Canadian Forces Captain Stephen Keeble describes his time in Kandahar, Afghanistan in a tone that is usually reserved for recounting a trip to the convenience store:
As soon as we got there, on the first day, we came under attack. And throughout the summer, right up to mid-September, we’d have a firefight about two, three times a week. … Usually all it is, is us walking out on patrol, they’d start shooting at us, and we’d fire back and then we’d carry on with our patrol.
I ask if this is actually scary. It sounds terrifying, but Keeble’s tone is making me wonder. He says people would usually attack from a position far outside their weapons’ effective range, so, “you’re safe. Well, you’re safer than if it was [in the effective range].”
Quite something for a guy who thinks he was introverted and not very confident when he was growing up in Ayr, Ontario, southwest of Cambridge.
In high school, Keeble said he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do for a career. Given his love of politics and world events, Keeble's father suggested the military. A Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) recruitment video in his high school guidance counsellor’s office convinced him to join the Canadian Forces.
After graduating from RMC in 2008, Keeble asked to join the First Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment headquartered in Petawawa, Ontario. He wanted to join the Royal Canadian Regiment because Canada’s time in Kandahar was coming to an end and the First Battalion was the next to leave for Afghanistan.
Ultimately, Keeble arrived in Kandahar in May 2010 and returned to Canada on December 24, 2010 – it was Canada’s second-last tour in Kandahar before the mission shifted to Kabul.
As a 24-year-old Lieutenant, he was initially responsible for 42 soldiers and patrolling three villages in the Panjwayi District. Those under his command grew to 60-70 people, and another 60-70 members of the Afghan National Army (ANA).
Keeble saw his role in Afghanistan as providing security and working with the ANA to show an Afghan government presence in Panjwayi.
Keeble admits that things could seem bleak in Afghanistan at times. “Little girls would get sick,” he says. “And it wasn’t the father or the older brother bringing them in. It was the younger daughter bringing them to us to get help.” However, he found hope in seemingly small moments, such as seeing an Afghan father caring for his sick daughter.
The most frightening part of his deployment was when his base was attacked as he was running laps alone around their helicopter pad. Since his base had never been attacked before, and because it was Ramadan, when fighting usually pauses, he thought he was safe. The attack ended quickly, but Keeble says he’s never felt so vulnerable in his life.
During his eight months in Afghanistan, two soldiers under his command were injured after stepping on improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Both survived, but one lost both his legs.
Why He Serves
Keeble signed a nine-year employment contract with the Canadian Forces when he was 18 years old. Next year, that contract expires and Keeble plans to sign another contract with the military. He jokes that if wanted to try a new career, the interview process would be tough, since his last civilian job was produce stock boy at Sobeys.
“When people ask me about my work experience, well, I used to stock fruit and vegetables and then I led a platoon in Afghanistan in a war,” Keeble laughs. “So there’s no real middle for me.”
However, in the reality, Keeble has options. He’s bilingual, he’s completing a master’s degree at RMC, and his time in Afghanistan shows he can lead people.
It raises the question: why does he serve in the Canadian Forces?
Keeble seems motivated by a sense of justice and purpose. “I do believe in the greater good,” he says. “I was kind of raised that way”
He thinks it’s great that people want to help others through avenues, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but he wants to directly protect people.
“I want to be one of those guys who takes on those people who rule by intimidation and violence,” Keeble says. “I want to stand up to that. That gives me a purpose in life.”
The possibility that the people he wants to protect may not make the choices he’d prefer is something Keeble has thought about. When referring to his time in Afghanistan, he says:
We’re here to help get them on their feet. So one day, these kids are going to have a chance to choose their future, as opposed to what has already been dictated to them. … They may never be like us, but at least we gave them the chance.
Keeble says if he got a chance to go on another Afghanistan-like mission, he would.
A Recent Veteran’s Thoughts on Remembrance Day
When I asked Keeble what Remembrance Day means to him now that he’s a veteran too, he says:
It gives us chance to connect with guys from past generations. The World War II vets, which there are less of every year. I definitely didn’t have the same experience that they did, but it allows me at least to speak to them.
Image credits: The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces.