Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘closure

End Of Mission

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Today, March 12, 2014, marks the end of Operation ATTENTION and the end of Canadian military operations in Afghanistan.

One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers are listed on the official casualty rolls, as well as a journalist, a diplomat, and two civilian contractors. One was a close friend. One was an NCO who inspired me as a young officer by his example of leadership. One was a friend to many soldiers I had the privilege and honour of leading later in my career. One was the best friend of another of my soldiers who is now finally finding a footing in his own life after his deployment. One was such a close friend of staff on one of my officer development courses that we had to shut down training briefly when the news reached us.

They all enjoy something of an immortality that few can imagine though. Stories are told of them years later, they have become their own sort of legends. Some have had ships and buildings named after them, some will just remain the subject of stories and regimental lore for years to come. Today, I honour them all – those who set off from their homes to try to do something good in the world, something for which they were willing to make such sacrifice. I am proud to have stood in the shadows of such men and women, to have worn the same uniform as them. I will long tell the stories of those I know.

Others came home wounded, including my first Platoon 2IC who also played a formative role in my military career. What he survived was a case of dumb luck as much anything. Some have visible scars of physical wounds. Some have invisible scars and are still finding their way. They will, with time.

I will leave it to historians to assess the outcomes of our efforts there, but I am proud to have been one of those who served there. For all the cynicism I had about what we were doing and whether it would really made a difference, I learned much there and came to respect and admire the resilience of the Afghan people. While much of their culture and view of the world remains a mystery to me, there I met a great many Afghans who were proud, decent people seeking to build a future for their country. If anything that we did there helped them to do a better job of it, then we have done something noble.

The truth is, I do not see how we could have done any different. I would be far more uncomfortable with the idea that we didn’t do anything when a failed state harboured an evil so vile as Al Qaeda. I will always be skeptical of the trumpets of war and the calls to arms, as I was when the United States invaded Iraq. I will always view war as the greatest of human failings, but at the same time I will always remember that sometimes things must be fought for and over.

Years ago, I was an instructor on a leadership course for junior NCOs. We made them memorize a particular quote from John Stuart Mill. Notably, this coincided with the move of Canadian troops from Kabul to Kandahar, into the hornet’s nest as it were. Here is the quote:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.”

The bold part is the most commonly cited part of the quote, but the whole passage actually gives it more context.

I’m not much of a nationalist, in fact, history teaches us that nationalism is a pernicious force in some cases, but at the same time I can say that having served in a place such as Afghanistan, I have come away with a tremendous appreciation for the good fortune I have to have been born and grown up in Canada. My own travels outside of this country give me a great respect for other cultures as well, but what I realized finally after seeing Afghanistan is that virtually everything people want to complain about here is so unbelievably trivial and pointless.

I have now been home for almost a year and a half – in fact not long ago I passed the two year mark from the day I got in the plane. I’ve gone into a new line of work which is going well, and generally returned to a normal life – but some days I actually miss being “over there”, even though rereading this blog and the more detailed journal I kept of the experience reminds me that especially toward the end I was insatiably bored and frustrated with progress, that the memories that stick out in my mind weren’t what it was always like. I’m less likely to slip into “war stories” now, more interested in hearing about how others are doing with being home.

In the summer of 2001, as an Officer Cadet, I sat in the theatre at the Infantry School and listened to our instructors tell us how much better we had it joining up at that time. All they ever had as deployment opportunities was Cyprus, Cyprus, Cyprus, they told us. Now there was Bosnia, and a smattering of other missions. It was all going to be so exciting. Then came the British exchange officer who presided over the course, a presentation I won’t soon forget. It started rather jovially, with a presentation interspersed with clips of Blackadder Goes Forth and so on. Then Major Geoff Weighell, a man I recall as being eight feet tall and as hard as Chinese algebra, switched to a much more direct, blunt, real assessment of the job, his account of serving in the Falkland Islands War.

None of us really thought much about Afghanistan. I had read about the Soviet experience there, and a university politics class I took included an excerpt of Benjamin Barber’s Jihad Vs McWorld in a reading package, and it touched on tribalized societies like Afghanistan. None of us knew then what was to come that fall or how it would change things for the whole. Will we now say to new soldiers that at least they have more to look forward to than Afghanistan, Afghanistan, Afghanistan?

As a last point, I want to touch on something that’s been a good discussion point amongst us.

Much is being made in the press of recent suicides and the mental health cost of Afghanistan. While it is undeniable that an appreciable percentage of personnel who served in Afghanistan (20% or so, I’ve heard) suffer from PTSD/OSI in some form. A spate of suicides has also made news.

What I want to highlight is that these aren’t the norm. It doesn’t really help those coming out the military to get settled into a new civilian career to have people assume that they might be somehow broken, when the reality is that most are in fact fine. Most come home, and go through some period of awkward adjustment and acclimatization, but then are back to normal, productive, great lives. Even those who have come away with some scars often make successful recoveries and transitions. What these stories in the media do is create a stigma that isn’t accurate or reflective of reality. It doesn’t help us at all. It doesn’t set good conditions for us to move on with the rest of our lives.

A good read on the subject is here.

As the Afghanistan mission ends, so does mine. I’ve told the story as best I can, as I saw it. And despite the fact that the last few posts to this blog all suggest that they will end it all, I really intend to stick with it this time.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for paying attention. Thank you for persuading me to keep writing.

Coming Full Circle

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I keep watching the blog stats for some reason, and it still gets a lot of hits, which is interesting. Some are from people clicking links on my former employer’s intranet site, some are from random google searches, usually people looking for information about the Tajbeg Palace, or about Camp Clark (since there’s very little on the web about it except my raving about the food there), about PXs, about all sorts of things.

I have stated I wasn’t going to add any more content, and yet, I keep feeling some sort of compulsion to do so because there really doesn’t feel like a good ending yet. I think now I can put one in, but we will see, I suppose. I don’t even know if anyone really reads this, anyhow, or if it’s an email that goes to some, or a cursory glance for others. Whatever it is to others, that’s fine. I did this mainly to keep a story for myself, something which I will eventually cap off and save for posterity… To give to whom, I’m not really sure.

I’m now sitting in my condo near Toronto, which I bought almost six years ago, my first real estate investment as it were, and probably one of my worst decisions ever. Yet, here I am. We have moved back to Ontario not because I really wanted to but because when I looked at my options for career moves and so on it simply made the most sense. So we evicted (that sounds so harsh) our tenants from the condo and packed up and moved. It’s a little weird that our old place looks a bit different to me now, but that is mainly a function of our having replaced all of our furniture when we went to Halifax. And now we have added a few things we didn’t have before anyhow.

My greatest looming battle is with my condo board about getting a barbecue. Well, maybe. I don’t actually know yet.

Part of the moving process was returning to my old army unit, the place where it all began for me. When I saw a recruiting ad in 2000 and decided to join the Reserve, I did it mainly because I dreaded the idea of only ever sitting behind a desk doing paperwork. The world was different then in a way, some time ago I saw the notes that the Personnel Selection Officer who interviewed me took, where I talked about the importance of the idea of peacekeeping, so romanticized it was then, and how where the UN failed it was important for NATO to intervene because it has the power to do so in the interests of all or something like that. Little did I know then that that idea would have me living in the suburbs of Kabul for eight months, though it was eight mostly quiet months.

Everyone I served with is now gone from Afghanistan, though I know a few people still over there or getting ready to go – dispersed around the world at least we have Facebook to keep in touch, it seems the easiest way, and not long ago we were all waxing nostalgic about those early days, and getting acquainted. There’s rough plans for a sort of reunion, mainly the idea of being able to have a beer with all these people who were the only people around us for so long, in a more relaxed setting. Next year, maybe.

When I was sworn in on January of 2001, I had no idea where things would go, if I’d do the Militia thing for a few years and get out, or go into the Regular Force, or whatever. Now I’ve qualified for the first of our “long service” medals and I can’t really see myself getting out any time soon, especially now that I’m back to my old unit and amongst many old friends. My first time seeing them was a Change Of Command Parade, where a man I have long seen as a mentor handed over the reins of his regiment to the next to take over. At some point, there’s an end of the line, I guess, but in that something new begins as well, and it’s not generally what one expects, either.

So it was with me. My plan when I left to start work up training was to go back to what I was doing before. That didn’t work. My plan when I got home from work up training but before I left for Kabul was to transfer to the Regular Force, that too didn’t happen. My plan late into my tour was to find another job within my old firm, and I thought I found a perfect one. That, as well, didn’t happen.

What I settled on as a course has also changed since I got home, but it seems, much to my mirth, to be good change, just as it was when I showed up to catch my flight and learned my job in Afghanistan was changing and I was set up to meet some of the most incredible people I’ve ever worked with. I have to wonder how things always seem to fall into place for me at the right instant, when all seems lost it all suddenly meshes in ways I could never have anticipated.

For that I am lucky. And grateful.

So, for me, I think that’s more or less everything to say. I’m now settling into a new job, with a steep learning curve and a high potential for failure, but one only ever reaps rewards by taking risks necessary to earn them.

I will head back to Nova Scotia in a few weeks to retrieve my motorcycle, the only thing I didn’t bring with me on the move, and while it’s not the road trip I had planned originally, I will be taking a bit of a trip to get back just to get the bike warmed up for the summer. I’m sure it’ll be a busy year when work starts taking off, and I have some ideas about things I want to do beyond that, specifically with some of the organizations which exist to help soldiers who didn’t have the fortunes I seem to have. There are so many little organizations trying to do so many things and overlapping, I feel like the must be some way to help tie them all together. That’ll be my next challenge, I think. To give something back.

If you’ve enjoyed the story, let me know with a comment. If you’re connecting from the intranet site of my former employer and want to get in touch, you can look me up on LinkedIn. As always if there’s questions I’ve left unanswered, then use comments to ask, and otherwise, well, that’s all she wrote.

Written by Nick

March 31, 2013 at 9:33 am