Combat engineer Sheldon Herritt was lying about three metres from the roadside mine when a bomb-sniffing dog set it off.
While getting medical attention, the badly injured Canadian soldier called his girlfriend back in St. John’s.
Rachel Richardson, then a MUN music student and now Herritt’s wife, had just returned to her residence room after a theory class.
“I was so excited,” she remembers. “He never calls at 11 in the morning. As soon as he said hello, I knew something was wrong. He didn’t say much. He just said, ‘Hi honey, I’m going to surgery. I love you. Can you call Mom and Dad?’ And then the phone was taken (by someone with Herritt). No other information was given to me.”
The line from Afghanistan wasn’t secure. Details would come later.
So would more explosions, many deaths, a stint in Afghanistan for Richardson, a lingering issue with shrapnel and a growing need to remember.
The couple’s story provides insight into some of the things Canadian soldiers experienced in Afghanistan over the past decade.
And since it’s a time of remembrance and this country’s combat mission in Afghanistan ended earlier this year, it’s an appropriate time to share what Herritt and Richardson went through.
Lately, what Herritt went through has been causing some pain.
Shrapnel that doctors didn’t remove after the March 2007 explosion is pushing its way out of his body.
Remnants of the roadside blast surface on the skin of his arms, legs and other areas.
That’s led to some infections.
“It hurts a lot,” admits Herritt, now a bomb tech who uses his experiences to teach counter improvised explosive device (IED) training at CFB Gagetown.
At times, he heads to the hospital to have the shrapnel taken out, but Richardson has been extracting most of it.
“A shrapnel removing machine,” she dubs herself.
Some might use the word machine to describe Herritt.
The Rose Blanche native went through operations and intense physio after the March 2007 explosion. He had the option of going home, but chose to stay. He “returned back outside the wire” four weeks later.
“At the time, that was very challenging for me,” says Richardson, who now works with the St. John’s Military Family Resource Centre.
“I couldn’t figure out why he wanted to stay in theatre (of war), and why he fought to, because he had to fight to stay in theatre … To me, it was like ‘why didn’t you come home and let me take care of you?’”
Staying in Afghanistan would be challenging for Herritt.
He would become involved in two more roadside bombs explosions — one in which his vehicle was destroyed after hitting an IED and another in which the vehicle behind him set one off.
His tour would also become an extremely tragic one.
“We lost 24 individuals … I, personally, was at a ramp ceremony for 18. I think everybody in the troop had a connection to pretty much all the guys.”
Herritt returned to Canada Aug. 17, 2007, and admits his Afghanistan experiences, especially the roadside bomb, changed him.
“If things were slightly different on that day, March 20, I could have been killed that day. That gives me an appreciation for life,” says Herritt.
To better understand his experience, and to give back to Canada, Richardson joined the civilian team that delivered welfare programs to Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
She went over in the spring of 2010 and was there until December. She says it gave a new respect for soldiers on the frontlines.
“Those days when you had a little bit of pity for yourself, you realize there are people in harder situations. That sticks with me every day. I realize how much I took for granted living in Canada.”
And for the first time, she adds, “I began to understand a little about how Sheldon feels, about the connection he has with his men.”
Richardson also gained perspective on grief. Six soldiers were killed while she was there, resulting in five ramp ceremonies.
“Soldiers mourn together, but they know when that ceremony is finished, no matter how hard it is for them, they have to continue on with their jobs.”
Because of their experiences, Herritt and Richardson feel it is extremely important to remember the sacrifices of soldiers, and to acknowledge it every day.
“Soldiers are people, and they got families and some of these people that died were some of the best Canadians there are,” Herritt says with an emotional quiver.
Richardson recounts an act of remembrance from her time in Afghanistan. It showed her how simple, but poignant, such a gesture can be.
While she was working at the base’s Tim Hortons one day, a group of soldiers all ordered a double-double with a Boston cream donut.
She heard one say they hated double doubles and another make the same remark about Boston cream. That prompted her to question their order.
“They said this is how we remember. They had lost one of the men in their section (who liked double-doubles and Boston Cream), and whenever they came back to Kandahar Airfield, this is what they did.
“I think Canadians have to understand that Remembrance Day doesn’t have to happen one day a year. We need to constantly, not only remember, but continue to support our soldiers.”
Richardson will be supporting her soldier a lot more in the coming months.
A few hours after the couple spoke with The Telegram, Herritt learned he was being deployed to Afghanistan for nine months early in the new year.
Canada’s new mission in Afghanistan focuses on training that country’s security forces as well as investing in youth and regional diplomacy.
Herritt, a warrant officer, begins workup training today.