OTTAWA - Canadian troops will celebrate their first Christmas in years away from the guns of Kandahar, but still far from home.
Plans are well underway to celebrate the holiday among the roughly 950 soldiers involved in the mission to train the Afghan army at bases in Kabul, as well as in the north and west of the war-wasted country.
Maj.-Gen. Mike Day, the top Canadian military officer in Afghanistan and deputy commander of NATO's training mission, says the season is a time for reflection and troops are pulling together.
"It's tough," said Day, in an interview from Kabul.
He is on his eighth deployment and fourth Christmas away from home and acknowledged: "It's not easy. You grow to get used to it, but we try really hard to rally around."
Many of the soldiers making up the Canadian contingent, which is providing classroom instruction to Afghan soldiers and police and trainers, are on their first overseas deployment.
Day told troops in a town hall a few days ago to look at the soldiers beside and around them.
"I said to my Canadians...I don't want a single Canadian who is left by himself on Christmas. I want you find him him — or her and we'll have a proper Christmas dinner," he said.
While there may be temptation to feel sorry for the troops, who will keep rotating in and out of Afghanistan for another three years, Day said he'd ask the public back home to recognize they are all volunteers.
"It's not where you'd prefer to be at Christmas, but it is where our duty asks us to be," he said. "If everybody could just stop at Christmas and give not a prayer, but just a silent thank you for those young Canadian soldiers who are out here serving their country; there can't be a better Christmas present."
The commander of all of the country's overseas forces, Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, noted in his Christmas message that other units are spending the holidays on deployment, including HMCS Vancouver, which has been assigned to the eastern Mediterranean.
Wherever they are serving, troops, sailors and aircrew are committed to "ultimately leaving things better than when we arrived," he said.
The training mission in Afghanistan, announced last year by the Harper government, got underway this past summer. Troops have arrived in the area in waves and serve an average of eight months in theatre.
Thus far, only one soldier has been killed as part of the mission, which the government initially described as "low risk."
Master Cpl. Byron Greff of the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry was killed when the vehicle he was riding in was struck by a powerful suicide car bomber on Oct. 29.