned, and shooting from there stopped for a while.
We then engaged the marijuana fields, hoping to set them on fire and deny cover to the enemy. This worked a little bit, but we soon gave up. We watched where the dismounts were shooting and fired in the same direction. The fire was coming from all around, and so the enemy was making good use of the ground and adopting tactics that indicated a top-shelf fighting unit.
Somehow, the second group of men reached the outbuilding. How they made it through that fire was unbelievable, but during the dash over, Pte. Kevin Dallaire was hit and was in a bad way. They got him to the outbuilding and started first aid. We still held the initiative, but we were losing it quickly. Another platoon had showed up and was held in reserve at the casualty collection point in the Arghandab. Some of their NCOs came forward on foot. My car was running low on ammo, but we could not get to the back to get it.
G13—another LAV III—moved beside to cover us from fire and I got on the radio for assistance. Sgt. Mars Janek from the recce platoon ran forward, under fire and jumped in the back. He passed us ammo and we got back to firing. By this time things were looking bad. We had a lot of heat casualties and ammo was running low. The men in the outhouse were pinned down and any attempt to withdraw was suicide. They contemplated throwing smoke and using that as cover, but when you are surrounded it’s not a good idea. Plus, smoke draws fire in a big way.
It was 1330 hours. We continued to fire at the enemy, and I think we killed a lot of them. But as soon as they were dead someone else took their place. By 1400 hours we had one wounded by fire and 10 heat casualties—not to mention one dead and seven wounded from earlier in the day. This was expected given the ferocity of the fight, and the fact that men were wearing 80 pounds in the heat.
Then it happened. My driver watched as a RPG in slow motion got the one-in-a-million hit. It flew into the outhouse and exploded. There was nothing but silence on the radio until we heard Hamilton on the net. I remember his words. “We need f—king LAVs here right f—king now. I got three dead and a shit load wounded!”
The RPG killed Dallaire, Cpl. Bryce Keller and Ingram. It had wounded Hamilton, Cpl. Mark Brownell, Cpl. Andrew Gorman and Pte. Eric Qualtier. It had concussed Williams and Worth. Now there were only seven men who could fight and they were about to be overrun.
Tower grabbed a medic and another soldier from the reserve section and rushed under fire to the school. All three had multiple bullet holes in their clothing and kit, but none was injured. Tower got to the outbuilding and saw Sgt. Willie MacDonald. He was informed that Ingram was dead and that they needed to get out of there soon, or they were all going to be dead. Tower later received the Star of Military Valour for this action.
Hamilton was back on the radio pleading for LAVs. The enemy was less than 20 metres away, and closing in waves.
I could hear the desperation in his voice. I got on the radio to the CO and said that my car and 33B could do it. He explained the IED and mine threat on the roads. I told him we would still do it. Perry in 33B was doing the same thing, telling the CO that he and my car could do it. There was silence and then the CO wished us “good luck.”
I reversed my vehicle and headed towards 33B. Once I got behind him I stuck my head up and looked at him. On the whole, I was fortunate and extremely happy to have M.Cpl. Tony Perry going up that road with me. He would lead and his car would go to the west side of the building and I would take the east. Any thought of IEDs was blocked out of my mind. We just went.
As soon as we started moving all the enemy fire targeted us. They knew our intent and did not want us to reach our destination. We traversed right and started hosing down all we could see. We were getting pounded. 33B went around to the west side and dropped his ramp. I did the same on my side. We covered the school from fire, and wore it ourselves. The sound was incredible. We fired and fired and fired at everything. Finally, the guys were loaded into the back, yelling and screaming at us to get going. The wounded and the dead were piled on everyone else.
Perry told me he was good to go, and I had had enough of being there as well. I moved first, but the ramp was down as the chains had been shot off. This made it slow going. Any moment I expected an RPG to fly in the back of the LAV, but Perry got nice and close to the back of my car in an attempt to cover me. The trip back was as bad as the trip up, but we made it. We moved directly back to the casualty collection point (CCP), and once there I jumped out to help with the wounded and dead.
The first thing I saw was some guys dragging a body. At first I thought it was Keller, until I saw it was Ingram. Then I saw another body being carried into the CCP. It was Dallaire.
Capt. Kevin Barry attempted to revive Dallaire, but he was gone. I never did see Keller. The wounded were surrounded by medics. There was nothing else for me to do, so my crew got more ammo and moved back into the fight. The ramp was still down, so we did our best to get a good position.
The enemy fire died down. They knew that the men had been saved. Upon command, we pulled back to the casualty point. Tower, Perry and I organized the survivors into groups. MacDonald did the same with the recce boys. Hamilton was medevaced with the other soldiers after nearly losing a foot with the RPG hit. We then laid out a defensive plan that had a LAV on each cardinal point, with troops in between. My plan was to have each LAV fire every five minutes at a point of his choice. This was meant to keep the enemy down.
We picked up enemy talk of hitting us again with four waves of a hundred men each. This is not nice to hear when ammo is running low. It was 1545 hours. Finally, we had authorization for artillery, and it was certainly welcomed. Incredibly, as the rounds were flying through the air from Patrol Base Wilson, an American pilot in his B-1 bomber flew only a few hundred feet above the ground—twice—as a show of force against the enemy. He had no bombs, but had heard the fight on the all-informed net, and wanted to help. It was beautiful, and scared the hell out of the Taliban.
We left at 1630 and on the way back to base my coolant lines blew off, damage from RPG concussion. I contacted the CO and sought permission to go to the other camp in the city, otherwise we wouldn’t make it. He agreed and we entered camp at 1715 hours. As soon as I pulled up in front of the mechanics’ bay, my wonderful, beautiful car died.
The battle was not a victory or a loss. It was the worst of days and the best of days. It was found later that we had faced over 200 enemy. A little more than a platoon had fought for almost a day, albeit not continuously, against an enemy that outnumbered us nearly four to one. Four soldiers were killed and 10 or more wounded. There were many more dead Taliban. I had 50 rounds of ammo left.
The troops were crushed at the deaths of their friends, so we packed the dead men’s kit ourselves. The NCOs sat and spoke with the CO at length and reviewed the battle. Nothing wrong had been done. It was just a bad day.
It was a total team effort that day, but the people who stick out in my mind that deserve special mention whenever I talk about Aug. 3, 2006 are: Capt. Jon Hamilton, Sgt. William MacDonald, Lt.-Col. Ian Hope, RSM Randy Northrup, M.Cpl. Tony Perry, Cpl. Jason Hoekstra, Cpl. Shawn Felix, Cpl. Adam Neid, Cpl. Paul Rachynski, my crew, and G13, Capt. Andrew Charchuck.
It is an honour to know and serve with types such as these.
We had the ramp ceremony, then went back to Spin Boldak. Two weeks left in Afghanistan.
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