Canada’s Afghan vets: They made a difference.

Sunrise over Kandahar City Photo: © 2014 Robert Allan
Sunrise over Kandahar City. Photo: © 2014 Robert Allan

Today is a National Day of Honour in Canada to recognize and salute the sacrifices and the service of the men and women  of Canada’s military who served in Afghanistan.  It is not time for politics.  It is a time for respect,
I’m taking a moment today, to pause and think about the 158 Canadian soldiers who came home from Afghanistan on the Highway of Heroes.  158 young men and women who represent the finest citizens Canada has to offer.  Like our Olympians and our professional sports heroes, Canada’s soldiers dedicate themselves to their craft, honing their bodies to peak physical fitness and sharpening their minds to a razor focus that enables them to excel in their endeavours.  Like our police officers, firefighters and paramedics, they  dedicate themselves to public service, volunteering to stand in harms way whenever we ask them to.

Unique among Canadians, however, they voluntarily waive their own rights to security of the person so they may help protect our rights.  It is only our soldiers who have no right to refuse a lawful command even if they know it will result in their death.  They knew this when they signed up to be soldiers.  And, they knew it when they were sent to Afghanistan.  Still, almost all of them volunteered to go.

They made the world a better place, even if only for a short while, even if only in a small place, even if only for a few people.

No doubt, they also knew this risk on the last morning they woke up on this Earth, pulling on their boots (if they had the luxury of taking them off the night before) and preparing for a patrol, a raid or a normal day on the battlefield.  As if there are ever any normal days on a battlefield.  But, as they each prepared for their last day, I have no doubt they were well aware it could be exactly that.  They knew every day came with the possibility of both horror and joy.  Their days were typically touched with success and failure, despair and exultation, victory and pain, and too often with death.

Soldiers fear many things.  They fear injury and illness, if for no other reason than it may hold them back when their buddies may need them most.  They fear death, like every other human.  But, many develop a sense of fatalism; they know everyone dies, but there are different ways, places and times to die.  They’d rather die quickly, doing something important, standing shoulder to shoulder with their brothers in arms, making a difference — than at home in bed after months of suffering.  Given a choice, of course, they’d rather not die at all.  But, they’re not given that choice.

On their last day, I expect the Canadian soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan were thinking about the same things they thought of every day: not so much about their own mortality, but perhaps about their fear of failing their buddies, of letting down the team, of failing to perform at their best.  More so, though, I expect they were thinking of the work they were doing, the successes they’d seen.  Beyond doubt, I’m sure they were also thinking about their plans for upcoming leave out of the battle area and their return home after the mission.

Soldiers think a lot about the first public embrace with children, friends, families and lovers on their return home as they step off a plane or a bus after a mission; and of the private embraces that will follow.  They think of their first meal back in “the world,” whether it’s steak at a favourite restaurant or barbecued in the back yard; or fried chicken from a take out place or a triple cheeseburger with bacon.  They think of going to the bar, hoisting a few beers with their buddies and chatting up prospective dates.  They think about sitting on a bench on the street or in a shopping mall, while a sea of happy, beautiful, peaceful, normal Canadians — the people, the society, they have sworn to serve and to protect — washes over them, recharging their faith in humanity, refilling their sense of perspective, reconnecting them with all that is good in the world.

But, of course, for those 158 Canadians thinking of these things on their last day in Afghanistan, none of this would happen.  There would be no public or private embraces with lovers, children, parents.  There would be no favourite meals, celebratory nights out or cathartic walks through the mall.  They didn’t know it then, but it was their last day.

What I hope they knew, is that they died for a purpose.  They made the world a better place, even if only for a short while, even if only in a small place, even if only for a few people.  And, I hope their families and friends who were robbed of those embraces and happy moments that will now never occur, know it to.

To those who perished on my behalf in Afghanistan; to those who were wounded there, whether physically or mentally, and whose lives are forever changed; and to your families and friends: thank you.  Thank you for your sacrifice.  Thank you for your service.  You will never be forgotten.


Thanks to Robert Allen @King_Rob674 for the photo.