A no-holds-barred oral history of Operation Medusa,
the biggest battle in the last 60 years of Canadian military history,
told by the officers who led it, on the occasion of its 10-year anniversary.
Someday the opening hours of this battle will be a movie: a menacing group of drab green Canadian military vehicles creep across a river and into a field, deep in a foreign land, the soldiers apprehensive, their commanders uncertain of what is to come, then suddenly the assault force is lit up by machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades and worse.
In seconds there are dead Canadians on the battlefield. Many more are wounded.
These were the opening shots of the most important battle in Canada’s war in Afghanistan.
The U.S. had just pulled out of Kandahar and left it to NATO to provide security and reconstruction in what had been a fairly peaceful place.
The enemy had other ideas. What they saw was the American superpower in retreat and NATO as weak.
They massed in numbers not seen since the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Their intent was to reveal NATO as impotent. They wanted to take Kandahar City.
Operation Medusa was the response.
The massed enemy would end up fighting almost the entirety of the 2800-strong Canadian battle group— not just three companies of infantry, but also the reconnaissance squadron, a field squadron of combat engineers, JTF2 special operations troops, Americans, Danes and lots of air support.
The enemy did not win, though they did achieve certain small victories. Such as that first battle, when the Canadians crossed the Arghandab River to take Objective Rugby and were massively, cinematically, repelled.
When Charles Company got lit up and retreated on Sept. 3, 2006, it marked one of the lowest points in the battle. Four men died. Their names were Frank Mellish, Shane Stachnik, William Cushley and Rick Nolan.
The next morning it got worse. Charles Company was hit by friendly fire from an American jet. There was one dead—Mark Graham—and so many dozens wounded that the entire company had to be removed from the order of battle. Charles was obliterated.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, it’s kind of impossible to tell the whole story.
At this point, Operation Medusa is almost an enigma. If the battle were to be fought in retrospect, none of the leaders there would have done it exactly the same, knowing what they know now. On the other hand, none of them would change much either.
It was the most epic assault in at least the last 60 years of Canadian military history.
Stop to consider what that means. In the time between the Korean War and Medusa, many generations of officers and soldiers signed their lives away to Canada and never got to fight the fight. In the time since, pretty much the same story.
But these guys got the chance. They rolled into an enemy sanctuary from the south, then the north. It was a free fire zone. They used every weapon they had. They fought and they died. Until they won. They did not give up.
The enemy numbered in the hundreds (maybe thousands), and they were dug in and delusional, ready to destroy the Canadian assaulters with whatever weapons they could smuggle in from Pakistan, under the protection of their extremist beliefs.
Which turned out to be wrong. Their beliefs weren’t enough to win this fight.
Major-General Omer Lavoie
If you ask the battle group commander during the battle about who won, and whether it was a success, he will give you a predictably straightforward answer.
Major-General Omer Lavoie says that Medusa was a success.
That doesn’t mean that no mistakes were made, but those mistakes didn’t change the outcome of the battle.
Back in 2006, Lavoie was a lieutenant-colonel, and he was in charge of the Canadian battle group, under the command of Brigadier-General David Fraser.
“It was right on the transition from U.S. command to NATO command,” said Lavoie. “The Taliban bought into the idea that NATO wouldn’t have the same stomach for a fight. We show up, we go in there, we take back that area. And this was a place of iconic importance to the Taliban. So if I base it on those criteria, I say it was a huge success, because everything my troops were asked to do, we did.
“Did we free Zhari and Panjwaii districts from the Taliban? Of course not,” said Lavoie. “But when I look at the reason we went in there in the first place is that the Taliban were threatening Kandahar City. Something had to be done to protect the city from falling. And it’s a huge sense of pride for my soldiers, to accomplish that.
“Professionally it’s changed who I am. I use it as my azimuth when I’m commanding. We lost our regimental sergeant major [Chief Warrant Officer Robert Girouard], we lost 19 guys. And so it’s hard not to think about that every day. That’s the hardest part of command.
“But we were the only unit to receive a Governor General’s citation for an operation, and that commendation is what means the most, it’s what unifies us as a band of brothers.”
Major Trevor Norton
During Medusa, Norton was the LAV Captain in Charles Company, and he was there on the 3rd of September, helping to oversee the battle.
“In some ways it was a pivotal moment for me. When I look back on it, it was the one time in Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan where the Taliban really massed and sought a conventional fight. And we gave them one,” said Norton. “But I didn’t look at it as some massive event at the time. Looking back it was quite remarkable, but it was just another part of the mission. It was just another day in Kandahar.”
For Norton, there is one aspect of the operation’s opening battle that still makes him think, even a decade later.
“Prior to Sept. 3, we’d been sitting on one side of the river and trying to attrite the enemy on the other side of the river with direct fires. I had the firing line set up and we’d fire whenever the enemy exposed themselves. I said to people ‘the guys we’re taking out today, we’re not going to face tomorrow.’ The next day, we crossed the river, we were worried about where we were going to breach the enemy’s defensive line. But we weren’t firing, and that allowed the enemy to get the drop on us.
“Since then, I’ve tried to impress upon my guys in training, we need to make sure we rely on those conventional tactics. If you think something, you should probably put it forward. If it doesn’t seem right, you should put it out. I use that as an example of initiative. [Someone had to] recommend that we continued firing, because that is really what allowed the Taliban to get the drop on us.”
Major Jeremy Hiltz
In 2006, Hiltz was in command of Charles Company’s 8 Platoon. He crossed the river on Sept. 3 and was right in the midst of the battle.
“For me, and many of the soldiers that I keep in touch with, I believe that memories, both good and bad, of our participation in Operation Medusa remains a source of great pride,” said Hiltz. “To this day, I still remember Sept. 3 and 4 almost like it was yesterday. At the time, there was little thought about the larger ramifications of what we were doing, either for the people of Afghanistan or NATO.
“For me personally, I see the operation as a whole being a very defining moment in which Canada accomplished something that had not been done in quite some time. For Charles Company and our specific part, regardless of the tragic outcome for many on those days, we were further cemented as fellow warriors. The looks of determination in the soldiers of my platoon after having lost Frank Mellish and seeing many of our brothers wounded was amazing. Regardless of the danger, they were still ready to take the fight to the enemy. And even after the American A-10 strafed our position, the soldiers rallied and carried on.
“I recall hearing how higher-up leadership indicating that they did not think that the town of Pashmul and the district of Panjwaii could be taken. We did something that many nations have tried to do on a similar piece of ground. We beat a formidable enemy who was dug in and prepared on his terrain. As 8 Platoon, we rose to the challenge, got knocked down and got right back up.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Gasparotto
In 2006, Gasparotto was a major in charge of 23 Field Squadron, 2 Combat Engineer Regiment.
“At the time, I knew it was the largest NATO operation in its history. There’s a certain mythology that surrounds Medusa, whether it’s the name itself or because it was such a violent encounter. Certainly within the engineers, what 23 Field Squadron did stands out. I do know it challenged the engineer squadron across all of its capabilities. And in terms of our adaptation and improvisation, we provided the support the battlegroup needed in spite of our limited vehicle and resource holdings. In that respect Medusa gave us a chance to demonstrate how entrepreneurial the engineers can be to solve battlefield problems.
“Certainly the level of violence that went down after Medusa was significant, in terms of direct fire. But I really don’t have an appreciation for whether the next fighting season was less severe than it was in 2006. And even if it was the next year, what was it like in subsequent years? So did we save Kandahar City from being taken over? I don’t know. And I didn’t really know at the time, although that’s what we told ourselves. We certainly delayed it. The Taliban were making a concerted effort at the time. Could we have killed a lot more of them? Taken out more of their leadership? But didn’t, because of the way the attack unfolded, and many got away?
“I certainly remember what we had roughed out on the map. Knowing what I know now, I would have paid attention to different things that day. I think we got caught up in our own decision-making cycle as we were trying to clarify the orders, because it went against our understanding of what the scheme of manoeuvre was meant to be. While there was a battle group, it wasn’t a battle group attack on Sept. 3rd.
“There aren’t a lot left. By the end of the tour I had about 130 soldiers in the squadron, which is quite large. But when I think of who is still remaining in the forces; all the officers are still in, but the NCOs, their ranks have really diminished. Many of them went on to serve once or twice more in Afghanistan, and I think they paid a price for their service and are now facing certain challenges.”
Indeed, official Veterans Affairs figures indicate that nearly 10 per cent of the 39,000 Canadians who served in Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD. But as that number includes many thousands of support trades who never saw combat, the percentage of combat soldiers diagnosed with PTSD would be much, much higher.
Major Edward Stewart
During the operation, Stewart was the battle group public affairs officer. Then a captain, he was in charge of handling the worldwide media attention generated by the battle.
“I look back at Medusa as the largest operation I was ever involved in and will likely ever be involved in,” said Stewart. “To this day I cannot think of another instance where everyone I knew was focused on the same one thing. I feel genuinely privileged that I had the opportunity to play a small part in a big thing, and also to work beside some pretty impressive individuals.
“It was in a real way the culmination of a sea change in how the Canadian Army was perceived, I would suggest. I think Medusa perhaps acted as the final confirmatory piece that, yes, Canadian soldiers were still war fighters when the need arose.
“The operation was a success, and I do not think that saying so is controversial; however, it is important to frame that success in context as with all things. For example, I don’t think anyone would claim that Medusa ‘won the war’ or anything like that because the subsequent eight battle groups that rotated all faced tremendous challenges, hardships and loss, but it was a very significant moment in the overall campaign.
“The rationale for launching Medusa to face down an existential threat against Kandahar City is well-established enough that I don’t need to reaffirm it. I can say from personal experience that when the group I was with headed out to field on Aug. 30, our convoy drove through a ghost town. Kandahar City seemed almost abandoned. On the way back after Medusa, not four weeks later our convoy kept getting stuck due to the volume of people in the city once more.
“What did it all mean? I really couldn’t say, bearing in mind that I had a very small role amongst thousands. Everyone I know felt that they had participated in something pretty important and that they had, as part of the team, done some real good and made a change and felt pretty good about it. And yet the battle group sustained 12 of its 19 killed after Medusa, so perhaps I could suggest Medusa as a very real example of how fleeting euphoria is in warfare…that in the end, the time for celebration was surprisingly brief and then it was on to the next thing.”
“We shall defend our island,
whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and
in the streets, we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender.”
– Winston Churchill
In the end, the Canadian battle group achieved all their objectives. It took longer than expected, and was far harder than anyone wanted it to be; but the eyes of the world were watching, and there was no way the Canadians were going to lose this fight.
It’s likely that civilians will never grasp the cost of war. Sacrificing lives to take a piece of land is incomprehensible. But that’s what the military is there for, and that’s what they did during Operation Medusa.
Advance to contact. Advance until people start dying. This is war.