Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘end of mission

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.

Last Week In Camp

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Less than a week remains for me here now, before I start the long(ish) trek home.

It seems very strange, despite the fact that there is nothing really left to do. I went up to visit the Afghans I work with this weekend for the first time in a while, because I hadn’t been able to without an interpreter and security people to come with me. I was in the company of some Turkish officers from the Afghan National Defence University who are tasked with getting them to their final destination next year. I’m going to try to make one more trip up before I go, but for now, I’m basically marking time until it is done. There’s just nothing left  can do.

The trip home will be, to an extent, long and quite possibly frustrating – but that’s “endex” for anything – when you finish a course or whatever else there’s always a couple of days or administration that isn’t really any fun. We have gotten something of a headstart on it at least, with processing things like claims for allowances and so on. For example, get a $75/month allowance toward communications, basically. That works out pretty well, because internet service here costs $20/week. With the times I’ve been away from this camp, I didn’t actually have enough left over scratch cards for that, but I did have the receipts for my cell phone top ups, which allowed me to get the maximum claim back. We also get an allowance toward “morale/welfare expenses”, I think that’s what it’s called – basically, a couple of bucks a day for coffee, restaurant meals, massages, whatever else. For most people it is what they use to claim expenses for resort excursions when we go on Third Location Decompression – the stop on the way home, essentially. I had enough receipts to claim most of my allowance already, so I won’t have to wait for it when I get back home, which is nice.

Clerks also came by to help us understand what happens with our pay when we get home – because all the allowances we get here obviously stop, and we return to paying taxes on our income. I think I’ve wrapped my head around the balance in my pay account that I get to send home, or something remotely close to it. I am mainly concerned about having enough cash on hand to pay for my motorcycle when I get back. I’ll be able to check in on this some more when I get to the place where we start the process of clearing out.

Next major undertaking is to pack. I think I’ll have more than enough space, because I sent so much stuff home when I had the opportunity a few weeks ago. I’ve separated out all the stuff I have to turn in before I leave theatre to make it easier, in a nice big bag that I got from the Americans I taught at Bagram. I still have a few things I need to pick up before I go, too, but they’re mainly small and simple souvenirs, nothing that will really put me out. I’m leaving some things here for the next guy coming in too – things that will be of use to him, but of none to me. And I’ll sell my coffee maker to someone in the next day or two. Or give it away, whatever. It’s not as though I need to make anything off it. It just needs to get to a good home.

My last stress factor is about jobs when I get back – and that’s improving too. Recently an internal posting with my civilian employer appeared that I could almost swear was written for me. It has one major drawback – the position is based in Toronto – about the last place I’d want to go. Been there, done that, didn’t really like it. I grew up there more or less, and I find that living in the Maritimes agrees with me much more. That said, I have to think bigger than that. Really, the biggest annoyance is the suburban sprawl and utter lack of ability to drive out into the countryside easily, or to beaches, or whatever. That’s the great thing about Halifax I’m looking forward to getting home to – being ten minutes from downtown, but out into the country almost as quick.

I guess we’ll see what happens. I have the option to return to what I was doing before I went on this adventure, but that isn’t nearly as appealing to me at this point.

I have to wonder what it’s going to be like to be at home for the first time in eight months – it will be almost eight months to the day from when I walked out my front door to when I’ll walk back through it. I’m sure it won’t be a big deal, but it’s going to feel awkward. It’s also going to be strange to go back to a work environment where taking off for an hour mid-afternoon for PT isn’t the norm. Reintegrating with that sort of lifestyle will be strange. I remember when I finished me infantry officer training, when I spent most of the final days in the field in full battle rattle, I was happy not to have to wear that for a while – until the first day back to work when I had to wear a tie, and I just couldn’t get used to it… I guess there are always transition issues, right?

Written by Nick

October 8, 2012 at 7:51 am