Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘veterans

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.

Day 210. Really. And Not Counting Days To Go.

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I have to apologize for not really posting a lot of pictures. There’s a few reasons. OPSEC/PERSEC is the main one – and to be honest, I don’t have that many that are interesting. I can’t publish pictures of anyone here without their consent at the very least, and I’m just not that interested in pursuing it. But if you want to see pictures of anything, well, comment and ask and I’ll see what I can do. The other limiting factor used to be bandwidth – uploading pictures used to take forever, but it seems my ISP has upgraded speeds here quite a bit in the last little while.

It’s Friday, which means a pretty slow day. This is officially “the weekend”, so things slow down a little. I’ve spent a good chunk of it down at the shops on camp, at a little cafe run by a young Afghan named Sam. Fridays they usually have a special on for lunch and dinner, and so today I went to see what it was – today it was kofta qorma – meatballs in a qorma sauce. Simple and tasty, and a nice break from monotonous DFAC food. Sam wasn’t around when I got there, but he turned up a little while later and sat while we chatted over coffee and shisha about his future plans, about Afghan culture, about the world in general. He’s worked on our camp for about four years, and speaks excellent English, as well as some Spanish, and has taken a lot of time and initiative to learn about the culture of the people who come to the camp. He’s one of those Afghans who can tell other people in this country that we’re not what we are sometimes made out to be.

It was sitting there that I started contemplating what going home will mean. I’ve been here for about seven months now, the surroundings feel like home, there’s a community here. We play trivia together some nights. We watch movies together others. We have fitness training together. We live in pretty close confines and that doesn’t leave a lot of room to be unfriendly or not get along. Even people I didn’t especially like when we deployed here, I’ve gotten to know better and get along with a lot better. A while back, during workup training, I wrote about an exchange I had with someone on the way to the range who turned out to outrank me and who wasn’t amused by my comments to him. I then found out he was going to be on the same camp as me, and at first, he was an annoyance on a lot of issues. Fast forward a few months, and he’s one of my workout partners, turns out to be a really decent guy with a good sense of humour, you just have to get to know him a bit. That’s how things go.

In a few short weeks, I’ll have to pack everything I can (hopefully it’ll all fit – otherwise I’ll have to mail stuff) and start the process of going home. That means no more trivia nights at the Brit Club. No more movies with the contractors behind there shacks a couple of nights a week. Everything turns into Facebook contacts to try to keep in touch. I will say, though, that that works pretty well – a lot of the people I work with who’ve gone home do make a point of keeping in touch, and we’re even planning a sort of reunion trip next year.

What’s feeling really weird is that I’m now, technically, an “Afghanistan veteran”. Veteran of what I’m not really sure. I’ve always felt kind of uneasy with that term, even a few years ago when I started dealing with Veterans Affairs about an injury I got in training years ago that continues to cause me problems later in life. Anyhow, the significance of the date crossed my mind today because today I have officially been deployed 210 days, which means I will have earned a rotation bar to my General Campaign Star, the medal I will receive for this deployment.

Getting the GCS itself is a little contentious in some ways. It’s the same medal that is worn by those who were deployed to Kandahar on Op ATHENA. When we shifted to Op ATTENTION there were some who suggested a different medal should apply so “we” wouldn’t be confused with “them”, who were in the thick of the fighting in the south. However, it was dismissed, and with some good reason: most of those people weren’t out at the Sharp End either. And besides, everyone who’s been here knows what they did here, and shouldn’t feel any need to either prove it or justify it to anyone. The way I look at it, the relatively comfortable go we’ve had was made possible because of the work that those who came before us did. What “bling” I have on my uniform is mostly irrelevant.

Still, I expect in some ways it’ll feel awkward amongst friends of mine who were there. I never had to attend a ramp ceremony (on this side, anyhow – I’ve been at Trenton when a good friend was brought home to make the trip down the “Highway of Heroes” in December of 2008. I’ve been lucky here that none of the bad things that can happen have (knock on wood, I’m not gone yet). We’ve had some interesting close calls, but that’s about it. So despite the fact that there are “Afghan Vet” groups out there, I don’t think you’ll see me showing up to one – because I just don’t feel like it’s something I have much right to claim. I came, I did a job, it was nothing all that special I often think.

Written by Nick

September 21, 2012 at 9:57 am