THE CANADIAN PRESS -- KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Canada's top commander attempted to bind fresh and old wounds on Saturday when he bid farewell to combat troops in Kandahar.
Gen. Walt Natynczyk, in his final address before the formal end of operations, urged returning soldiers to watch their "battle buddies" and take care of each other as they begin the long journey back to regular life at home.
His remarks had a poignant ring for the soldiers of the 1st Battalion Royal 22e Regiment, as two of the four deaths in the last combat tour were suspected suicides.
Military police are still investigating the cases of Bombardier Karl Manning and Cpl. Francis Roy — both who were found dead of non-battle related injuries over the last month, just before the end of their seven month tours.
Natynczyk presented several commendations to individual soldiers and groups for service in Afghanistan. But the general also handed Chief Warrant Officer Kevin West the sergeant-major of the air wing, an award for service at 8 Wing Trenton, Ont.
Natynczyk said West held not only the base but the surrounding community together in the aftermath of the horrific murders carried out by Trenton's former commander, Russell Williams.
Williams' name is one that is generally not spoken within the military, which reacted with horror to his conviction and the lurid revelations of his sexual fetishes.
"You all know what I'm talking about," Natynczyk told the troops before praising West. "This is an extraordinary leader and I'm so proud of what you did last year."
Natynczyk, the chief of defence staff, also spoke to the uncertainty most soldiers feel about the end of the Kandahar mission and what will become of an army that has evolved and takes enormous pride in being a fighting force.
The world is an unpredictable place and the general noted how no one would have expected at this time last year that CF-18s would be involved in a NATO-led bombing campaign over Libya.
"Who knows what the future will bring," he said.
His comments were echoed by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who told troops during a town hall outside of the new Canada House at Kandahar Airfield that the mission in Afghanistan is not done, but simply evolving.
"We don't leave tasks undone in Canada. We finish what we start," he said, referring to the training mission in the country's north where up to 950 soldiers and support staff have started to deploy.
Both the chief and MacKay received briefings in Kabul during a whirlwind visit about the unfolding training mission, which is slated to last until 2014.
A spectacular attack on the Intercontinental hotel last week in the Afghan capital was brushed aside as the insurgency simply looking for a soft spot.
"I think Kabul is a city that is obviously a target," MacKay said
"I think the Taliban have moved. Because of the pressure the Canadians and other forces have put on them here in this province, they've now decided to go to other flanks, weaker flanks perhaps."
Despite that, he said he was satisfied that the defences at the training bases where 400 Canadians troops have so far deployed are adequate.
"This is a country, be under no illusions, that is still fragile in terms of security."
He said he took heart that Afghan security forces responded quickly and professionally to the hotel attack, which involved eight highly-trained Taliban fighters.