Outtakes – UBC reservist reflects on Remembrance Day

As we approach Rememberance Day, UBC’s Ben Pong reflects on his military service.

Ben Pong, supervisor of the Computer Shop at the UBC Bookstore, a former member of the UBC Board of Governors and Canadian Forces reservist, took a leave of absence from UBC to serve in NATO’s Afghanistan mission in 2010 and in the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan in 2012. He shares his thoughts with UBC Reports on Remembrance Day.

How did you come to serve for the Canadian military abroad?

In 2009, I took a leave of absence and volunteered for active service in Afghanistan with the Canadian Armed Forces.  It was a warm fall evening when my fellow soldiers and I  took a helicopter to the base of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar City. The reality of war came to us early on, as Justin, one of the people on that flight, was killed within days of our arrival.

What was your role in the mission?

By 2006,  popular opinion in Kandahar had shifted from pro-coalition to indifference, or even pro-Taliban, because economic development promised by the West had not been realized. The focus of the mission had also changed: From combat to security, governance and development.

My job at the PRT was to coordinate the use of military resources with local government officials. I led a team of specialists in project management, liaison and cultural awareness.

What were the highlights of your job?

One of the most interesting aspects was advising the Mayor of Kandahar City. Mayor Hamidi was an accountant and had a well-earned, rare reputation of being an honest government official. Without a planning department, he would use the PRT as his city planners. The mayor would outline his requirements and it was our task to acquire funding and conduct these quick impact projects. Not surprisingly, his priorities and those of the donor nations often did not match. We would come up with compromises that both sides could accept. Tragically, Mayor Hamidi was killed by a suicide bomber attack in 2011.

Did serving in a dangerous mission affect you personally?

Our main threat was improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  On Dec. 30., 2009, having finishing my patrol, I walked by to chat with Kurt, a member of my team. A few hours later, Kurt and four others were killed by an IED. The team gathered that evening and the event quickly turned from a sombre remembrance into a fond roast. Kurt, a Cape Bretoner with a good sense of humour, would have wanted it that way. Within 48 hours we went out on patrol, canvassing villagers on their needs while smiling and waving back to the kids, but we had changed. Still, my team and I took comfort in knowing that the lives of some Kandaharians have improved due to our projects.

What was it like to come back home?

We arrived back in Edmonton in the middle of the night.  A bus took us from the airport to our base. Still in our desert fatigues, we saw Canadians line up along the route with flags  and yellow ribbons to welcome us home.

For my “sins,” I was granted a UN peacekeeping tour in South Sudan. It is less developed than Afghanistan, but despite the intertribal conflicts and abject poverty, it is also a more hopeful place.  The majority of the combatants and civilian victims are young adults and sometimes children. With the lessons learned from Rwanda, we were able to protect some civilians and give warning to others. Knowing that does give me some comfort.

What are your thoughts on the 11th hour of November 11th?

I will be laying a wreath at the War Memorial Gym on behalf of the University Officer Training Corp. My thoughts will be with those who have gone, those who have fallen, the civilian victims and those who are still there physically or mentally. Lest we forget.