Joe Brink remembers every detail about Jan. 15, 2006.
He was a Canadian Forces sergeant and section commander on a patrol returning to Afghanistan’s Kandahar City when the world erupted around him.
As his four-vehicle convoy passed a taxi stand, a suicide bomber drove a taxi into one of the vehicles and triggered five artillery shells in the trunk. The vehicle behind Brink’s was blown six metres into the air and tossed 50 metres across the highway.
“I can see every second of it still,” said Brink, 34, of Sylvan Lake. “I can still smell it and everything.
“I guess it’s just, you know, things like that just never really go away.”
The small convoy was just returning from a morning visit to a nearby village to meet with elders. An RCMP superintendent and diplomat Glyn Berry were along for the mission. At about 1:30 p.m., the suicide bomber struck the G-Wagon, an armoured wheeled vehicle routinely used by the Canadians at the time.
“When the blast first went off, it was completely deafening. We were pretty much engulfed in a huge plume of grey, black smoke.”
What happened next involved small moments of heroism by all the soldiers involved. But the role Brink played was singled out in the recent announcement that he was selected to receive the Meritorious Service Cross, awarded for a “deed or activity in an outstanding professional manner or of an uncommonly high standard bringing considerable benefit or great honour to Canada.”
When the explosion happened, the soldiers’ training kicked in and they gunned their engines to race out of danger. Behind him, a vehicle emerged out of the smoke, which he thought was his second vehicle.
“What I didn’t realize was that wasn’t my second vehicle, it was my third. The second vehicle was in that plume.”
The vehicles immediately came to a stop and it was clear one of their convoy had been hit. He radioed for reinforcements in the form of the quick reaction force. The 12-year veteran with the 3rd Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry then ran back to help.
“Our second vehicle was still quite a long distance away, still burning at the side of a building.”
Other soldiers were already helping the injured. One was putting a tourniquet on the medic, who had lost his leg. Another was saving the life of a corporal who had been blown out of the vehicle and was lying face down in a ditch full of water.
Brink went searching for the two others who had been in the vehicle. Berry had been killed instantly and was found lying in an alley. Brink covered him up and realized the last man must still be in the vehicle, which was split wide open and lying on its side.
He found Pte. William Salikin trapped inside and buried under heavy ballistic glass plates from the windows. “I definitely know I had some serious adrenalin going because the plates are quite heavy and I was just with one hand throwing them away. I was basically in a panic trying to get to him.”
Under Salikin’s arm was an M72 rocket launcher that had been broken open and the exposed rocket was under his armpit.
“There’s a lot of high explosive there so I couldn’t really do too much. I just made sure he had an airway and kind of just stayed with him until the engineers showed up as part of the quick reaction force. They were able to dismantle that rocket and then they could pull him out.”
The potential danger barely registered. All he could think of was what was taking the quick reaction force so long. “It only took them six minutes but it felt forever.”
He never considered leaving the young private’s side.
“It sounds weird but these guys are guys that you’ve trained with to go overseas a year prior or more. You get really close to these guys. And not only that, but I was in charge of them all and here you’ve got this young private, you know, barely 20 years old.
“I felt really responsible for him. There was no way I would have left him. No way.”
Faced with the inevitable ‘Do you consider yourself a hero?’, Brink chuckles at the irony of his situation. He had always been the first to laugh at the standard “I was just doing my job” response and he now finds himself reaching for the same line.
Brink also admits he feels guilty about the recognition when others also did so much. He credits Master Cpl. Niall Anthony with saving the life of the soldier who ended up in the ditch. He was among those to fill out the paperwork for Anthony to be considered for a medal but nothing came of it.
To this day, he’s not sure who put the paperwork in for him.
Brink had been a soldier since he was 17. He joined in Kamloops and had to have his father’s permission. He served two tours in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2005-06 and two in Bosnia in 1997-98 and 2000. He was previously recognized with a commendation from the commander of Canadian Expeditionary Force Command for helping develop tactics in Afghanistan in 2005 still in use by soldiers today.
The father of two children left the army in August 2006 to join his father’s company, Advanced Global Satellite Communications, in Sylvan Lake.
The award will be presented by the Governor General and Commander in Chief of Canada at a future ceremony.
It still has really sunk in, he said.
“Just the fact I’ve been out of the military since August ’06. To have this happen after the fact is definitely a surprise.”