KAMLOOPS – We’re taking a day to remember the fallen, but soldiers like M.Cpl. John Cumming have been remembering friends every day since witnessing their deaths on the battlefield. For Cumming, it's a day from his tour with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry that has played in his head for almost five years.
“December 23, 2009 was the worst day of my life,” he says. The White Rock native was 23 when he and his partner, platoon commander Lieutenant Andrew Nuttall, were hit by a bomb on a side road in Nakhonay, Afghanistan. They had been on the road the day before when they spotted two barrels filled with enemy AK-47 parts.
It was risky to return.
"When they see you go down that road once, they'll put a bomb there the next day," Cumming says.
After successfully destroying the barrels, Cumming and Nuttall figured they would make the most of their time on the side of the road and grab some photos.
"He asked me to take pictures of him. I took three," Cumming says. They took "hero shots" where each posed clad in desert combat gear with the hopes of sharing them back home. Cumming got his photos first and went to take Nuttall’s shots.
"The sun was in my eyes. I took the picture and he’s like ‘you dummy, you just took a picture of my legs.’ So I took two more pictures of him.”
Cumming gave the camera to Nuttall who took two steps back before “everything just went black.”
The bomb threw Cumming against a wall and damaged his spine. The group’s interpreter was dead. When Cumming came to, he rushed to Nuttalls side. His partner was still concious, but in shock and losing a lot of blood.
“His injuries were so severe,” Cumming says. ”Luckily his body was in shock so he wasn’t feeling it. I just told him to relax.”
Cumming called for an emergency helicopter while Cpls. Cody Morck and Warren Jacobs tried to cauterize Nuttall's wound, hoping he would stay alive long enough to make it back to camp.
“They say if you make it to Kandahar Air Field – you have a 99.9 per cent of surviving. They have the best (doctors), they have the best everything,” Cumming says.
The helicopter was set to arrive in 15 minutes. Nuttall died after 13. He was 30 years old.
When the crew returned to the base, it was under lockdown. Cumming's family already heard news of the fallen soldier in media reports but he couldn't call home until Christmas Eve.
Cumming describes Nuttall, as a 'salt-of-the-earth island guy' from Saanich. He felt his purpose in Afghanistan, he was easy going and fiercely looked out for his friends. Nuttall was athletic; when he wasn't on tour, he was either surfing, snowboarding or doing crossfit.
Sometimes, Cumming says, it's hard to believe he's gone.
During his tour, Nuttall kept a blog to share the events with family at home. In his last entry, he shared how much he missed everyone but thanked his family for his care packages. He said he was frustrated with the conditions Afghan civilians faced but said he was happy to be making headway and proving the Canadian soldiers were there to help.
After Nuttall's death, Cumming was overcome with emotion.
“That’s when it got bad. I sat on a (bomb) two weeks later. I knew I was sitting on one, but I didn’t move," he says. He knows he was lucky the explosive didn't trigger. "I thought 'whatever.' I just stopped caring."
He grew paranoid and fell into a depression. Replaying the moment over in his mind, he wondered if he could have done anything differently the day of the incident.
“For the first year or two, I had to literally shake my head to stop thinking about it. I can go right back to that scene," he says. "It pisses you off because I was standing on the thing and it didn't go off."
To lighten his spirits, Cumming’s company found a stray dog and introduced her to him. The two bonded immediately with Cumming dubbing the small white pup Angie in recognition of his fallen friend.
“She was like our mascot and obsessed with me. She was great because when I couldn't settle at night she would jump on my lap," he says.
When the two weren’t sharing Cumming's sleeping bag, Angie followed the crew along wherever they went at camp. Before leaving on one of his trips – one that Angie couldn't join on – he left the dog with a fellow soldier on base. Over the trip, he decided he would pay the $2,700 to bring her home with him.
"How cool of a story would that be," he says. "If you got your dog from Afghanistan."
But when he returned to the camp, the friend he left her with broke down in tears.
"Somebody poisoned her and she had to be put down," Cumming says. "But I gave her a good four months. She was a beautiful dog. I would have loved to have her right now."
Despite another blow, he pushed through and completed his tour in February. Over the course of their time abroad, a total of five men were lost in Delta company, their names etched into a memorial bracelet he wears.
When he returned home to his family, Cumming left the army for eight months. He says roughly 90 per cent of the 140 soldiers in his company did.
“You don’t come back the same. You become different when you get home. You become sheltered. You don’t like to go out. It’s hard to explain," he says. "You almost wish you could go back in time and change everything but you can’t. You're always ready for something to happen and you can't snap out of that.”
The tour had its share of difficult moments for him, but there were good times, too.
"We had a funny platoon," he says. "We were always laughing."
The crew made regular connections with locals. They even adopted another pet, a cat named "Warrant Whiskers."
The soldiers somehow garnered a foosball table - the transport of which always got in the way of carrying necessary goods and put them at risk. One member put their life on the line when they drove the table through dangerous territory to make sure it made it to the next camp.
The camaraderie of his company, the love of his family and the motivation to help keep peace abroad helped carry him through.
Now 28 years old, Cumming has re-joined and acts as a recruiter for the Rocky Mountain Rangers Reservist Company’s based in Kamloops and Prince George. He’s honest with his recruited infantrymen about the trials of the Forces when he tells them the story he'll never forget.
Through the constant pain in his back, even his body reminds him of what happened.
“I’ll be walking with a cane when I’m in my thirties," he says. "But that's life. I signed up. I went over.”
With a wry smile, he adds a joke: "Maybe I'll get a pimp cane with a big diamond on the top, or one of those walkers with the tennis balls on the legs."
But Cumming and others can take pride from his civilian supporters who wear poppies, showing respect for the fallen and the sacrifices he and the Canadian Forces have made.
In his life, every day is Remembrance Day. Nov. 11 is a day when everyone else can join him as he thinks of Lt. Andrew Nuttall, Sgt. John Wayne Faught, Privates Tyler Todd, Kevin McKaay, Steve Marshall and all the other soldiers who have given their lives fighting for Canadians.
To contact a reporter for this story, email Glynn Brothen at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-319-7494. To contact an editor, email email@example.com or call 250-718-2724.