Soldiers preparing for their guard shift at Sperwan Ghar were very unhappy one day last month when their Gator broke down. The small all-terrain vehicle, manufactured by John Deere in Welland, Ont., looked out of place among the hulking military equipment arrayed on the steep hillside where Canadians and their allies have carved out a strategic base in Panjwai district. One of the nearby Leopard tanks could probably have crushed the little six-wheeled ATV if it got in the way.
But for the young men who make the tiresome trips back and forth between their bunkers on the hill and the guard posts below, it was essential to keep the Gator chugging.
One soldier refused even to consider the idea of hiking out to his next watch shift on foot, saying it was too hot to carry supplies down the hill. He turned the starter over and over, producing a sickly moan from the dust-clogged engine, but no ignition. Cheers broke out among the troops when one of them coaxed the Gator back to life. The next shift of guards roared down the path and disappeared in the dust.
During a journalist's recent visit to the base, none of the soldiers mentioned feeling afraid when riding the open-topped Gators to their watch posts. The zone around Sperwan Ghar is monitored by powerful surveillance equipment, and 2007 has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of violent incidents around the forward operating base, about 35 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city. The trip between posts was viewed as an easy ride, safely in the shadow of the hill.