06/29/2011 08:03 EDT | Updated 08/29/2011 05:12 EDT

Van Doos Packing Up In Afghanistan As Kandahar Mission Comes To Bittersweet End


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Luck is a subject most combat troops don't like to talk about in the field — and certainly not on the night they go home.

The palpable sense of relief they feel upon leaving the bomb-laced fields of Afghanistan, a country where life and death can often seem maddeningly random, is not something they share very easily.

Many troops at barren outposts will quickly hush anyone who tries to describe their survival in terms of luck, as though its invocation is somehow a curse or a jinx.

To bring it up as they board the plane is to remind them that some of their buddies are not coming home.

The 1st Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment battle group has had fewer fatalities than any Canadian unit of the Afghan war, which for Canada is rapidly drawing to a close ahead of the July deadline established by Parliament for the end of combat operations.

Hundreds of troops belonging to Alpha Company, which spent seven months in one of the toughest districts of Kandahar, went home for good in the overnight hours early Thursday.

Feeling lucky wasn't in their vocabulary.

Three soldiers have died since November of last year, one of them a suspected suicide. A fourth soldier belonging to the special forces, which operate independently of the battle group, is also thought to have ended his own life.

There were times, not that long ago, when a Canadian battle group could expect a dozen or more deaths during a single tour.

There are a myriad reasons why the Van Doos seemed blessed during their last rotation, including the number of coalition

troops on the ground, the availability of bomb-making material, the campaign to assassinate Taliban commanders — even the weather.

It's all very tidy and tactical, but never quite explains the some of the uncanny events which slice that fine line between life and death.

The soldiers of 13 Platoon, who broke with tradition by naming themselves "Lucky 13," had repeated good fortune in a roughneck region of the province known as Zangabad.

There was the day last winter when they swept into a totally abandoned village that had been reduced to rubble after years of bombardment. The soldiers dubbed it Garbage Bazaar; no one seemed to know its real name.

They were there searching for weapons caches. Within 50 metres they spotted six homemade bombs.

"He stepped on two pressure plates that luckily weren't activated," said Capt. Simon Ouellet, pointing at one of his section leaders.

As the engineers began clearing the area, Ouellet, 28, sat down and waited. He was startled when he got up.

"I was sitting for half an hour on the power pack of an IED and there was a 25-pound jug of (homemade explosives)," he recalled.

"I was talking and the pressure plate was right between my feet."

Stunned at their captain's good fortune, the engineers pried the dud bomb out of the hard-baked mud. They gave Ouellet the battery pack, which he kept as a lucky charm.

Sgt. Maxime Richard's first close call came as he led a patrol west along a path near their combat outpost, wryly christened The Palace.

For no apparent reason, a bomb exploded 50 metres to the north. Nobody was hurt.

Another time, his Afghan interpreter stepped up to talk to him in an abandoned building, only to find his foot on a pressure-plate mine.

"The detonator blew up, but the main charge didn't blow," Richard recalled.

"It was pretty lucky and pretty crazy. So we went to get out of the building, but what I didn't know was there was another IED that was rigged for when the door was closing."

That one didn't go off either.

There were times during their seven-month stint in the former Taliban redoubt when a sixth sense would take over.

Richard led his men along the edge of a mountain when a one point he decided to stop near an intersection. Two of his soldiers started moving to the other side to set up a blocking position against incoming traffic.

He stopped them. As it turned out, they were headed straight for a homemade bomb.

Was it luck?

That's something the soldiers say they'll think about later, once they're home safe.