A long, painful pilgrimage for a fallen son

Kandahar, Afghanistan — Peter and Reine Dawe travelled halfway around the world to see what their son saw, to breathe the same air, to try to make peace with their loss and to remember.The trek from Kingston to Kandahar is an achingly long trip for a short stay, but the Dawes never questioned making it this week to mark the place where their youngest son, 27-year-old Captain Matthew Dawe, drew his last breath.

They were one of six families of fallen soldiers who came as part of a Canadian military Remembrance Day tradition.

“If your child was killed in a car accident, wouldn’t you want to go and see where it happened? I want to see what was the last thing he saw,” an emotional Ms. Dawe said after Remembrance Day ceremonies at Kandahar Airfield yesterday. “It’s hard to put into words. But you feel maybe a little bit closer to him by having seen what he saw just before he was killed. It just gives me a little bit more of his physical presence.”

The Dawes, who travelled to Kandahar with their daughter-in-law, Tara, took their mission one step further by asking to sit in a vehicle like the one their son was in on July 4, 2007, when it struck an improvised explosive device powerful enough to kill him and five other soldiers.

Mr. Dawe, a former soldier himself, called sitting in the vehicle “traumatic,” and said he’ll need “a few more bottles of wine and a few more cries” back home before it sinks in. Still, he said, the trip has been cathartic.

“The point is coming back to Afghanistan where Matt was killed,” he said. “It’s where Matt had his last days. I had to go smell it and see it … what he went through, perhaps what he felt.”

During yesterday’s ceremony, attended by about 200 Canadian soldiers, the families sat adorned with poppies and Silver Crosses – the military award given to women who have lost husbands or sons – alongside a monument of marble tiles carved with the names and faces of all 97 soldiers Canada has lost in Afghanistan so far.

“They need to be reassured that everything that they put into this country, their blood, their family, is not a waste,” said Brigadier-General Denis Thompson, the Canadian commander in Kandahar province.

The families sat looking stoic but pained as Gen. Thompson outlined in detail the gains in Afghanistan that each soldier’s death helped the military achieve. Many wore sunglasses to block the bright desert sun, but they did little to hide the tears that flowed when Pipe Major Colin Clansey played a lament he wrote specially for this day, titled Task Force Kandahar. With the roar of jet engines overhead, they rose from their seats family by family, some clutching hands for support, most looking as if the act of placing a wreath on the monument deepened the ache of their loss rather than easing it. Before sitting down, Linda Learn, stepmother of Private Mark Graham, kissed two of her fingers and pressed them to the dusty black tile carved with his face and the date of his death – Sept. 4, 2006.

“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,” Ms. Learn said. “It really puts a different picture in my mind about Afghanistan. … 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.”

Elizabeth Levesque, mother of Pte. Michel Levesque, struggled through the ceremony clutching the hand of her daughter, Christine, who keeps a picture of her dead brother in a gold locket around her neck. “I needed to come here because I needed to get his spirit and bring it back home,” Mrs. Levesque said before losing her voice to a new flood of tears.

After the ceremony, Kandahar Governor Rahmatullah Raoufi thanked the families for the sacrifice they had made, and presented each with gifts of traditional Afghan clothes. “I am pretty sure Canadians will establish peace in this province. If they were not here we would have a lot of pain and misery,” he said. “I am asking my God to give peace upon everybody, especially Canadians. God save them.”

Ms. Dawe said travelling to Kandahar helped her realize that it is important for Canadians to reflect on the cause that their soldiers have died for.

“Everybody is running around all the time. We’re just so busy that we take our freedom for granted, we take our quality of life for granted,” she said. “We just happened to be born in the right country. Thank goodness we have our soldiers to defend these ideas.”

Gen. Thompson, who during his previous posting as brigade commander at CFB Petawawa presided at the funerals of several of the soldiers commemorated yesterday, said he found the ceremony “particularly heavy.”

“It is physically hard to look at someone and know that decisions I make and decisions that my predecessors made cost lives,” he said.

S150 Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret’d) Peter Dawe (RMC ’69)

22596 Captain Matthew Dawe (RMC ’04)

Published by Jessica Leeder in the Globe and Mail.

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