Comment: Capt. Jon Snyder was a true Canadian hero

The resilient people of Afghanistan have long used underground aqueducts known as a karez or qanat to move water long distances and provide nourishment for their crops and families. Like the arteries in our bodies, a karez protects the fluids needed for life in that harsh region.

Seen from the air, they look like the result of a bombing run, a series of holes in the ground in a straight line. Up close, the deep holes link a stream up to 30 metres below the surface.

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During the operations in Afghanistan, there were always rumours, and some evidence, of karezes being used to store weapons and ammunition or to move insurgents. There were however, practical limitations to using them for anything but water transportation due to their depth and the steepness of their walls as we discovered after June 7, 2008.

Capt. Jonathan Snyder, a 26-year-old member of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry from Penticton and a University of Victoria grad, was on his second tour of Afghanistan. He had already distinguished himself so well on his first tour in 2006 that I tried in vain to get him off his second tour, so he could join the special operations command.

He was later recognized for his bravery on that second tour with a Star of Military Valour, Canada’s second-highest award for bravery, for his leadership of a team assigned to an Afghan company that was ambushed by Taliban insurgents.

The citation reads that Snyder seized control of the situation, and that he and four other Canadians, “with little chance of survival … exposed themselves to great peril and retaliated against the enemy… Because of their dedication, leadership and valour, many Afghan and Canadian lives were saved.”

A few nights after that incident, humble and dedicated, he was back on patrol. Carrying the combined weight of his helmet, body armour, tac vest, magazines, weapon, radio and ammunition, he was patrolling across a contested area of grape fields dotted with karez shafts.

Snyder stepped near the edge of a karez in the darkness and the ground gave way instantly. He fell 20 metres down into the darkness and into water. His patrol members worked desperately to recover him. A helicopter eventually carried him to the medical facility at Kandahar Airfield, where he was pronounced dead. The lifegiving waterway had taken Snyder’s life.

Snyder, who served us all so well in his short life, continued to serve even after his death. His example caused a reassessment of how we define sacrifice in the Canadian Armed Forces. The Sacrifice Medal, Canada’s equivalent to the U.S. Purple Heart, was initially approved for presentation to a soldier who “died or was wounded under honourable circumstances as a direct result of hostile action.” As the task force commander, Brigadier-General Dennis Thompson, said about Snyder’s death: “This tragic accident has deeply impacted us all … It’s just a tragic accident.” There was no doubt that it was an accident.

As his death was not “a direct result of hostile action,” however, Snyder would not be eligible for the Sacrifice Medal that was announced later that summer. He was, nevertheless, patrolling at night in territory where an enemy was active. As he was unable to give away his movements, using white light was not an option and his death, though accidental, was a direct result of his operational service in Afghanistan.

A review of the policy took place and with Snyder’s case top of mind, the eligibility criteria for the medal were amended the next year to read “as a direct result of a hostile action or action intended for a hostile force” and “as a result of an injury or disease related to military service.”

No matter what the circumstances of his death, for Snyder’s father David, his mother Anne, brother Adam and fiancée Megan, all of whom were at the unveiling of the Afghanistan memorial last year, there was no doubt about the significance of the sacrifice that had been made.

With time, Canadians have accepted that all deaths and injuries related to an operation where a hostile force is operating deserve recognition. We have Snyder to thank for that, a Canadian hero in every sense of the word.

Col. (Retired) Jamie Hammond, OMM, CD, served around the world for 28 years in Canada’s infantry and special forces. This is the second in a series leading up to Remembrance Day.

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