TORONTO — The loved ones and colleagues of four Canadian soldiers whose battlefield deaths in 2006 became part of the storied lore of Canada’s fabled Battle of Panjwaii lashed out Tuesday at reports — based on leaked U.S. documents — claiming friendly fire was to blame.
Sgt. Shane Stachnik, Warrant Officer Frank Robert Mellish, Pte. William Cushley and Warrant Officer Richard Francis Nolan — members of Charles Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, based in Petawawa, Ont. — were killed Sept. 3, 2006, in a well-documented and bloody firefight with a massive Taliban contingent in the fertile fields of the Arghandab river valley.
It was part of Operation Medusa — a fierce pitched battle over several months in the summer and fall of 2006 to beat back the Taliban and claim and reclaim a key strip of farmland, one long since sown with the blood of Canadian soldiers.
A U.S. document, however, one of 91,000 similar pages released publicly Sunday by the fledgling whistle-blower site WikiLeaks, suggests otherwise, using clinical military shorthand to categorize the four dead and eight injured as “blue-on-blue” — NATO casualties caused by NATO forces.
Sandy Mellish, whose son Frank was among the men who died that day as part of Operation Medusa, said they know the truth about what happened.
But the friends and families of the four men remain angry and hurt by the mistake, regardless of the explanation, said Mellish, whose own two grandsons have been upset and confused by the reports.
“How do you explain after four years of telling them something — they were 11 and 14 when they lost their Dad, and we told them one story, then something like this comes out in the media?” she asked.
“My youngest grandson, he’s 15 now, and last night when this came on he kicked the door in his bedroom. You know he’s not like that. That’s not who he is. I said to him, ‘Please don’t let this influence who you are.”’
Retired general Rick Hillier, Canada’s former chief of defence staff and the man who was in charge during the time of Operation Medusa, said the mistake is likely exactly that: an error emanating from the heat of battle or the fog of war that persisted on file for years and was never corrected.
“Somebody wrote a document, obviously, and was wrong in what they wrote,” said Hillier, who was conducting interviews Tuesday for The Motorcycle Ride for Dad, a cross-Canada effort to raise money for prostate cancer awareness.
Experienced commanders know it’s a cardinal rule of the battlefield never to take a piece of information to heart, because it’s only in the fullness of time that the true picture emerges.
“We always tried to take with a grain of salt everything we heard, because nothing was ever as good or as bad as you would first hear,” he said. “We never trusted those first reports, and don’t trust them now.”
There were more than 1,000 Canadian soldiers involved in Medusa, and hundreds of witnesses who saw precisely what happened, and the American account is simply incorrect, Hillier said.
“Sadly, we know from those hundreds of folks who were involved directly, that the lives of those four soldiers were lost because of enemy action, not because of friendly fire.”
Geoff Morrell, a spokesman for the CIA, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday to explain the confusion. One emerging theory hinged on the fact that another Canadian soldier, Pte. Mark Graham, died on the same battlefield the following day in a well-publicized and highly controversial friendly-fire incident.