After Afghanistan: McGill veterans of the war look back

Soldiering is all about being prepared and not succumbing to boredom - because danger might only be a heartbeat away

by Benjamin Makuch and Lucas Wisenthal, BA'03

Derek Prohar, BA’99, received the Medal of Military Valour from former Governor General Michaëlle Jean

On December 1, a Canadian flag that had been flying in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province since August 2005 was lowered for the last time, marking the official end to a decade-long Canadian Forces (CF) mission. The CF withdrew its last combat personnel from Afghanistan last July after 10 years of engaging the Taliban at the cost of 158 Canadian casualties and an estimated $18.5 billion in military expenditures. Apart from the Canadian soldiers who remain in Kabul to train Afghan National Army (ANA) units in counter-insurgency tactics as part of Canada’s final NATO commitment, the war is effectively over for the CF.

Current estimates put our Afghan war veterans at more than 20,000 – a number which reflects just how substantial the Canadian war effort has been over the last decade, making the Afghan war the largest military operation for the CF in 50 years. Some of those vets are McGill alums.

Two such veterans are Captain Joshua Makuch, BA’07, and Captain Rodrigo DeCastro, BA’05. Best friends since their time together at Montreal’s storied Black Watch Reserve Regiment, both contributed their summers to boot camp, with the hope that by the end of their four years of school they would be fully certified combat officers. Makuch and DeCastro passed with distinction and went on to serve a tour and two tours in Afghanistan respectively.

Major Derek Prohar, BA’99, enlisted in the CF after graduating from McGill. “I had a couple of options, and most of them entailed going back to school, and I really didn’t want to do that,” the Avonlea, Saskatchewan native says. “I was considering going to law school, but I wasn’t up for another four years of school, to be quite frank.”

Joshua Makuch, BA’07

For Makuch, joining the CF served to satisfy a lifelong goal that most young soldiers credit their service with. “I was young and wanted to go on an adventure.”

Makuch was an infantry officer fighting out of the remote Sperwan Ghar outpost in Kandahar Province, considered by many to be the most dangerous place on earth at the time of his service. He describes his experience as a careful balance of horror and monotony.

“War is prolonged periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” explains Makuch. “If we were in a down cycle for a few days, most of our time on our patrol base was spent on maintenance, defence, and security duties, as well as sleeping and planning the next cycle of operations. Even a combat operation in the most remote, insurgent-infested corner of Kandahar Province can be a mundane experience 95 percent of the time. It’s the other five percent of the time that you have to watch out for, so a lot of energy is consumed fighting off that boredom and remaining alert.

“It’s easy to stay focused in the middle of a firefight,” says Makuch. “It’s less easy when you’ve been trudging through the heat and dust, climbing over walls and through wadis [dry valleys] for a week, wearing a ton of gear and ammo.”

Vigilance was paramount for survival in those circumstances: villagers spotted in the distance on motorcycles holding walkie-talkies might be insurgents, while a bump in the road might be hiding an improvised explosive device (IED).

“You have to stay alert and watch for those subtle combat indicators, because when it pops, it really pops. It can go from zero to chaos in a fraction of a second, and the next four hours of your life are spent surviving on adrenaline, trying to impose your will on that chaos.”

DeCastro served as the aide-de-camp to the task force commander in Kandahar City after his first tour in Maywand District training the ANA. Marching through Taliban controlled towns in Maywand District during his first tour, DeCastro lived with the threat of constant IED attacks on foot patrols or Humvee rides. “People and planning [make the difference],” DeCastro says. “While war movies glorify the war part of the business, very few place any emphasis on the preparation and planning that goes on. Very little that takes place is spontaneous. One of the most dangerous things is to become complacent or predictable. The unofficial motto for my team became, ‘Evolve or Die.’”

When Prohar decided on army life over further academics, he packed his bags for St. Jean, Quebec, where he underwent basic officer training. The following September, Prohar was posted to Gagetown, New Brunswick, where he completed his occupational training. And in August 2001, he was sent to Edmonton, Alberta to begin serving as a platoon commander in the Third Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, or 3 PPCLI.

A month later, while he and his company took part in a training program in Wales, the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon unfolded. Prohar knew immediately that 3 PPCLI—which NATO had designated a high-readiness unit—would likely be deployed for Afghanistan. And they soon were.

“You don’t expect something like that to happen, but you train for it,” Prohar says. “In that respect, all of us were, I guess, lucky to be a part of that unit at the time it was. We were excited.”

Prohar arrived at Kandahar Airfield on February 7, 2002 for his first six-month tour. “It was austere,” he says. “There were very few amenities.”

His work consisted largely of ensuring that he and his platoon were ready for combat. “A lot of what I had to do on a daily basis wasn’t so much worry about war-fighting, if you will, or either getting shot at or doing the shooting,” Prohar says. “Most of what I had to deal with was man management—making sure guys were taken care of and the mission was [clear] and the equipment was taken care of. For every hour or two you spend in the field, five or six are spent beforehand preparing.”

“We went up, and over the course of a month, we cleared out enemies. We did a whole bunch of stuff that, really, a much larger group should have been tasked with.”

That September, while working as a liaison officer with the United States Special Forces, Prohar was wounded by an IED during an enemy ambush. Prohar, the rear machine gunner on the battalion commander’s vehicle during the attack, returned fire despite his injuries and helped the commander coordinate a successful counterattack. His actions earned him the Medal of Military Valour. Following a third tour in 2009-10, Prohar was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, an accolade presented to him by Governor General David Johnston earlier this year.

Rodrigo DeCastro, BA’05

After spending 24 months in Afghanistan, Prohar believes Canada’s troops have helped set the country on a path toward stability. “We’re very uniquely placed as a military,” he says. “We’ve positioned our soldiers in Kabul to help train the military. The security situation is where we can help out.”

Makuch worries about Afghanistan’s future.

“I’m concerned that the ethnic and tribal tensions will boil over into a civil war,” he says. “And that the Afghan government will be incapable of keeping the insurgents at bay while ambiguous support from players inside Pakistan will rejuvenate the insurgency post-NATO involvement.”

DeCastro is more optimistic.

“If we believe that there needs to be an Afghan solution to the Afghan ‘problem,’ then we should leave the matter to the Afghans. Still, I also believe that our time in Afghanistan created conditions for the infiltration of change agents much more powerful than NATO – technology like television, cell phones, and the Internet.”

But even DeCastro is aware of the sobering reality that Afghanistan may yet be in store for a continued war.

“I am hopeful that Afghanistan will find its footing. But I’m also concerned that I’m too optimistic,” he adds.

DeCastro and Makuch returned to Canada with contrasting plans for the future. Makuch will be leaving the CF this coming summer to return to civilian life, while DeCastro will remain with Her Majesty’s Forces for another five years.

For Makuch his time in Sperwan Ghar will probably be his last tour in uniform. “After seven months in Afghanistan, I aged seven years, and I think with that experience comes a bit of perspective.” He is looking forward to his post-military life.

Prohar now lives in Toronto, where he is working toward a master’s degree in defense studies at the Canadian Forces Command and Staff College. He hopes to return to military service, ideally commanding a platoon, after he completes his thesis. “I had originally joined, not for the fun of it, but it was a five-year or four-year contract, so I figured I could do that before I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says. But he soon realized that the military drew “very smart, very intelligent, very forward-thinking people” – the kind of people who can make a real difference in the world.

“I don’t see any other organizations right now that have that sort of thing.”