Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Canadians Changed By Afghanistan War

I remember Bosnia and Kosovo, the headlines, the stories on Canadians under fire, or taking to the skies in fighter planes.

And all the peace keeping missions have a place in memory also - Cyprus, Rwanda, and others.

Occasionally there was news of a Canadian soldier dying - more often than not, though, accidentally rather than in battle.

But Afghanistan changed all that. For me, and probably many other Canadians.

My first realization of this change came with early reports on the war with the Taliban, a sense that the situation was similar in ways to Vietnam and then, sometime after the first two or three Canadians had been killed in battle, the awareness that my feelings and anxieties about what was happening were probably the same as what many Americans felt during that south-east Asian war.

Yet another piece of whatever innocence I had left was lost.

In the greater scheme of things my innocence means nothing. But the fact that Canadians and others continued to die means a great deal. This morning, from the CTV web site: "Since the start of Canadian military activities in Afghanistan, 157 Canadian soldiers have lost their lives. A Canadian diplomat, two Canadian aid workers and a Canadian journalist have also been killed over the course of the insurgency"

We don't know who will be the last soldier killed in the few remaining days of Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan, and I won't tempt the fates by naming the last ones to date. One thing is for sure, though - there are many Canadians currently deployed, and many more back home, who have their fingers crossed that it will be no more.

The first Canadian woman soldier ever to die in battle was Capt. Nichola Goddard, 26, on May 17, 2006. She was described as a "soldier's soldier," someone who loved the military, and had the aptitude and probability of further promotion. This daughter, wife, and respected officer - whose nickname was Care Bear - never had the chance.

News of Capt. Goddard's death brought tears, and it would not be the last time I wept for our brave men and women in Afghanistan. Here's a vid Peo by The Trews, singing a song entitled Highway of Heroes, inspired by Capt. Goddard's death. The Trews come from her home town, Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

Cathie Miller writes about the Highway of Heroes:
Canadian Forces Base Trenton is where all fallen soldiers are returned to from Afghanistan, for a repatriation ceremony, before travelling up Highway 401, also known as the Highway of Heroes, to Toronto. 
I happened to finish my appointment and got on the 401 just ahead of the procession. I have heard about the people lining the overpasses to pay their respects to fallen soldiers. But it was awe inspiring to see every overpass that we went under lined with children and adults. One had only a single veteran waving his flag high, and proudly wearing his medals — other overpasses had dozens of people. 
Most bridges had a fire truck, ambulance or police car on it, with proud emergency personnel standing at attention. There was an OPP colour party waiting just outside Toronto. There were people stopped along the road side, in parking lots, on side roads and backyards just waiting to pay their respects. It truly was something to see; newscasts and newspapers just can’t capture that moment. They were there because the fallen soldier and his grieving family deserved respect. Thanks for representing our country, it’s a small gesture that is so big. I’ll never forget it.
About three years ago a young man I knew was preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. It was the first time in my 60-year life I knew someone getting ready to go to war. Two strong impressions from that time:
  • I was impressed by the combat readiness training he was going through. It was rigorous and thorough.
  • Even more so I was impressed by the knowledge he had acquired of Afghanistan and its people. I guess I expected something less objective, perhaps more slanted to "our" perspective. But this young man spoke articulately and with balance about Afghan culture, society, and politics.
When the time came for him to leave, and during his time in theatre, I felt a kind of anxiety which I'm sure many Americans are all too familiar with. Thankfully, he came home safely, and is to be married to the young woman he had left behind.

In my blog post yesterday I wrote about The National Post's epic series called The Long Road, which over the next week or so will bring together the stories of many Canadians who fought in Afghanistan, creating what I hope will become a valuable meta-narrative.

I suspect Canada Day will have special meaning for us this year, as it coincides with the winding down of the combat mission. Yet, we do well to remember that Canadian soldiers will still be in Afghanistan providing training and support to the Afghans. May they be safe.
Many of the men and women coming home, as is the case throughout this war, will carry wounds that are for the most part invisible - their minds and spirits impacted by the trauma of war. We must not forget or overlook these soldiers, for PTSD - post traumatic stress disorder - is a very real and serious injury to the individual. And in the coming days I will write more about that.

In the meantime, I salute all who have served with, to borrow words from our national anthem and used by The Trews in their song, "true patriot love."

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