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Down Time At Kandahar



Above: Soldiers must carry weapons on the base; Guillaume Trudel (left) and Nadine Charron relax on the Tim Hortons patio at Kandahar Airfield.

For the Canadian soldiers based at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) in Afghanistan, daily living certainly has its challenges. There is, of course, the war and the ever-present threat of rocket attacks, but there’s also a truly harsh climate complete with scorching heat, freezing nights and an unstoppable dust that gets inside everything.

And while it’s hard not to get stressed when it’s 40 degrees Celsius, sand is blowing in your eyes and the enemy is trying to kill you, the civilians of the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency (CFPSA) are doing everything they can think of to help the troops relax and make life at KAF more bearable.

With over 40 employees at KAF, the CFPSA does everything from arranging leave to providing amusement to keeping the double-doubles flowing at the incredibly popular Tim Hortons outlet on the base.

The Kandahar Tim Hortons is housed in a trailer along a large covered boardwalk made of raw, unfinished timber. This boardwalk is kind of the epicentre of morale boosting at KAF. There are trailers housing a Burger King, a Pizza Hut and a Subway, all run by American companies. There are also shops selling everything from local crafts to new Nike shoes to ice cream.

All of this is in the middle of a war zone, which highlights how strange life at KAF really is. There is, first of all, the constant noise of fighter jets, cargo planes and attack helicopters from the airstrip. There’s often sporadic gunfire on the ranges or in the distance and there’s always the sound of big diesel engines powering armoured vehicles up and down the tent lines.

Another oddity at KAF can be seen outside the main cafeterias. Instead of the normal sign reading “No shirt, no shoes, no service”, there is a big notice strictly proclaiming the policy “All military personnel MUST carry weapons.”

Guillaume Trudel manages the Tim Hortons outlet at KAF. He’s a veteran of four previous CFPSA deployments, having been to Bosnia twice and twice to Camp Mirage in the Middle East.

After being on the ground for several months, Trudel says he’s learned to handle the heat and the dust–the two things which top his list of irritants–and has even come to terms with the rocket attacks after a fairly close call earlier. “One of them landed just down the boardwalk from us,” says Trudel. “We all ran for cover. I just didn’t want any of my staff to get hurt.”

For Trudel now, the bigger problem is keeping up with demand for coffee and doughnuts. On any given morning at about 8:30 a.m. the line-up stretches out the Tim Hortons main door and sometimes 30 or 40 feet down the boardwalk. And even though there’s a second ‘walk-by’ ordering window right on the boardwalk, it’s always a challenge to keep up with the rush, says Trudel.

After a few months of operations, Trudel has begun to note that Tim Hortons’ popularity has begun to increase beyond the Canadian contingent. One morning he counted soldiers from no less than 16 nations coming through the store. As Trudel says, this popularity is not only driven by the ice cappuccinos.

“You can see when they come in to order their coffees and sit out here,” says Trudel, gesturing to the patio. “It makes them forget about things a little. It feels maybe a bit like home.”

Nadine Charron is a young woman from Petawawa working for Trudel and the CFPSA at Tim Hortons. She wanted to come to Kandahar for a very simple reason: her husband is deployed here with the Canadian Forces and she wanted to be with him.

Charron, like the rest of the Tim Hortons employees, works a lot–seven days a week, usually 10 hours a day with only a half-day off. But, even still, Charron says she likes the work and wouldn’t trade her experience here for anything. “Work becomes fun as well. These are your friends,” she says. “Plus, there’s really nothing else to do anyway so you might as well work.”

Another attraction for Charron and the rest of the CFPSA workers is that the job pays quite well. The civilians here get the same tax allowances as the soldiers and while they may not always earn quite as much for a base salary, Charron will still come away from her six-month tour with enough money to buy a new car and put down a deposit on a house.

While Tim Hortons is, at the moment, the most high profile service the CFPSA operates at KAF, it is far from the whole show. The organization also runs Canada House, a large tent and adjacent patio that has all manner of morale boosting diversions, including a big screen TV with Canadian channels on satellite, a small tuck shop, a new ball hockey rink and the popular table game, foosball.

Sitting on the patio outside Tim Hortons and having a quiet coffee has become a justifiably popular thing to do for many of the soldiers at Kandahar Airfield. One sunny morning last October a group of soldiers sat wistfully staring at the newly built rink, the two conversations drifted together. “Let’s just challenge the Taliban to a sudden death game,” one of them murmured. “If they win we go home, if we win they go away.”

It’s just too bad the Taliban don’t play hockey.

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