Thursday March 4, 2004
IRAQI BLAST OFFICER BACK AT WORK
By Judith Martin, Defence Reporter
That could be some time away however, as the engineer, 28, is still on crutches, and needs extensive surgery to his hand. He is able to walk however, several months before physiotherapists predicted he would be on his feet again.
Captain Gardner was a member of the NZDF team that deployed to Southeast Iraq in September last year to undertake humanitarian and reconstruction work alongside a United Kingdom engineering unit. Barely a month later the deployment ended for him when a 122mm mortar hidden in a sack at the roadside exploded as his vehicle drove past.
In the vehicle with him were two civilian electrical engineers from Iraq and Britain, and a British Army major. The Iraqi engineer was killed instantly, the British engineer received severe shoulder injuries and lost his hearing, and the British major sustained less serious wounds.
The two officers were completing an electrical infrastructure project, and had taken the electrical engineers with them to install the equipment.
“We were heading to a township that needed more electricity, and were going to find a suitable area to install a portable generator. The electrical engineers were with us so they could link it into the grid.
“I knew what had happened as soon as I heard the blast. The shrapnel came up through the floor of the vehicle and through my foot. Some also went through my hand.”
The mortar was fitted with a device similar to a car-alarm, and was detonated from a distance by someone waiting for the vehicle to drive past.
An escort vehicle following was not affected by the blast, and its occupants helped secure the area and evacuate the men to a field hospital in Shaibah, about 40 km away. A day later they were evacuated to England, and Captain Gardner was admitted to a hospital in Birmingham, where he stayed for a month before returning to New Zealand. Surgeons there completed several operations on his foot.
He was wearing body armour and a helmet when the mortar exploded; the Iraqi engineer who died was not wearing any protective clothing.
Captain Gardner, who has served in Bosnia and East Timor, says the New Zealand engineers in Iraq take all safety precautions possible, and the incident was “just one of those things”.
“We're there to help them (the Iraqis) get back on their feet, and our guys are doing that. They're not doing the work for them – they're giving them the wherewithal to do it themselves. We all know the risks, but we're careful and well trained and equipped, and just get on with the job.”
He says his physiotherapist is surprised he is walking, albeit with crutches, and he has started training to reach the fitness level he had before he was injured. Buoyed by his progress, he hopes to be fully fit by the end of the year.
“Being able to walk again is a milestone, and being back at work. It (the explosion) hasn't put me off – I'm keen to get back in the field as soon as I can.”
For further information please contact Commander Sandra McKie,
Defence Press Officer, Ph: (04) 4960299
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