For nearly 10 years, Sgt. James Hatfield wondered what happened to a soldier he helped in Afghanistan.
The soldier had set off an improvised explosive device in a compound south of Kandahar and was seriously injured. Hatfield was nearby and heard the explosion. His section secured the area while the soldier was picked up by medics in a Black Hawk helicopter.
“Looking at him, his leg was gone,” said Hatfield. “There was barely an ankle.”
Hatfield didn’t know the soldier’s name until recently. He was watching a video about veterans and post-traumatic stress and thought he might have recognized one of the men interviewed.
Global News recently brought the two men together for the first time in a decade. Hatfield recognized Etienne Aubé immediately.
Over lunch, the two reflected on what Aubé jokingly calls “a tough day at work.” On July 16, 2009, he lost his right leg and two fingers and came close to bleeding to death.
“I was about 220 pounds,” said Aubé. “Nine days later, I weighed 152.”
Aubé entered the compound at about 5:45 a.m. Immediately upon entering a small house, he knew there was danger. His bomb-sniffing dog kept sitting, indicating there were explosives. Aubé told the other soldiers he was with to leave.
Aubé says he remembers everything about the moment he stepped on a pressure plate and set off a bomb underneath his feet.
“I remember going up, hitting the ceiling with my head,” he said. “I fell on the ground, into the crater. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to get the sand out of my mouth. I could taste blood. And then the pain began.”
In those first moments, Aubé thought he’d been cut in two. It felt as though his lower body was on fire. Part of his leg was blown off, and blood was spraying out of his femoral artery. He could hear it hitting the wall.
“I knew I was dying. I couldn’t believe my life was going to end like this — at 28, far from those I love,” he said.
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Instead, Aubé’s team acted quickly. He was pulled out of the building, treated and airlifted to safety.
Hatfield’s section was travelling parallel to Aubé’s when he heard the bomb go off.
“When you got to us, I helped the medic, Petit, ” Hatfield told Aubé. “Then I went back to securing the area while the helicopter came in.”
That day was already difficult before Aubé’s incident. Just hours earlier, another Canadian soldier had been killed, 26-year-old Pte. Sébastien Courcy.
Hatfield says he went to Afghanistan with his eyes wide open. He expected to see some things that would be difficult to take. Reuniting with Aubé, he says, helps with coping.
“To know that you’re better, in the end, is comforting,” he told Aubé. “It’s good to know the person we were helping is alive and well.”
In fact, Aubé says he’s doing better than ever. The first years were difficult. He had to learn to walk again, dealt with post-traumatic stress and struggled with an addiction to painkillers.
Today, he insists he wouldn’t change a thing. He feels happier and healthier than before he lost his leg.
Both of the men consider themselves lucky. Aubé calls himself “a lucky b*****d” for surviving a direct hit from an improvised explosive device, but he says all of Canada’s soldiers who spent time “outside the wires” in Afghanistan likely came close to being killed, even if they don’t know it.
“You’re lucky because you (Hatfield) probably walked by a bomb or rolled over a bomb,” Aubé said. “A lot of it out there is luck.”