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12/31/2009

Afghanistan's toll

By Rick Madonik, Staff Photographer

I didn't know Michelle Lang. Never met her. But all the same, I shed a quiet tear as I drove down the 401 and heard the news on the radio about the first Canadian journalist to be fatally wounded covering the war in Afghanistan.

Although our paths will never cross, in an uneasy way, I know what she felt the morning she donned her helmut and flak jacket and climbed into the bowels of a 20 tonne LAV II for a "routine" patrol - her FIRST real trip outside the relatively safe confines which is Kandahar Air Field (KAF).

At least, I suspect I know.

No matter how much I had mentally prepared for venturing "outside the wire," the reality sets in quickly when you are squished - uncomfortably - into the vehicle. Surrounded by, and sitting atop, enough munitions (grenades, mortar rounds, small arms rounds, 25 mm cannon rounds, only to mention only a few) to blow the vehicle to smithereens, did I begin to think, "crap, this is real!"

And quickly, if you're smart, you put those fears aside and turn your focus on the task ahead. For me, the task was simple: Do my job, and get home safe without doing anything stupid. 

B_010 copy Foreign correspondent Mitch Potter (left) and photographer Rick Madonik carry their gear to the vehicle compound before setting out for a Forward Operating Base in Kandahar Province, Sept, 2006.

In real terms, there are a host of things totally out of your control. An IED which detonates under the vehicle is surely out of everyone's control, except the guy who set it, or controlled it. Even for that scenario, you remind yourself its usually the sentries in the hatch, or the gunner manning the cannon, who are most likely to get hurt, or die, since their bodies are sticking outside the metal skin of "the boat." But, if the bomb is big enough, as I suspect this one was, the harm that follows can surely be catastrophic.

There is always the obvious question about why journalists cover war. Each has his/her own personal reasons. For me, it was two fold. Personally, it involves working in an extreme element, which is a huge challenge in itself. (Perhaps akin to why mountain climbers climb, or sailors circumnavigate the globe solo.) Professionally, it was to tell the stories of what fellow Canadians were facing in the long troubled lands of a country struggling with insurgency and fundamentalism.

With Lang's death, bosses in various newsrooms across the country will reevaluate the risk. They shouldn't. Its necessary work. Its important work. Those of us who have chosen to go (and vast majority don't ever consider it) accept the risks. Although a few people might have a "death wish" most of those I know who have gone don't fit into that category.

War is hell. It always has been. It's ugly, its meanspirited and it causes unending pain and sacrifice. I wish we (as human's) can find other means to settle the differences, but apparently, we haven't evolved that far yet.

With that, my most sincere thoughts are with Michelle's family, fiance and friends, as they welcome a New Year without her. This time of year will never again be the same for them, but I hope they can find some comfort in knowing she died doing important work, in a very difficult place, with very real risks.

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