Master Corporal Keith Hodgson has been called a murderer, a baby killer and a waste of taxpayer's money in his 10 years with the Canadian Armed Forces, but despite his dangerous and often disrespected position, the 27-year-old wouldn't choose any other career.
"A lot of people coming back [from service] get the short end of the stick," said a uniformed Hodgson as he showed off an armoured Jeep in front of MacEwan Hall Wed., Mar. 7. "We've been downtown training and we have assault rifles. It's our job to carry them around. One of our tests is a yearly rucksack march and we carry [rifles] around and people yell, 'Hey, what are you doing with those guns?' But, it's my job. What do you want me to carry? A stick?"
Hodgson joined the armed forces when he was 17 and has since traveled the world, stationed in Bosnia, Croatia, Turkey and most recently Kandahar, Afghanistan. Hodgson and a group of Canadian Armed Forces recruiters visited campus as part of the Students' Union Political Action Week to recruit, but also to speak about the positive and often overlooked accomplishments of the Armed Forces.
"The only time that things actually get reported is when one of our guys gets either killed or injured," said Hodgson. "They aren't looking at the other side, where we'll do a VMO--which is a village medical outreach--and we're giving medical help, toothbrushes, food to these villages that really have nothing else."
Hodgson noted the majority of media reporting is concentrated in Kandahar and Helmand, the southern Afghanistan provinces that are hotbeds of Taliban fighting. This media focus on what Hodgson refers to as the "Wild West" of Afghanistan omits coverage of positive accomplishments in other parts of the country, like rebuilt infrastructure, education, women's rights and steps toward a democratically-run government.
Despite these gains Hodgson maintains that continued military involvement is necessary in Afghanistan until its infrastructure, which has been ravaged by five years of Taliban dictatorship and 20 years of Soviet intervention before that, can be rebuilt.
"I can see, in the not too distant future, that we'd be more than happy to pull out of there and let them take over for themselves, but right now, Canada and the rest of the world should be there just to make sure that everything goes well," said Hodgson. "We're not trying to run their country. We're trying to get them to run it themselves and as soon as they do it, I'm out of there."
Hodgson said that while he loves his job and takes pride in Canada's accomplishments overseas, the actual day-to-day reality of being stationed in Afghanistan involves a lot of pain and very little glory.
"It sucks, I'll tell you that right now," he said of his nine months stationed in Kandahar. "It's a land-locked country so there's no humidity whatsoever. The heat gets up to about 55 degrees Celsius. We're out there in body armour and plates and everything. Our usual kit weighs about 45 pounds on top of what we're wearing."
During the hottest months soldiers drink upwards of four litres of water a day just to replenish the water lost through sweat. Though when engaged in combat, there is little time to consume those four-litres, said Hodgson.
Hodgson said his ability to foresee an end to Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan can be attributed largely to an increased use of tanks, which provide Canadian soldiers with a physical advantage. A tank can easily take out the mud walls and huts Taliban soldiers use for cover.
"In Afghanistan, everything is made out of mud: mud walls, mud huts--an urban warfare environment," said Hodgson, noting that Canada currently has a squadron of 16 tanks in Afghanistan and the government is considering purchasing more. "Since the tanks showed up we're taking away that advantage they have. In a wheeled armoured vehicle, it will punch small holes through the walls. In a tank it will knock down a building."
In addition to physical advantage, the tanks also provide soldiers with a powerful psychological advantage over their adversaries.
"It's direct, they can see who's shooting at them," said Hodgson. "It's not like a plane is flying overtop and blowing up a building. This thing is in their face and after the first couple of engagements they've realized the destructive capabilities of these things and they either run away or they throw down their arms and give up because even if we don't shoot at a wall we can drive through a building. Their ability for cover is gone."
Hodgson said the worst part of being a soldier is leaving his family and his common-law partner behind for months at a time to move into a potentially dangerous situation. When painful goodbyes get him down, he uses the story of a brave teacher at one of the first western-style schools in Kandahar to recall his purpose.
"[The teacher] had a letter--what's known as a night letter--posted on the outside of his house that pretty much said: 'This is a message from the Taliban, you're teaching infidel work and all their hedonistic information, if you don't stop now, you're going to be dealt with,'" recalled Hodgson. "So, he signed it and pretty much told them to pound salt, which is like go screw yourselves. 'I'm going to go on teaching these kids,' [he said,] and posted it back outside his house."
"The next night he was dragged from his house, beaten and executed. Seriously, if anyone is willing to do that to teach children, I would be more than happy to take a bullet for them."