National Day of Honour: Three Cadets Share Their Memories

National Day of Honour: Remembering Afghanistan

 By: WJO

The National Day of Honour, Friday 9 May, was intended as a day to mark the contributions and sacrifices of the thousands of Canadians who served in Afghanistan. As many as 38 Bases, wings and units throughout the country marked this national day of observance with ceremonies such as were held at both Royal Military College of Canada and Royal Military College Saint-Jean.

Because of timings and locations we do have a report from the RMCC event; we are expecting something from RMC Saint-Jean too, which we will post, in the days to follow.

The RMCC Commandant, Brigadier-General Al Meinzinger and senior chaplain, Major Heather Smith were the two main speakers for the local ceremony.

BGen Meinzinger served in Afghanistan; he was deployed to Kandahar, to command Canada’s Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing during which he oversaw the final phase of Air Wing support to combat operations. “As I mentioned on Monday at our Memorial Arch during the Soldier-On Afghanistan Relay event, Canada lost a host of brave and courageous Canadians in Afghanistan, brave souls that supported a mission from which positive change came for a country which, in 2001, was in need of our assistance.”

The RMCC Class of 1989 graduate made a point to mention and name the four ex-cadets who were amongst the fallen:

22458 Capt Nichola Goddard who was killed in action on May 17, 2006
22596 Capt Matthew Dawe, who was killed in action on July 4, 2007
23513 Cpl Chad O’Quinn who was killed in action on March 3, 2009
22007 Maj Michelle Mendes who died in Afghanistan on April 23, 2009.

At first glance the event was low-key compared to other ceremonies usually held at the college.

There were some distinguished guests, in attendance, along with all members of the RMCC College team, including cadets and other students and many friends and families of staff and cadets.

We do not have the exact count but a high number of military staff and cadets (particularly UTPMNCM members) served in the Afghanistan Mission.

Readers can find out what three of them were feeling in the article that follows; they speak candidly about their feelings and experiences about serving in Afghanistan.

The National Day of Honour at RMCC played down the pomp and emphasized the practical. All in all, it was a fitting tribute to officially mark the end of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.

In short, nicely done RMCC.

More Photos from the RMCC National Day of HonourHere

Ed: Special thanks to photographers: Curtis Maynard; Dan Ryan; and Nicolette Gignac.

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3 veterans (current cadets) of the Afghanistan Mission share some memories

Co-ordinated & Edited by:26659 OCdt (II) Danielle Andela

NCdt 26850 (II) William Kelsey:

I worked in Kabul, in the Kabul military training centre. I worked with the literacy program for the first half of my tour and it was a pretty incredible experience working with civilian teachers and working on a project that was really benefitting Afghanistan. Our program graduated 100 000 Afghans through grade one literacy, what we could consider to be the reading, writing and math level of a grade one student here in Canada. They were getting math and that’s going from absolutely no background in education to that level. And there were second, third grade education levels they could do so by the end of it they were functionally literate and able to do basic math which was pretty unique.

The second half of my tour, it sounds more exciting but it wasn’t more exciting, was as a senior tactics advisor to the basic infantry school. That was interesting but more dangerous, I would have said. That was a time in Kabul when a lot of NATO trainers had their Afghan counterparts turn on them and kill them. They are very different culturally, western nations vs Afghan culture, and there are all sorts of reasons why conflicts could result in violence. It was not a safe environment but it was an interesting one.

I think it’s incorrect though to think that Afghanistan affected you only while you were physically there in the country. I think you should understand that I’m from a different generation than you’re from; I’m 35 years old. September 11th happened a month before my 21st birthday, so my whole twenties were sort of defined by the Afghan mission. When we were back in Canada, when we weren’t getting ready to go ourselves, we were training other people to go or trying to decompress people from coming back. The army was defined by Afghanistan for over ten years and we were at war. The army considered itself at a state of war and it was quite stressful, even being back here in Canada. Not as bad as actually having to face the threat yourself but there was quite a bit of stress involved in that. Sitting at home, knowing that you have lots of friends who were overseas at any time was pretty stressful.

You’re figuring out now that the military is a small and close knit community so out of the 158 Canadians who died in Afghanistan I actually personally knew 16 of them. If you do the math I was doing a lot of funerals in my twenties over a decade. Between Afghanistan and natural deaths due to car accidents and suicides and things like that, I think I was averaging two funerals a year. So when you ask me “what does the Day of Honour really mean”, I’m not fully sure yet, I think it’s something that still has to sink it. Maybe it will take a few more years. I don’t know if they are planning on repeating the Day of Honour but over the 12 years that that mission went on, even when you weren’t in Afghanistan, you were still in Afghanistan, if that makes any sense. Everything was focused on that mission and at any time, it was very, very rarely that I could say I don’t know anybody in Afghanistan. You know that the military is a close knit community and that you have those close, personal friends and it was almost always the case that you could say “my buddy, this guy, my buddy, this girl, they’re over there right now and it’s a particularly dangerous time because there is talk of doing these different operations down south and wherever.”

The Afghan mission wasn’t always the same; it evolved quite a bit from beginning to end and with every evolution there was always that fear and stress that it was just going to be more and more dangerous. I think the other thing that was unique about the Afghan war is that, well I knew 16 of those guys who died out there and that’s over ten percent of the casualties, so it was spaced out over years. Each and every time that someone would die, or was wounded, there was a natural grieving process that would start and it sounds kind of cold but by the end of the war, the cycle of grieving actually became kind of mechanical. Someone else would die and you would know what to expect emotionally and you would go through the process more easily. I know that’s a cold thing to say but by the time you get to May 9th, 2014 I think a lot of the issues for me have been dealt with, in the losses I experienced.

The thing that goes through my mind when I’m on that parade is that myself, and everyone else from my generation, which is the generation that has all the senior NCO’s [non-commissioned officers] and senior leadership in the military, we have gone through that war. We understand the gravity of what we do in the military and I look about the cadet wing and I see a lot of very young faces. I see a lot of young, impressionable minds who don’t quite yet understand the nature of the business we are in. I remember what it was like for me when I started to understand the gravity of what we’re doing here and the difficulty I had when the first couple of casualties happened and the stress started to ramp up. I don’t wish that upon anyone else so I would like to see the cadet wing integrated into this reality that the military is a very, very dangerous place and that there are real, serious consequences to our decisions and especially as future officers. I look around and I see people who are still innocent, they don’t necessarily get it just yet and it would be nice if there was some sort of mechanism to help them realize, and be prepared because chances are, you and your generation are going to go through something else, and it’s going to be different from Afghanistan but there is no guarantee that it will be easier than that mission was, it may be worse.

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OCdt m1009 (IV) Michael Forestell (Photo Expected)

I deployed to Afghanistan September 2008 to April 2009 with A Squadron Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadian) (LdSH(RC)) as part of the 3 RCR Battle Group. I was a Trooper (Pte) and my primary position was the 2 I/C’s tank gunner. Shortly after being deployed I was given a secondary duty to help in the Squadron Quartermaster’s forward shop. To say the least, like everyone else, it was busy. Our Squadron was located in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Masum’ghar (MSG). MSG was infamous for rocket attacks, which soon became a part of everyday life; we actually had a counter to indicate consecutive ‘rocket free’ days (I think I saw it almost get to 20 one time).

There were good days and bad days on tour. Christmas was a good day. We actually organized a ‘road hockey’ tournament and I will never forget the boys from 3 Troop dressing up as Santa and his reindeer with a makeshift gator ‘sleigh.’ Our Sqn was very lucky and did not suffer any serious casualties. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the 3 RCR BG. Too many times we found ourselves in a communications lockdown, which meant a fellow Canadian soldier was seriously injured or had died. For me I will never forget when we lost Trooper Jack Bouthillier and Trooper Corey Joseph Hayes, Trooper Brian Good (of the RCD), and Trooper Karine Blais (12RBC). The last thing I did in Afghanistan was attend Tpr Blais ramp ceremony.

The day of honour is an important day to me and the mission in Afghanistan and the sacrifices made need to be recognized. It is an opportunity to remember and tell the stories of our fallen and injured soldiers and to be thankful for what we have because of them. I think it is important to the Cadet Wing for the same reasons it is important to me, the CAF, and the country. Our fallen and injured are our friends and family.

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OCdt m1027 (IV) Sony Marchal

I was deployed to Afghanistan on four different occasions for a total of 680 days. The first time it was from February to August 2004, in the capital of the country, Kabul. The threat level was fairly low, so it was a pretty good environment for a first experience overseas. During this mission (Op Athena Roto 1), I was a machine gunner as well as section 3IC in an infantry section. Back then I was a young private serving with the 3R22R, and I enjoyed spending my days patrolling the city streets and back alleys and meeting and chatting with the locals. I think what was the most memorable for me during that mission was to set foot for the first time in a war torn country. I was impressed by the level of destruction across the city, and how the civilian population still carried on with its daily “somewhat” normal life.

My second deployment was down in the south, in Kandahar from July 2007 to March 2008. This time the threat level was fairly high, and the insurgents kept us busy with IEDs, ambushes, and harassment indirect fire. During this mission (Op Athena Roto 4), I was a tactical intelligence operator embedded with a combat team of the 3R22R. When we got there, it was in the middle of the fighting season and we were dealing with numerous kinetic events on a daily basis. Personally I was working an average of 18 hours a day for the first three months of the mission, spending my day questioning detainees, and developing a wide network of informants throughout our area of operation. The job was great, and the day to day life was pretty exciting. I think I can say without any doubt that I went through the best and the worst times of my life during this mission, and that’s probably why it was so exciting, because of those highs and lows. There were so many events during that mission that it is pretty hard to single one out as the most memorable, but I would say that on the upside, my first firefight was probably one of my best times ever. First because it was exciting and nobody on our side got injured or killed. But most importantly because I was finally tested for what I had trained for years to do as an infantryman. You train for years for that moment without knowing how you will react. You don’t know if you will turn out to be calm and professional, or totally crazy high on adrenaline, or if you’re just going to fall to the ground in a fetal position and suck on your thumb crying for your mom. So I was pretty happy to realise I was able to deal with a firefight in a state of mind I would describe half way through calm and professional and totally crazy high on adrenaline. On the downside, well, there were many lows. The date of 22nd August 2007 comes immediately to my mind, because it’s the date when or Company Sergeant-Major, along with our company Medic got killed by an IED during the company’s first combat operation. Overall, ten soldiers got killed during Op Athena Roto 4, and dozens were injured. However, it wasn’t only the coalition troops who were getting killed and injured on a daily basis during that mission, the local armed forces and civilian population were also suffering a very high casualty rate. We were receiving so many bloodied people on our little camp it was astounding, and again, just like in Kabul; the local population was trying to live a seemingly normal life, showing a level of resilience quite unsettling.

My third deployment was in Kandahar once again and only a month long, which was December 2008. During this mission (Op Athena Roto 6), I was an intelligence operator and I was tasked to support a small team operating in Kandahar City. This deployment was a short one, and I didn’t even have the time to really settle down. And I think what I remember the most about that quick stunt in Kandahar is that awkward feeling that going in and out of a war zone was becoming some sort of a routine. I felt like I was an Afghanistan Aficionado. I was spending more time there than at my home. That war torn country was becoming some sort of a mistress, and needless to mention a demanding one!

I returned to Kandahar one last time from October 2009 to May 2010. During this mission (Op Athena Roto 8), I was once again an intelligence operator, and I was once again tasked in supporting a small team operating in Kandahar City. This deployment has been a frustrating one. There was a lot of infighting inside the team. And the situation outside the wire wasn’t pretty at all. Ever since 2006, Task Force Kandahar focus has shifted from one area to another every six months or so, lacking any continuity from one Roto to another. As I was settling in my new job I was witnessing that everything we fought for and our friends got injured for, and killed for back in 2007-2008 was abandoned. It was very frustrating. On the plus side, around New Year’s Eve 2010, the insurgents organised a massive attack on several locations across Kandahar City. Since our camp was on the North-West edge of the city we were able to sit on the top of the walls and look at the show while massive bombs were blowing on every corner of the city, and while it appeared like everybody in Kandahar City owning a firearm was shooting to nothing specific. Bullets were flying, bombs were blowing it was awesome. The sight reminded me of the final scene of the movie Fight Club when all the buildings are being blown. I think it was one of the few good times on that mission, a moment where the whole team sat together, had a good laugh, and a little bit of excitement.

I have mixed feelings about the national day of honour. I would just say that personally I enjoyed seeing half of my Facebook turn tan colour. I enjoyed seeing old pictures, and old videos my friends were putting online on that day. They brought back mostly good memories, memories that are ours, the Veterans of the afghan war. As for the rest of the Canadian population, the members of the CAF who were never deployed over there, and finally the Cadet Wing, I guess it’s not for me to say what that day is supposed to mean to you, because honestly I really have no clue.

One Comment

  • 5215 Larry Springford

    May 12, 2014 at 10:21 am

    I don’t often take the time to read eVeritas. I’m glad I read this article – very moving