Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Canucks Remember in Kandahar

Canadian veterans honoured in Kandahar

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The dark sunglasses worn by some family members of fallen soldiers yesterday to block out the unfailingly bright desert sun could not hide the flow of tears that streamed steadily throughout the bagpiper's mournful song.

For nearly half an hour, families of six slain soldiers had held back, looking pained but stoic during a Remembrance Day ceremony as Brigadier-General Denis Thompson, the commander of military troops in Kandahar province, outlined the specific gains that each soldier's death helped the military enable.

“They need to be reassured that everything that they put into this country, their blood, their family, is not a waste,” Gen. Thompson said.

The parents of Private Mark Graham, a former Olympic sprinter who was killed horrifically by friendly fire – an American fighter jet bombed a Canadian camp they mistook for insurgents – during the infamous Operation Medusa in September, 2006, were told that the place their son died has been rehabilitated into a wellspring of life.

“Mark lost his life in an area absolutely infested with insurgents who had forcibly evicted thousands of local villagers for the sake of their philosophy,” Gen. Thompson said. “Today, two years later, Mark would not recognize his battlefield. Schools are operating, local governance is prospering, and infrastructure is being built …A major coalition forward operating base has been constructed on the very spot that Mark lost his life.”

The family of Private Blake Williamson, killed in October, 2006 in the volatile Zhari district, was assured by the General their son died in what was then “without a doubt the most dangerous part of Afghanistan.” Today, the region is a “stability box”, he said.

The area of northern Kandahar province where Cpl. Randy Payne lost his life in April, 2006, is now secured and serves as a key access route linking Kandahar province to Uruzgan; nearly 1,000 troops were recently anchored in dangerous Maiwand district, the wild-west of Kandahar province where Private David Greenslate fell in April, 2007. They are disrupting the insurgent supply lines emanating from nearby Helmand province, the General said.

After he extended similar assurances to the families of Cpt. Matthew Dawe, killed in July of 2007, and Pte. Michel Levesque, who died in April, 2006, each family was invited to lay wreaths at the airfield's Canadian war memorial, a marble-tiled structure carved with the names and faces of all 97 soldiers our country has lost so far here.

With the bagpiper playing, they rose from their seats family by family, some clutching hands for support, most looking as if the act of placing their wreath deepened the ache of their loss rather than easing it. That is when tears began to flow.

Still, the families – flown to Afghanistan by the military as part of Remembrance Day tradition – said spending the day close to the spots where their sons breathed their last breaths was somewhat cathartic.

“Being here and just feeling the air … hearing from the Afghan people and hearing what has happened here since Mark has passed away has made a huge difference,” said Linda Learn, Pte. Graham's stepmother. “It really puts a different picture in my mind about Afghanistan. We had a picture of where he died. Now we know that there's roads and marketplaces and bazaars and schools,” she said. “It doesn't bring him back … but it does bring some comfort.”

Peter and Reine Dawe, parents of Capt. Matthew Dawe, took their visit one step further – the pair asked to see and sit in the actual vehicle their son was killed in. Mr. Dawe called the process “traumatic”, although his wife said it helped her feel closer to her son.

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