Local soldier tells war tales

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      On July 9, long-time Vancouver resident Master Cpl. Kelly Mess boarded a plane for Afghanistan to complete his third tour of duty abroad. That same day, six more soldiers arrived in Canada to be laid to rest. They had been killed in a roadside explosion southwest of Kandahar.

      Mess knew one of the six. The two had roomed together while serving in Bosnia.

      At the end of a two-week leave, just four hours before his flight back to Kabul, Mess, 35, shared his thoughts on Canada's mission in Afghanistan and told the Georgia Straight why he fights.

      "My gunner, his mother is a schoolteacher [in Afghanistan]," Mess began. One day, the gunner received a letter from a past student of his mother's, an Afghan girl, nine or 10 years old. "The same age as my son," Mess said. The letter was sent from Canada.

      Late one night, the letter read, the Taliban had come to the girl's home and taken her father and uncle. Her father returned; her uncle did not. Living in fear, the family made the decision to leave.

      On the journey, bandits attacked and stole the girl's baby sister. The family could do nothing. And the child, like the girl's uncle, was never seen again.

      "But they made it all the way to Canada," Mess said quietly. And the girl had written to the gunner to tell him what had happened to her. "She just wrote a letter saying, 'Thank you for making my country a safer place,'" Mess said. "That's the reason why any of us volunteer."

      Mess first arrived in Afghanistan in June 2005. He's been on the front lines in the volatile Kandahar province since February of this year. Back in Canada, a wife, nine-year-old son, and seven-year-old daughter wait for his safe return.

      Mess was deeply affected by his experiences in Bosnia as a reservist. It was during that time that he decided to join the Canadian Regular Forces. "He was taken aback by how everything in the country had been ruined by the war," George Mess, Kelly's father, told the Straight by phone from Victoria.

      In February 2007, Mess was deployed to the Panjwayi district of the Afghan-Pakistan border region of Kandahar province. It was an area where most of the country's fighting was taking place.

      "We spent 54 days out on a place called Gundi Gha," Mess said of his third tour. "Basically, a hill in the middle of nowhere that has nothing on it." Facilities were primitive. Mess's home consisted of a three-metre-wide hole in the ground that was less than two metres deep. A tank tarp hung low overhead and the perimeter was sandbagged. That's where Mess and his fellow soldiers slept for almost two months. Showers happened once a week and consisted of nothing more than an elevated bag of water. Two or three warm meals a month broke the monotony of desert life. "And we'd go out on patrols in the local area, just trying to establish a presence and maintain security," Mess said.

      Mess' camp in Gundi Gha, Kandahar.
      "It was a long two months."

      Combat situations were common, and the arrival of NATO forces in areas sympathetic to the Taliban could bring on a silence louder than any roadside bomb. The streets would empty and locals would turn their backs. "There's just no interaction at all," Mess said. "You could feel the tension."

      Conditions were harsh, and they saw a lot of action in Gundi Gha. "It was a long two months."

      During the cold nights Mess spent in the trenches of Gundi Gha, his mind would most often wander to his family back home.

      Mess's wife, Ann, and his two children live in military housing in Petawawa, outside of Ottawa. Mess is able to talk to his family every two or three days by phone.

      Much of Mess's passion for his mission begins with his own family. He sees the innocence of his own children in the youth of Afghanistan. "At the age of six or seven, they're out in the fields harvesting wheat by hand. And they do it, day in day out, and have no idea what else is out there," Mess said. "They should be out playing."

      George Mess said his son does not talk a lot about the war. But what he does hear from his son makes him proud. "I can't say that I don't worry about him, 'cause I do.”¦But at the same time, I talk to him, and he feels they're making progress and they're doing good."