Families, loved ones and the wounded also heroes
In 2010, my wife and I attended a fundraising dinner for the Edmonton Garrison Military Family Resource Centre that supports military families. It was a typical fundraising gala with guests, dressed in their finest evening attire, bidding on silent and live auction items for a worthy cause.
Many well-known names in the Alberta legal world and oilpatch attended. At this gala, there was also an abundance of guests in scarlet army mess uniforms with medals, and women in long ball gowns.
One table near us stood out. It was a group of slightly nervous women in their 20s and early 30s. At a quick glance, they could have been any group of a dozen mothers dressed up for a night out, away from the stresses of parenthood for a few hours.
On that night, however, they were all widows being honoured with a night dedicated to them and in recognition of the loss of their partners in Afghanistan.
Perhaps the garrison towns of Petawawa, Ont., and Valcartier, Que., like Edmonton around 2010, were microcosms of small-town Canada in 1918 or 1945. In those communities, we all knew the widows, and the kids at school knew which children’s fathers had died.
It is hard to explain the impact on families when a parent goes off on long tours in conflict zones, even for the families whose loved one comes home safe. Every phone call or knock on the door becomes stressful.
Even a chance meeting in the schoolyard with one of the widows or widowers is awkward, a guilt-laced relief that it wasn’t your spouse and a reminder that your loved one could be next. As a community, we all mourned.
All of the 163 names on the B.C. Afghanistan Memorial triggered a ripple effect of grief. As serving military members, we all attended too many funerals. Some ceremonies were filled with both tears and laughter as we remembered the fallen as a loved individual with their own character whom we felt lucky to have known.
At the graveside, however, there was no laughter, just the inconsolable, unforgettable tears of the 22-year-old fiancée or the mother who fell onto the lowering casket. These engraved names represent only the 163 individuals, with their unrealized potential and their grieving families. A beret, some medals, or a folded flag handed over at the graveside are meaningful, but somehow a pittance when compared to the loss.
Engraved on one end of the memorial, alongside the names, are the words: “The families and loved ones,” whose contribution is too often forgotten. The inscription is a reminder that for everyone who served or fell, there was a family who supported them, made their own sacrifices and were affected by the service of their loved one.
In the same way, there is a reminder at the other end of the memorial for “those who returned with mental and physical wounds.”
More than 2,000 Canadians were listed as injured and wounded during the conflict. For some, the wounds are obvious: Maj. Mark Campbell was leading teams mentoring Afghan soldiers when they responded to a firefight on June 1, 2008. He and his team ran toward the sound of the guns, established a defensive perimeter and fought off the Taliban.
Campbell was obviously taking charge of the situation when the Taliban targeted him and set off a remotely detonated bomb of fertilizer and diesel that tore off one leg above the knee and damaged the other so badly it had to be removed.
Thanks to the quick action under fire of medic Sgt. Martin Côté, the lives of Campbell and three others were saved. Côté won the Medal of Military Valour that day, but the lives of Campbell and the others were changed forever.
Despite his injuries, Campbell continues to serve us all as a champion for the rights of the more than 650 Afghanistan veterans wounded in action.
Since the war in Afghanistan, Canadians have become well attuned to the phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder.” In previous wars, they spoke of shell shock, but whatever the terminology, the challenges of mental health are the same. Of the 40,000 who served in Afghanistan, Veterans Affairs Canada reports that more than 6,000 are receiving disability benefits for mental-health conditions.
As we planned the B.C. Afghanistan Memorial, we spent a great deal of time discussing how to recognize those who returned with severe mental-health conditions. What about the approximately 70 who, according to news reports, took their own lives after completing a tour in Afghanistan?
Unfortunately, there is no definitive list of whose names should or should not be added. The agreed solution was to leave space for new names if a list emerges in the future, but also to acknowledge the ravages of mental health by inscribing the reminder on the end of the memorial.
On the day the memorial was unveiled, 17 families of the fallen were invited to participate in the ceremony. One family was asked to represent all of those who returned with mental-health injuries. Sheila and Shaun Fynes from Victoria were there to remember their son, Cpl. Stuart Langridge, who took his own life on March 15, 2008, three years after finishing his tour in Afghanistan.
Langridge’s service to the people of Afghanistan was as important as every one of the other 40,000 Canadians who served, and he, like his colleagues and their families, should not be forgotten.
Over the past five days, I have tried to give a small insight into the lives of a few who served, so that they might help bring life to the others we have remembered every Nov. 11 for the past 100 years. The B.C. Afghanistan Memorial, like other memorials around the city, reminds us of all the complexities of war and conflict. It reminds us to think of those who served, the fallen, the injured and the families, but it also reminds us to reflect, not just on Remembrance Day, but throughout the year, of what that service represents.
On Remembrance Day this year, heed the advice of John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, and take the torch thrown from failing hands and hold it high. Its light is there to inspire us, to remind us to respect others and to remember that belonging to a great nation with shared values comes with both the privilege of being Canadian and the duty to uphold our values.
Afghan Ambassador Shinkai Karokhail, left, speaks at the B.C. Afghanistan Memorial dedication ceremony with Capt. Trevor Greene, who received a severe brain injury on March 4, 2006, in Zabul province.