Wayward U.S. bomb hits too close to home

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 24, 2002

When e-mail coffee companion and Winnipeg nurse Doris Buehler listened to the late news April 17, she had a really bad feeling. There had been a military accident near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, and there were Canadian casualties. That's where her only sibling, Cpl. Rene Paquette, was stationed.

Shortly after midnight, Rene's wife Lauren phoned her to say that a padre and some officers had just come to her door with the news: Rene had been injured in the accident and was being sent to Germany for treatment.

Thus began a frantic week for Doris and all the family as sketchy details of the tragedy emerged. In a phone conversation at the beginning of this week, she shared with me some of the pieces of the puzzle she has managed to put together:

Four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight injured while on nighttime training exercises, when an American F16 mistakenly dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb on them.

Rene heard the bomb coming, saw it explode . . . then nothing.

Four of his comrades positioned either side of him were killed by the blast. Eight others were injured, two of them, including Rene, critically.

He and five of the other injured were rushed to a U.S. military hospital in Germany. There, unconscious and suffering from a concussion, chest wounds, pulmonary contusion, and ruptured eardrums, he was placed on a respirator in intensive care.

By April 20, he had taken a turn for the better. Doris was able to speak with him on the phone. Because Rene was barely able to hear – and then only with one ear – Doris had to speak very loudly.

His first raspy words to her were: "I don't know why I'm here; I don't know why I made it."

"Rene was really good buddies with the guys who were killed," Doris said. "He thought the world of them. It's heartbreaking for him to realize he's here and they're gone."

Doris's reaction to the news the night of the bombing was mixed. "At first I was really, really scared; I was anxious," she said. "But when I heard he wasn't one of those killed, I experienced humongous relief."

Nevertheless, she said, although the military gave Rene's family updates every six to eight hours immediately following the accident, they never let on just how seriously injured he was, or that for a while he was in the ICU close to death. It was only days later that this information was forthcoming.

Because of that, "it's really hard to know what to believe," she said.

However, from what Rene has told her thus far, she was quick to add, "They're treating him very, very well."

At the time of the accident, Rene was on his fourth tour of duty with the distinguished Winnipeg-based Second Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, having served previously as a peacekeeper in Yugoslavia. He wasn't really expecting to do a fourth tour, Doris said, but was willing to go if he had to.

He was among the first group of 20 from his battalion to leave for Afghanistan earlier this year. Their assignment: security operations in facilitating delivery of humanitarian supplies, and possible combat as part of the U.S.-led multinational coalition campaign against terrorism.

There is a Cochrane connection to this story. Doris's mother-in-law, Adele Buehler, teaches music at Glenbow Elementary School. Doris's husband Doyle, also a Bow Corridor boy, is a much-published photographer of airplanes, including the F16 type that dropped the bomb on Rene and his buddies.

As this column goes to press, Rene is on his way home where he has a special gift awaiting him. Just over two weeks ago, Rene and Lauren became the proud parents of their first child, a baby girl. I'm sure she'll provide cries of delight for Rene's sore ears.

As an afterthought, Doris shared with me an eerie twist to this story. Rene said in jest to one of his friends just prior to departing for Afghanistan, "I'll see you when I get back, if I don't get bombed by the Americans."

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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