POLITICS

Soldier's disarming of live Taliban suicide bomber forgotten by DND

11/10/2013 01:51 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
OTTAWA - The would-be Taliban suicide bomber let loose a deep, audible sigh when Leading Seaman Bruno Guevremont lifted the explosive vest from his shoulders.

It was the culmination of an extraordinary event that could have been ripped from a Hollywood script, but instead has been buried since 2009 within a military bureaucracy that has yet to recognize the extraordinary act of courage.

Bomb-disposal teams were often the rock stars of an army deeply entrenched in the hide-and-seek Afghan war with an enemy whose primary weapon was either the powerful roadside bomb or insidious booby trap.

Guevremont, a 14-year veteran, was one of dozens of navy clearance divers, whose expertise in dealing with explosives became crucial in the brutal five-year guerrilla fight in Kandahar.

"I had my face on top of a bomb two to three times a day," Guevremont told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.

His story has circulated among Afghan vets for years, but remained untold until he was approached by CP last summer.

His team was among the busiest deployed by the Canadian Army to Kandahar, logging 96 reported calls, and defusing over 100 roadside bombs and booby traps from spring until the end of 2009.

Not included in those statistics are the countless grim occasions when they were required to secure and clean up the scenes of bombs that went off.

Over 40 bomb-disposal teams deployed to Kandahar during the five-year combat mission, but their exploits were kept a closely guarded secret. The Canadian military banned identification of the operators, as they did special forces soldiers, as a way of protecting them from retribution.

As a result, many of their harrowing stories have gone untold, and unrecognized.

An hour after he landed in Kandahar city for the first time in April 2009, Guevremont recalled being dispatched to the provincial governor's palace, where three suicide bombers had blown themselves up, leaving behind what he describes as a "bloody mess."

It was an ominous start to a tour that saw them handle up to five reported bombs a day, some of them rendered harmless amid Taliban ambushes.

It is an intimate kind of war. On every occasion, Guevremont had put himself in the bomber's mind, anticipating his intent and the devastating effects.

Sometimes, it was like a mental battle of wits with a shadow.

"You've got to be really, really switched on," said Guevremont, whose experiences have left him with post traumatic stress.

"You kind of become a good guy-bad guy kind of deal. ... It's never done until it's done."

The date was June 6, 2009. It was one of those blistering hot southern Afghan days without a cloud in the sky.

The team and accompanying soldiers of a quick reaction force roared up to the provincial council office located in a barricaded, well-watered, somewhat leafy section of Kandahar city. There was a report of a suicide bomber and Guevremont confronted an ashen-faced Afghan cop at the edge of the property.

The bomber was still loose, although within minutes, the radio reported the "suicider" had been taken. What followed next was like something out of the Hollywood movie "The Hurt Locker."

Two Afghan intelligence officers restrained the would-be terrorist, each holding one of the bomber's arms. They were on a quiet road just outside the white-washed provincial building, the seat of political power in Kandahar.

Guevremont was stunned to see that the bomber was alive.

He approached without wearing a bomb suit, and carrying only surgical scissors, wire cutters and duct tape. The priority was to get the two intelligence agents out of the area.

So the bomber was tied to a nearby fence.

An armoured vehicle that jams cell phones moved close by to prevent any Taliban minders from detonating the bomber's vest remotely. Guevremont felt everything slow down. An unexpected wave of heat washed over him.

"There was such an intensity around that guy, it just felt like I walked into a hot sauna," he recalled.

The bomber had been waiting for his target, the president's half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, when he was captured. He seemed remorseful, or at least left that impression with the translators before they got to a safe distance.

The Afghans had pointed out the vest's power source before they left. Guevremont slipped into the zone.

"It was like the guy wasn't there any more and it just became a device," he said, recalling the mental checklist of looking for spare power sources and anti-removal devices. There were none.

"I knew exactly how it was made. I knew exactly where the wires were coming from. I knew exactly what I needed to do."

Guevremont can still see the reams of orange detonator cord which secured the explosive.

It was heavy as he lifted it free. The bomber sighed and said something in Pashtu.

"It was like a big weight leaving him and that heat I talked about seemed to go away," Guevremont said.

He moved the vest to the middle of the street and completed tearing it a part. The bomber, as interrogators later found out, was mentally challenged and had been beaten and starved for two weeks to coerce him into the attack.

Had it gone off, the damage would have been enormous. It had been filled with homemade explosive and filled with chopped up reinforced concrete bars to create the shrapnel.

Guevremont was never recognized for what his colleagues described as one of the "greatest single acts of bravery" they'd ever witnessed. And the time limit of two years for such a nomination has passed.

A spokeswoman for National Defence confirmed his case has circulated through the chain of command. But Lt.-Cmdr. Kelly Williamson couldn't say what kind of consideration it was given.

"We are aware of a case involving Leading Seaman Bruno Guevremont," Williamson said. "Nominations for honours and awards are normally initiated by the in-theatre chain of command or the member's home unit. Currently, no award has been approved for this member."

Out of the dozens of teams that served, only three bomb-disposal technicians were recognized with bravery medals, including one who received the Star of Courage, the third-highest military decoration.

As many as 28 other lower awards were handed out, including two Meritorious Service Crosses, one Meritorious Service Medal, as well as chief of defence staff commendations.

Guevremont is leaving the military in January.