Mitchel Claypool spent eight years in the Canadian Army.
The Clayton Heights grad said Remembrance Day means a lot to him, having lost close friends and fellow soldiers in Afghanistan.
This Remembrance Day he said he’ll be heading down to the Cenotaph in Victoria—he lives there now—to remember his fallen brothers.
“I lost four close friends in Afghanistan,” said Master Corporal (ret’d) Claypool. “One of my really good buddies died a couple of days before his tour was over. That was just absolutely devastating.” That buddy, Michael Hayakaze, was driving a tank back to the Kandahar airfield when he was killed.
“I remember standing on the tarmac for his ramp ceremony and just breaking down emotionally. It was pretty intense.”
Claypool had always wanted to join the military and felt almost obligated after 9-11 happened. Things didn’t work out then, so he ended up joining up in 2006.
After training he was posted to “5RGC,” or the 5th Combat Engineer Regiment, located at CFB Valcartier.
When Claypool was posted to Valcartier, he immediately started “work-up training” to go to Afghanistan.
“My job was to search for mines, IEDs, boobytraps, and search compounds,” Claypool said. “I did gunshot residue tests on people, we’d pick up dead bodies, we’d build defensive positions, we did all the breaching, we’d use breaching explosives to get through barriers, doors, walls, obstacles.”
Claypool spent six months in Afghanistan, from September 2007 to March 2008. His unit moved around the country a fair bit, but he was mostly stationed around Kandahar. And they were always attached to an infantry unit and would perform specialized tasks.
“We were a quick reaction force,” he said. “If there was an explosion, or someone got attacked, we would go and help out and do whatever needed to be done. We’d get called in to give support.”
They’d also go on foot patrols through villages and search for explosives and weapons.
“Infantry would create a perimeter,” he explained. “Then, we’d go in and search the compounds to look for improvised explosive devices and guns and hidden stuff. So we’d use mine detectors and other search techniques for figuring that stuff out.”
Claypool said they’d build fortifications too, including prepping areas for builds, supporting armoured engineer vehicles, and building fortifications with Hesco bastions (giant sandbags, each about eight feet high and six feet wide). He said they would build the Afghan National Army fighting positions, forts, and police stations, with the Hesco bastions.
“One of our primary roles was clearing roads of IEDs,” he said. “We would walk down the road with mine detectors in front of the armored vehicles and investigate any suspicious things we found, mainly looking for bombs in front of convoys. That’s what I did for the majority of my tour. It was stressful. I’m not going to lie,” he said with a laugh.
Claypool’s still bothered by nightmares from his time in Afghanistan. He suffers from PTSD, but said he’s worked through a lot of it.
One particular event that still haunts him happened when his squad was out building a strongpoint for the Afghan National Army.
“It took us about three days to build it,” he said. “On the way out there, three or four IEDs went off and destroyed some vehicles.”
After the strongpoint was completed, his squad was just getting into bed in the early evening. The soldiers had used armoured vehicles to encircle their camp and the plan was to sleep between them.
“I was standing by one of the vehicles and as soon as I laid down, an explosion went off right inside our camp.”
Claypool said the rocket blew up within 10 feet of him. The explosion knocked the wind out of everyone in camp and left them all with ringing ears.
“The blast shredded the area above my head. Had I been standing up when the rocket went off, it would have taken off my head.”
Claypool then put on his helmet, frag vest, boots, and grabbed his rifle. He and another soldier jumped into an armoured vehicle. As the ramp was closing, he looked out and saw a soldier lying on top of a Badger armoured vehicle.
Claypool dropped the ramp and sprinted over to the Badger.
“I reached up and could feel the foot of somebody in their sleeping bag,” he explained. “There were feathers everywhere and my master corporal said, ‘Mitch, go get a medic.’ So I ran across the camp, grabbed a medic, basically grabbed him by his collar, and ran back across the camp to where the guy was lying on the Badger.”
The injured soldier has been sleeping on a stretcher on top of the vehicle, so they just lifted the stretcher off the Badger and brought it to the ground.
“He was horribly wounded. We all thought he was dead. He was one of our buddies.” But the soldier was still alive and got airlifted out.
“That was just one thing that happened out of many. It haunted me for years. I’ve spent the last seven years in counselling,” he explained. “Initially it affected me very negatively. For years, I didn’t sleep. I was having nightmares all the time.”
After he got back from Afghanistan, he became a bomb technician. He learned how to speak French. He trained to be an explosive ordnance disposal tech and an improvised explosive device defeat operator, teaching soldiers that were heading to Afghanistan. He split his last four years in the military between Valcartier, Quebec and in Gagetown New Brunswick.
He said being in the army was good for his development as a person. When he first joined, he had a lot of friends that were into the gang life. Joining the army helped him move out of those circles.
“It taught me discipline and it taught me personal responsibility,” he said. “Something I think most people don’t really think about anymore. Everyone wants to blame other people for their problems and they don’t want to look inwards.”
He said he doesn’t regret his time serving his country.
“It was one of the hardest, yet most valuable, experiences of my life.”