“But I guess I was a little high on adrenaline so I immediately grabbed a couple more boxes of ammunition and jumped straight into the gunner’s pit, not realizing the extent of my injuries, and carried on fighting.”
Corporal Bill Geernaert speaks over the phone from the sidelines of a children’s soccer match where he’s stationed at Canadian Forces Base Edmonton.
The children calling in the background do little to lessen the impact of his words, and the hair on my arm stands on end.
Geernaert is recounting the harrowing tale of an event which took place on August 4, 2009 while he was on tour in Afghanistan and which cost some of his fellow soldiers and their opposition forces their lives.
Geernaert’s tank group was on its way home from a mission in the Afghan desert when they were caught in an insurgent ambush.
The tank he was in hit an improvised explosive device (IED), and he was severely injured, just how badly, he didn’t even realize at the time.
“We were getting evac’ed out because the area was too hot, they couldn’t land choppers in it — there was too much gunfire so we were getting run out by wheels,” explains Geernaert.
But in the medical vehicle he was in, one of the medics was shot, losing the mobility in his hand and therefore his ability to man the gun, and so Geernaert stepped in, taking over as gunner and rejoining the fight.
With brain stem trauma, injuries to his hips and back, Geernaert fought to push back the insurgents until the group could finally get back “inside the wire” to the relative safety of a secure compound, the entire firefight lasting 14 long hours.
“I just kept on thinking I wanted to get home,” he said.
And while he did get home to Canada after his injuries, he didn’t stay for long.
Feeling as though he was “leaving the guys alone,” the intense comradery of the forces drew him back in and he returned to the front, even though he hadn’t completely healed from his injuries.
He compared the closeness of the soldiers to the ‘Band of Brothers’ miniseries depicting soldiers from E Company of the Second Battalion in the Second World War, saying he felt he could not stay away while they were still on tour.
And it must be intense to overcome the desire to return to a more “normal” existence in North America, given his description of the conditions.
With temperatures outside reaching 156 degrees Celcius during the day, the temperature inside tanks was even hotter, and the soldiers were “like people in an oven,” according to Geernaert.
“You’re dry, you’re thirsty, all of your senses are wide awake, you’re straight in survival mode.”
However, the neurological damage he sustained caught up with him, and his tour ended for good in October of 2009, and he is still continuing to undergo treatment from neurologists, chiropractors and physiotherapists to deal with the injuries.
But despite his injuries and the tough environment, Geernaert felt like he could take something positive from it all, including appreciation for his family.
“You see the conditions over there and after a few ‘incidents’ you really come back and you give your family more than 100 per cent every time.” he said.
“Everything you do you work hard at it, because you’ve seen it so much worse — we’ve got it pretty easy here in Canada.”
As well, the incident and his injuries have not made him lose his belief in the benefits of the Canadian Forces presence in Afghanistan.
“I think we’re giving the people over there what they need to start over,” said Geernaert, adding he felt he saw improvements during his tour.
Geernaert made his mark there and his efforts were recently acknowledged back home in Canada as well.
His part in the August incident earned him recognition by the Governor General of Canada for “gallant and distinguished service.”
On May 13, 2011, Governor General of Canada David Johnston awarded Geernaert the military honour of being “Mentioned in Dispatches,” for his deeds. This was the highest award to a members of the forces from Fort St. James or Vanderhoof since at least World War II, according to Al Geernaert, Bill’s father, a veteran and a director of the executive of the Fort St. James Legion.
Bill Geernaert was born and raised in the Fort, but his family originally came to the area to take up farming on land they were given under the Veteran Land Act in 1919 just outside of Vanderhoof on Braeside Road.
It was the family history of service in the forces which helped to inspire Bill to join up, but it was also a drive to get actively involved and make a difference.
“Instead of sitting back and saying you’re going to do something about it, I actually went and just said ‘Screw it, I’m gonna go do something about it,’ and so I enlisted.”
So, while the Fort might still be home, the military is taking care of him for now, as he took care of some of them.
During the insurgent attack, Geernaert said he was looking at his fellow soldiers as though he was their dad, and as a parent: “I just wanted to get out of there alive and I wanted to make sure I brought everyone home with me.”