Hauling wrecked 72 ton tanks out of the desert sand in a war zone takes a certain skill, and a lot of guts…
A fine November day in 2010, and Corporal Patrick Bernes finds himself standing on a dusty roadway in a mountain village near Masum Garh Afghanistan, sporting Canadian military togs and body amour. He and his patrol stuff into the outstretched hands of children dollar store candies bought a day earlier in Quebec. In an instant, bullets ping off brick walls nearby—with kids hanging around! Dammit. A hell of a place for a humble towing expert.
These are just warning shots. “They want us to go away and not come back. We’re there giving people stuff to make their life easier, and if we come back two or three times, then we earn their trust, and they tell us things,” Berny says. Things like the location of weapons or opium cached away in the back alley mazes of these largely civilian villages.
November in Afghanistan, dry season heat lingers, and dust invades every fissure. Sand so dry it bonds into flakes that settle everywhere. You never feel clean, not even after you’ve showered. You breathe in, you get a mouthful of the stuff.
These soldiers have come to patrol the Hyena Road, one of the most desirable stretches of real estate in sunny Afghanistan. Funny. Hyenas have been described as Africa’s largest carnivore. Over time, when humans and hyenas come together, they tend to kill and eat each other. But not a single hyena hunts this unforgiven territory. Just humans.
Brought up in a military family, as a kid Berny shunted from base to base with his parents, and then finally enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces in 2007. Back in Quebec he’d worked weekends towing for Rene Bertrand, so he decided to train on vehicles, specifically Armoured Heavy Support Vehicle Systems.
These are not your dad’s tow trucks. Built by Mercedes, the 23,000 kg beast can extract a wrecked 72 ton tank from sand or muck and never get stuck. It’s powered by a 5.93 L, 503 hp Mercedes Benz OM 502LA V-8 twin-turbo diesel engine. The AVHS, known as The Tricky Transformer, comes in several flavours, including recovery and tractor variants. Not much on fast cornering, but you can drive over or through pretty much anything.
Imagine, if you will, a 20-axel 80-wheel flatbed with the front five and rear five axels steerable. Introducing the HETT—Heavy Equipment Transport. Completely armoured and with solid rubber wheels, this little beauty features a secure cab strapped and pinned to the frame and designed to detach upward and roll should the operator trigger a buried IED. Along with its 1,200 lb hydraulically controlled doors that automatically bolt-lock with steel pins in an explosion, the cab’s entire shell defies breach. Most anything just bounces off, so the operators stay safe until the cavalry gets there. These are the trucks.
For much of his tour, Berny works support and resupply, hauling equipment, food, water, amo and the like to American forces on the front line. It’s the day-to-day, the routine and it should be nothing special. But this is the Hyena Road, the nastiest bit of war torn roadway in the entire Middle East.
“You’re always on guard. But we’ve been trained for that. Hopefully the training is enough to prepare you. There’s just not much room for mistakes,” Berny says.
When night curtains the desert, a 200 lb. human mammal standing three feet from you disappears—invisible, without moonlight. The first big recovery call for Berny’s team comes at 4:00 PM. A shiny new Leopard A4 tank, less than 100 km of service on its treads, tripped a big powerful IED. The package, a 45 gallon plastic drum stuffed with explosive, warped the 18 cm plated floor of the tank upward by a few inches and flipped the 72 tonner on its side like a Tonka toy. Six hours it will take to recover the tank, and the sun will set in two. Four hours will they toil in darkness.
The convoy gears up—at least sixteen vehicles and more than sixty men truck out.
“You are going to take fire while you are out there. This is not a safe place,” says Berny. “But you’re out there with full support, air cover, and you’re in the satellite bubble, so most of the time you can see where the fire is coming from. But not always.”
By the time he and his team get on site, the medics have evacced the wrecked tank’s crew, and US Warthog air support has been locked on overhead. The IED crew has run its sweep and made sure the free fireworks are done for today.
Berny and his team hop onto the sand, get to work pronto. Light will fade soon, and that’ll make recovery challenging.
It’s a complex task of cabling the 72 ton beast to a winch, lining up vehicles so that the Leopard will roll from it’s side over onto its treads before the team hauls it onto the HETT to take home.
“You have to get it right. It’s dark. Members of the team are close to each other and close to gear. Something comes loose and wham. It’s in the fan. Somebody is gonna get hurt or killed,” Berny says.
By the the time night descends over the desert, the team has barely begun. Lucky though, tonight the moon shines. Even so, the team breaks out the night vision goggles.
After some time they have the tank rigged. On the back end of the beast a 90 ton winch will pull down while the AVHS will push from the front to control the fall. Then the team can haul it out of the sand and onto the HETT bed.
This time, the roll goes well, and the Leopard lands on its feet, facing in the right direction. The team turns on the cranks and before too long the tanks sits on the HETT bed, ready to roll back to base.
“This was a good recovery. I feel good knowing there is minimal injury, and that we got recovery done without any incident or casualties,” Berny says.
In seven months of site seeing on the Hyena Road, Patrick encountered seven IEDs, five of which the bomb experts defused. But the seventh delivered a severe blow.
The day began like any other. Looking forward to his last few hours before he’d rotate out and pick up some some R&R, Berny rises as usual at five. After breakfast, the team gears up and heads out to provide support for US troops who have just secured a farm and are about to begin road construction.
The convoy moves out, but after a time stops. Berny climbs out of the cab, stands on the truck, looks briefly to the horizon. It happens in milliseconds.
All he hears is somebody yell out “Heads up, Berny!” After that, the taste of dust in his mouth, a swirl of faces around him as he bobs in and out of consciousness.
“I remember they loaded me into the Blackhawk, they choppered me to camp, then over to the Aussie field hospital,” Berny says.
Like the wrecked Leopard, Berny gets initial evaluation and treatment in Afghanistan, before they send him back to Montreal. Experts will go over the wrecked Leopard to help improve design, manufacture and operating procedures in future. Berny will not be so fortunate.
He suffered four herniated disks in the explosion when debris smashed into his mid-section. He also sustained a broken pelvis, four fractures to his hips and lower back, and a concussion. After months of recovery, they sit him down to tell him his injuries are too severe—he can no longer serve.
It’s January, 2015 and winter blows across the north shore of Riviere St. Laurent near Ville Du Quebec and freezes out even a memory of summer. Roads beyond village boundaries, beset with frost heaves, black ice, hard packed snow and blinding conditions devour vehicles. A serenely beautiful landscape on a clear winter day, when the ground, blanketed in pure white, shimmers as sunlight dances along the snow crystals—or a cryogenic wasteland if you’re standing beside a wrecked vehicle in a ditch late at night.
Months of winter remain here, before summer’s brush paints a lush green canopy over gentle hills and lakes. That means busy time at Remorquage de La Jacques-Cartier.
Five years after his tour of Afghanistan, Patrick Bernes owns his own towing operation here in Ville de Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier. It is what he knows.
“I’m lucky. I can work in a business I enjoy, helping people. I have my family. I have my life,” Berny says. He owns a 60 ton 18-wheel rig that pulls medium to heavy vehicles, “as well as all the little ones.”
These days he works alone, and if there is one thing he misses most about the military, it’s teamwork. That, and the Afghani people. “I got to know the country and the people and the culture and I wish them the best. I met lots of good people and unfortunately they have a crisis,” Berny says.
Military service no longer owns Patrick Bernes. Patrol along the Hyena Road, the taste of the dust, handing out candy to kids, hauling heavy gear out of harm’s way in a war zone, the team work—all of it slipping into haloed memories. But there remains the pull.
“People ask me all the time. Would I go back. Would I take the chance to be part of a military effort in a war zone? Would I put my life on the line to serve again?” Berny takes a breath. “In a heartbeat.”
This article first appeared in Tow Canada Magazine