Canada's military presence in Afghanistan will come to an end once the current training mission concludes in 2014 and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk acknowledges that's a disappointment for many soldiers, sailors and air personnel.
"We have some men and women who have had two, three and four tours and what they're telling me is 'Sir, we've got that bumper sticker. Can we go somewhere else now?'" Natynczyk said in an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press in Calgary.
"You also have the young sailors, soldiers, airmen and women who have just finished basic training and they want to go somewhere and in their minds it was going to be Afghanistan. So if not Afghanistan, where's it going to be? They all want to serve."
But Natynczyk is unsure about what is in store for the Canadian Forces or even himself for that matter.
He has been on the job for four years, which is past the normal tenure for someone in his position, and if he knows what is going to happen next, he isn't providing any details.
"I'll just keep on sprinting in this job until I'm told to get off the playing field and recognizing that I'm living in a pretty good time to be in the military," he said.
"I never aspired to this job. I just serve. I serve Canadians and the country and look on every day as an opportunity to make a contribution."
Natynczyk said he is telling Canadian troops to keep their "kit packed up" because the world is an unpredictable place right now.
"The world is turbulent right now and the fact is our allies want more of Canada, more of the men and women who wear Canadian uniforms," he said.
"I've told them all to catch up on that training that lapsed while we had this high operational tempo between Afghanistan and the Olympics and Haiti and Libya, and let's make sure we have all qualifications and training up to date so when we're called upon we're ready to go."
The general said outside of Afghanistan, Canada has a number of other smaller missions underway including in the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean.
Natynczyk said he is satisfied with the success of the Canadian mission to Afghanistan and pointed out that he flew into Kabul on a commercial airliner for the first time when he visited troops in the city last month.
He said the departure of Canadian and U.S. troops will give the Afghan forces the little push that they need to succeed.
"It has helped the Afghans in a sense, taking ownership of their own security. One of the real challenges was the sense that NATO and our allies were going to stay there forever. (That) actually was not helpful in terms of their own culture and own atmosphere," he said.
Natynczyk is focusing much of his efforts now in making sure more attention is being paid to injured soldiers and their families, especially those suffering from the psychological effects of war.
"It's almost easier to handle people with physical injuries, with physical wounds. People can see it. They can understand it, whether it be shrapnel, a broken leg, even these horrific amputations," he said.
"It's much more difficult in the mental injury, whether it be post traumatic stress, operational stress injury, traumatic brain injury because we're just understanding the beginning of a process of understanding the complex nature of this."
Natynczyk said he talked about mental health on his last visit to Kabul, especially about overcoming the "stigma" of mental issues and making sure people come forward if they have a problem.
"Many of our personnel support units see soldiers, airmen and women trying to walk in the back door because they don't want to be seen as having a problem," he said. "The sooner you get treatment, the sooner you are back in the saddle."
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