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Training turns to tragedy: Death on an Afghanistan firing range


Cpl. Josh Baker is shown in a military handout photo. Baker dies in an accident on the Kan Kala firing range on Feb. 12, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho-Canadian Armed Forces

It was supposed to be a training day on the weapons range, away from the usual threats of a war zone.

It ended in bloodshed. One Canadian soldier dead and four others seriously injured.

Three fellow soldiers would eventually be convicted for what they did or didn't do that day.

An accident on the Kan Kala firing range on Feb. 12, 2010, marked a dark chapter in Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. The saga moved a step closer to closure this week with the sentencing of the final soldier to face a court martial.

There was anticipation among the troops that day in February.

Soldiers who served in Afghanistan looked forward to a day outside the wire and away from normal humdrum duties on the base. The opportunity to fire a variety of weapons while not under imminent threat was somewhat of a holiday.

There's little to see at the Kan Kala weapons range, a desolate expanse of sand and rock at the foot of the mountains northeast of Kandahar city.

Named for the dull, brown peaks to the north, it's a dry, hot place. The sun can be blistering. Temperatures sometimes top 50 C. A haze of smoke from wood-burning stoves used by most homes in the city usually hangs in the air.

The trip to the range that day had been in the works for a number of weeks because there was a twist.

Most of the soldiers under the commands of Maj. Christopher Lunney and Capt. Darryl Watts had not been trained on one of the weapons they would use that day the formidable C-19 Claymore anti-personnel mine.

While they are seldom used by the Canadian Forces, C-19s can be lethal. Unlike a typical land mine that is activated by a pressure plate, the C-19 is detonated by remote control. It fires a load of 700 ball bearings in a forward arc, not unlike a shotgun, and can be set up between vehicles as an anti-infiltration device.

The presence of Warrant Officer Paul Ravensdale on the range was seen as a golden opportunity.

Watts had never received training on the C-19. Ravensdale, however, was considered an expert and the trip to Kan Kala was tailored so he could provide the uninitiated with the skills needed to operate the device.

The journey from Kandahar Airfield to the range was uneventful. Once the convoy of light armoured vehicles arrived, the area was divided into four firing lanes.

To the far left, soldiers took turns practising with rocket launchers. The next spot was taken by Lunney, the ranking officer at the range that day, and his crew who arrived later than the main group in their own convoy. The crews from the LAVs led by Watts were in the third lane where the C-19s were to be fired. Troops practising with small arms were on the far right.

The C-19 training, which was conducted in front of the LAVs, came after everything else was done.

Ravensdale led the exercise. Watts had also delegated the job of safety officer to him. The tasks are supposed to be given to separate people.

Ravensdale had one of the mines laid out on the ground. He explained to his pupils how to hook up the wires and to be careful not to create a spark, which could cause the device to detonate prematurely.

"It doesn't bring buildings down, but it's one hell of a grenade,'' he said.

The troops were clustered in small groups chewing gum, smoking and chatting when detonation in front of the LAVs commenced.

Safety rules require that soldiers be at least 100 metres behind or shielded from a C-19 when it is fired. Many took cover behind the armoured vehicles but others, wanting to watching the test, were in the open. Watts himself was standing without cover directly behind one of the mines.

The first firings went off without a hitch. There were loud booms and a cloud of dust. The metallic ping of something ricocheting off a vehicle could be heard on a video later entered as evidence.

More devices were set up and fired.

That's when all hell broke loose.

"I got hit with the concussion and then two bearings hit my right arm," said Master Cpl. William Pylypow, who was standing just a metre away from Cpl. Josh Baker. "I thought I had lost my arm so I pretty much went into shock."

A cry of "Medic, Medic" rang out as soldiers started hitting the dirt.

Baker, a 24-year-old who was born and raised in Scarborough, Ont., went down immediately.

He was struck four times. One of the steel balls penetrated his chest, just missing his body armour.

Sgt. Mark McKay tried to walk but collapsed to the ground as blood flowed from his leg.

Master Bombardier Daniel Scott, who had helped set up one of the C-19s, was hit in the upper body.

"I just thought a rock had hit me in the chest,'' Scott said.

"It knocked the wind out of me. I tried to walk it off but I couldn't get my breath.''

When medics removed his body armour, they discovered his wound.

Initial thoughts didn't include the possibility that the C-19 test had gone wrong.

"We always presume it's Taliban, so I thought they got to us," Pylypow said.

A cordon of soldiers was set up to deal with a possible attack.

Lunney took immediate command of the accident scene. He ordered the radio operator to call for a medical evacuation flight.

Blackhawk helicopters roared to the scene and the wounded soldiers were loaded aboard. They were transported to the Role 3 Hospital at Kandahar Airfield.

It was too late for Baker. His injury had already proved fatal.

When it was clear the range was not under attack, attention turned to an investigation.

A video was taken of the scene. Some of the vehicles were disabled by the blast, so fresh troops were called in to secure the area.

In the days that followed at Kandahar Airfield, hundreds of Canadian Forces personnel lined up on the tarmac as Baker's coffin, draped with the red and white of the Maple Leaf, was carried by an honour guard onto a waiting plane.

Canadian commander Brig. Gen. Daniel Menard said the training was normal for soldiers in theatre at the time and essential in helping them "maintain high levels of expertise."

Baker's repatriation ceremony was a day later at CFB Trenton in Ontario. It was followed by a cavalcade along a stretch of Highway 401 known as the Highway of Heroes.

Family members were devastated.

The dead soldier's mother, Janet Baker, threw herself onto her son's body when she was finally alone with him at the funeral home.

"I said, 'I'm your mother and I brought you into this world. I was supposed to keep you safe but I couldn't save you this time,'" Baker recalled in a victim impact statement.

Investigators initially interviewed several soldiers on the range that day, including Lunney and Watts. Further interviews of the two commanders and Ravensdale came months later.

There was never an explanation as to what went wrong. The C-19 does not have a reputation for misfiring or of having its payload shoot backwards. There was speculation that the force from one of the earlier blasts knocked over the misfiring unit.

Charges were laid against Lunney, Watts and Ravensdale.

Lunney pleaded guilty last Sept. 13 to negligent performance of duty for failing to ensure Watts was properly qualified on the C-19. He had assumed that to be the case, because of Watts's rank at the time. Lunney was demoted one rank to captain from major and received a severe reprimand.

He told a court martial that he realized no apology could address the loss Baker's family feels.

On Dec. 4, a military panel found Watts guilty of unlawfully causing bodily harm and negligent performance of military duty, but not guilty of manslaughter. He was demoted two ranks to lieutenant from major and received a severe reprimand.

The prosecution argued Watts failed to ensure that safety protocols were followed. Watts has maintained he was not responsible because he hadn't been trained on the C-19 Claymore and had delegated the responsibility for safety to Ravensdale. He is appealing his conviction and sentence.

Ravensdale was found guilty Feb. 14 of breach of duty causing death, breach of duty causing bodily harm, unlawfully causing bodily harm and negligent performance of military duty. He, too, was acquitted of manslaughter. The prosecution argued Ravensdale ignored safety rules and allowed soldiers to stand too close to the mine.

The now-retired soldier was given a six-month suspended sentence on Tuesday. He also received a fine and demoted one rank to sergeant.

He apologized for his role.

"I feel horrible," Ravensdale said. "I can't move on. Every day, I relive Feb 12."

Grief has destroyed Janet Baker's life.

She told court she has visited her son's grave every single day. A family friend said Baker has "suffered the pain of five lifetimes."

"I don't really have a life anymore. It's just an existence," she said.

"Two people died on the field that day in two different ways. Joshua and myself."



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