With a muffled thump and the flash of a "second sun," Canadian soldiers faced another brush with death Wednesday as a suicide bomber hit their convoy. There were no Canadian casualties but one Afghan civilian was hurt.
Such attacks have happened so frequently in Kandahar that local firefighters drove past the blast's aftermath on their way to collect a modest gift of rudimentary firefighting gear at a Canadian camp.
The spade shovels and tin buckets were neatly stacked earlier in the day for the hearts-and-minds gift presentation at Camp Nathan Smith, home of the Canadian provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar. The familiar thud of the bomb's detonation sent a plume of black smoke high into the blue sky just a kilometre away.
"In a split second there was a combination of a quiet thud, the pressure of the explosion and what seemed like a second sun," said Capt. Adam West, one of four soldiers riding in the Nyala armoured truck.
"I can't tell you which I saw or heard or felt first."
Since the spring, suicide and roadside bomb attacks have been almost weekly occurrences for Canadian soldiers who sometimes escape with little or no injury. But at least 16 of the 37 Canadian deaths in Afghanistan since 2002 were from bombs, including four who died while on foot patrol earlier this month.
This time the suicide bomber drove from an adjacent lane into the side of the Nyala RG-31, which was part of a convoy returning from a supply mission west of Kandahar.
Soldiers described the moment when they realized the attack was imminent. Their bodies seemed to prepare for the shock independent of their minds, they said. Their muscles tensed for the jolt. Their ears somehow fended off the noise from the blast.
"Your body is ready before you are," said Staff Sgt. Chris Murdy, who has twice been hit in bombings.
"It's just 'holy crap, something just blew up!' Afterward, you just get angry."
With blown tires, a rumpled front end and a shattered side window, the limping Nyala was driven back to the PRT camp by Cpl. Scott Rhoads of Stratford, Ont. Smoke billowed from several corners of the vehicle.
"Thank God everyone is OK," said Maj. Scott Campbell, an Ottawa native and the senior officer on the convoy.
"I'm a little shaky, a little happy and confident in the equipment. There's a couple of little bruises here and there, but everyone is good."
The Nyala is part of a fleet of million-dollar-plus armoured personnel carriers built to survive mine strikes.
The Canadian government rushed the vehicles into service in Afghanistan earlier this year, flying them directly from their South African factory two at a time aboard rented Russian cargo planes.
Soldiers have increasing faith in the four-wheeled vehicle that is meant to blow apart but protect its occupants in the event of a mine explosion.
Soldiers are less keen to ride in their G-Wagon jeeps - lightly armoured vehicles that have proven deadly in recent bomb attacks. A G-Wagon was right behind the Nyala hit Wednesday.
In 2004, soldiers had welcomed the G-Wagon as it replaced the much-maligned Iltis, a vehicle left over from the early 1980s with an optional canvas roof that left soldiers completely exposed. Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor declared earlier this year that the G-Wagon would no longer leave camp, but it has continued to roll on patrols and into combat zones.
"This thing is just not safe," declared one soldier who was cautioned against speaking out by a superior. "If it had been hit today, we'd all be dead."
Images of vehicles damaged in attacks are usually banned under the embedding agreement with the Canadian Forces that allows The Canadian Press and other news organizations to work in close quarters with soldiers. The army says pictures of bullet-ridden light armoured vehicles or blasted G-Wagons could give insurgents information on the effectiveness of their weapons.
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