Blyth Native Appreciates Life in Canada
by Shari Simpson - Special to The Citizen
“I wanted to be able to say that I had made the world a better place, even if it’s only a very small part of the world, and that my actions will live on after I am gone,” says Corporal Nathan Loder originally of Blyth when asked why he decided to join the Canadian Armed Forces.
“I was single with no kids or other obligations and considering my physical shape, age, maturity, and personality, I figured I was a prime candidate for the job. Someone had to do it, so why not me?”
Loder graduated from Central Huron Secondary School in Clinton in 1998 and after a few years of working and hitting the slopes in Whistler, British Columbia, he decided to move back to his roots.
“Shortly after the 9/11 attack I thought about how selfish I had become and I wanted to have something to show for my life,” says Loder.
So after a lot of soul searching, he made the tough decision to join the military and served with the Royal Canadian Regiment, 2nd Battalion, in Gagetown, New Brunswick as an infantry soldier and assisted in the fight against Taliban forces from May to December 2010.
“At first I was working with the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team at Camp Nathan Smith. We provided security and helped the people of Kandahar with improvements to buildings, schools and water supply,” says Loder. “A couple of months into the tour, I was stationed at the Battle Group in Panjawai, which was a very different environment. We were clearing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), weapons and enemy combatants, while establishing and holding strong points along routes and known enemy locations.”
Nate had to learn several skills prior to leaving for Afghanistan. One of the most important skills he learned is that a soldier must have 360-degree awareness at all times.
“You have to anticipate possible things that could go wrong and visualize your best course of action in a number of situations before they arise,” Loder says.
In order to perfect this skill, infantry soldiers are drilled for hours, in all kinds of conditions.
“Knowing what to do instantly without having to think about it is the result of good drills. Practise enough and it becomes second nature to react without pause,” he says. “Being well-trained not only saves time, but helps to eliminate the stun factor when unimaginable things happen right in front of you. The less you have to think about what you’re doing, the more you can think about what you need to do next.”
One skill that Loder wasn’t taught in the military, but he believes is a very useful skill to possess, is self removal and not only for a soldier but for everyone who wants to improve their life.
“Stepping outside yourself in a situation allows you to see things from a different perspective. The act of putting yourself in another man’s shoes or being able to think like your enemy can go a long way, especially for soldiers in such a sensitive environment as Afghanistan,” he says.
This attitude is difficult enough to live by in a comfortable environment, but weather conditions were hot. It only rained once during Nate’s seven-month tour. Temperatures were over 50°C during the day and in the evening they would drop to a comfortable 20°C.
Food and sleeping arrangements varied depending on where they were located. At an established camp, there would be cooked food from a kitchen (mess hall) and they slept in beds with 12 soldiers to a bunk house.
But often they left the camp for weeks at a time and slept in the dirt with no laundry or showers. Food was ‘unappetizing’ military ration packs, so soldiers ate for purpose, not for pleasure. The care packages from friends and family back home were a morale booster and an added luxury.
“It’s so nice to have a house with furniture and doors and running water and a yard. I realize how great these things are after living without them for a while,” says Loder.
Even tougher was the 100 pounds of weaponry, ammunition, water, armour and other supplies that each soldier has to carry.
Their vests seemed like down snowsuits, Loder said, trapping body heat and causing them to sweat profusely, even when they were sleeping. Staying hydrated was vital and it was common practice to drink about four litres of water per day.
The other major obstacle was dealing with ‘gastro’. Almost everyone got sick at some point throughout the tour.
“When I say sick, I mean uncontrollably sick from both ends, every few minutes for about a week or two,” Loder recalls. “Trying to stay hydrated in that heat when your body is flushing everything you put into it is a difficult thing to do and then carrying on with the mission at hand is just as daunting.”
A number of Loder’s friends were injured in explosions and one was even killed.
“He was my team partner for a while in Nakhonay,” he says. “He was a reservist so I hadn’t known him long, but it didn’t take long to gain respect for a guy like him. He was willing to pay the price for what he believed in. With everything going on over there, grieving had to be dealt with in our down time or when we returned to Canada.”
What Loder most liked to receive in care packages were letters from family and friends to update him on life at home. He also didn’t turn away things like energy drinks, candy and bubble gum.
Whenever soldiers picked up their care packages, they acted like children at Christmas time. It didn’t matter what was inside the packages, it was the thrill of having some sort of contact with loved ones and sharing the largesse with their comrades.
Newspapers were few and far between, but he did receive some books from his mother in a care package. There were televisions at some of the camps, but most of the time they were tuned into sports. Most of the news the soldiers received about home came through word of mouth.
Over time, Loder learned how to speak Pashto, the local language. This allowed him to converse with the Afghans, some of whom were accepting of the Canadian mission, while others were not.
“They’ve had a lot of foreigners in their country who have caused harm, so I understand why many of them are sceptical,” says Loder. “The children were interested in us and seemed to like us, but would throw rocks at us all the time as we drove by. The elders were more apt to engage in friendly conversation, however, the middle-aged men were more suspicious of us. But they are our brothers and sisters regardless of how far away they are or how they live their lives. There are many things we can learn from each other.”
When asked if war had changed him, Loder says, “Some people close to me have noticed a few changes. I see things a little differently and that affects how I act at times. It frustrates me to see how good we have it here and how much people abuse those privileges and how they choose to use their freedom so selfishly,” he says. “People complain about unimportant things; they have so much to be thankful for. Their lives are not in constant danger; they are not starving; their future potential is almost unlimited. It’s insulting to me when I’ve risked my life and many others have given their lives, to hear them complain about some little thing they don’t have. Is this why we fought? Is that what freedom means?”
Loder feels that when we enjoy life and help others to do the same, it makes it all worthwhile.
“Abusing your freedom is discrediting our sacrifice. You should try to make this country and the world a better place to live, work and play. That’s how I try to honour my fallen comrades,” he says.
After his experiences in modern warfare, Loder advises Canadians that if they focused on making the world a better place, rather than on themselves, the change would be staggering.
“Instead of looking outward, we should look inward and see what we can fix in our own lives. The more problems we look for, the more we will find. We have to see past them and realize all the good there is in the world. If everyone were to live this way, focus on the good of the world and be accountable for their own actions, the world would be a better place to live,” he says. “Of course, it’s a long shot, but it’s something I’m trying to live by.”
If he had lost his life in Afghanistan, Loder would have wanted people to get over it quickly and remember their good times with him, he says.
“It’s good to be home in a comfortable setting and focusing on my future. Life with my family has become more exciting than ever,” he says, “but Afghanistan has implanted itself in my heart and my work there feels unfinished.”
So what do returning military need from their friends, family and other Canadians? Loder says with him, it’s enough space to help with the transition of living in Afghanistan to living back in Canada, despite being a native Canadian son.
“I’m sure it’s different for every soldier, but for me it’s space,” says Loder. “It’s a big transition coming back and there’s still a lot of catching up to do in my personal life. I was so used to being alone over there. Now that I’m home, it can be overwhelming at times when there are too many people around or too many distractions.
“As dangerous and crazy as war can be, the lifestyle over there is extremely simple: no TV, no bills, no house chores, no grocery shopping, no telephone, etc. There are a lot of adjustments to make when coming back and it can be stressful. But just knowing that people care and are there for me is enough.”
What were his most memorable moments while in Afghanistan? He felt there were a lot of them, like the first time he flew in a Chinook helicopter, the first steps into unknown territory, the first engagement with the enemy, the first sound of bullets whizzing by his ears and the first explosion, but the most memorable feeling, he says, was when he lifted off in the back of a helicopter, packed in shoulder to shoulder, homeward bound.
This article first appeared in the November 10, 2011 edition of The Citizen