He was someone I assisted when a family member died while he was serving in Afghanistan. That was five years ago during my tenure as an MP, but it was something neither of us ever forgot. The rigours of his tour of duty were of such that we had to help him out with many of the arrangements for his family. MPs assisted in such things all the time and it was a deep honour.
This week the soldier arrived back in Canada -- part of the final contingent to lower the Canadian flag in Afghanistan, effectively ending this country's controversial, turbulent, but honourable responsibility in that region. His call surprised me. Then he told me something eminently sad: "Glen, no one was there from the government as we brought down the flag. They made such a big deal of us for years, but then suddenly we all sensed something had changed. Now we wonder how Canada feels about us."
Murray Brewster of the Canadian Press, talks eloquently about this sad omission with Global Television's Tom Clark.
Welcome to the world of the modern soldier. This post isn't about the rightness or wrongness of Canada's Afghanistan effort. It concerns, instead, those men and women charged with carrying out official Canadian policy and who did so for over a decade with dedication, international acclaim, and professionalism. What happens to them now?
Things began changing a few years ago when some returning from the conflict spoke of difficulties in claiming benefits, both for them and their families. Then there were the redeployments back home, the deep military budget cuts in order to satisfy a domestic audience. The government was moving on from foreign fields of sacrifice to wage a new conflict in local constituencies so pitted with rancour and partisanship. It is a new political war, fought with professional staffers and hacks, with hardly the kind of honour demonstrated by our military personnel coming back home.
Yes, the Canadian story in Afghanistan is mixed, with closure hard to come by for those soldiers not only involved in security details, but development projects like protecting schools, building damns, and conducting civilian peace efforts in villages. But what shouldn't be in doubt is our government's promise and dedication to those military personnel -- the mission ends, but the commitment to those people must ever endure. But the lack of political presence in the closing ceremony spoke volumes to those soldiers who once were the poster men and women of the Harper government's commitment to global security. Those returning home have reason to worry that their political masters have already moved on, leaving them with an uncertain future.
Reflections have been found in the media since the flag came down from military families asking if the entire exercise had been worth it. Many of the spouses sincerely wonder if the country will honour these soldiers when the government itself is slowly shutting off the light, failing to even show up for the final curtain.
If polls are to be believed, most Canadians just want to put the Afghanistan experience out of their minds. But there are no signs that citizens themselves carry any ill towards those who served so well in that difficult conflict. There is respect there, as we would expect.
But what might not appear is the sense of commitment from the citizenry towards those military personnel now that they have returned. It's not enough to say commendable things if we, in turn, avert our gaze when political masters opt to deny benefits to worthy veterans or keep certain services from families as a cost-cutting measure.
We now enter a new phase of Canadian history, where military options will grow quiet for a number of years. This is a natural cycle after a conflict that lasted longer than both world wars. But peace should never know such down time. The conflict at home is now to recognize and dedicate ourselves to those who did this country proud in a very confusing and difficult time -- not just in word, but in fulsome commitment to their welfare and times of transition. It remains one of the sad ironies of the modern era that our willingness to fight for democracy at home appears to be waning just as those who fought for it overseas are returning.
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