And so it ends. Our soldiers have left Afghanistan, a brutish lump of rock few of us could have found on a map before 2002.
Quite rightly, the media are full of stories and images of the returning soldiers, hugging loved ones, their smiles a mixture of happiness and relief on the faces.
We’re proud of you. We’re so very glad you’re home. Safe. You were told to serve, and you did to the very best of your ability. Welcome home.
But the ugly question remains: Did all those years of fighting and dying change anything?
I want to say yes.
I want to say the world is a better place today than it was before our men and women stepped off the planes into the dust and heat and hate of that barely functioning nation jammed into the side of Pakistan like a thorn.
I do. But evidence to the contrary is everywhere. It’s in the barbed wire and nervously tight security that surrounded the very act of our soldiers leaving that country. It’s in the stories that seem to come from there every day of new attacks. New deaths.
Aware of the terrible cost we paid as a country, I looked up the names of some of the 158 Canadians who died serving in Afghanistan.
• Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer of Montreal was 24 when he died on April 18, 2002, a victim of “friendly fire.” Killed by accident by a fellow soldier.
• Cpl. Matthew Dinning of Richmond Hill, Ont. was 23 when a roadside bomb killed him on April 22, 2006.
• Pte. David Byers of Espanola, Ont. was 22 when a suicide attack killed him on Sept. 18, 2006.
• Cpl. Kevin Megeney of New Glasgow, N.S. was 25 when he died on March 6, 2007 in an accidental shooting.
• Trooper Patrick Pentland of Geary, N.B. was 23 when he died on April 11, 2007, the victim of a roadside bomb.
• Master Cpl. Kristal Giesebrecht of Wallaceburg, Ont., was 34 when an improvised explosive device killed her on June 26, 2010.
Just kids, most of them. Most still in their twenties. Their lives yet to begin. Careers. Children. Frigid mornings in the rink watching their kids skate around on their ankles. Being buried in beach sand in July.
My son turns 24 this year. My daughter will be 26. My mind refuses to consider losing either of them. The idea of that loss being for naught? How could anyone accept that?
Adding insult to injury, families are left wondering if their federal government is really prepared to step up and ensure those who came home, and their families, will receive all the help they so richly deserve and are so likely to need.
Nine Veterans Affairs offices were shut down and when anyone asked what that might mean to services for veterans, officials were told to repeat after me:
“By making greater use of new technologies, reducing the number of hands involved in our decision-making processes and eliminating routine administrative and public-servant-to-public-servant jobs, we will improve our service to veterans.”
Meanwhile, internal documents pried out of the government’s hands recently tell of serious doubts by staff.
“Units will need to look at what they can do differently and what they can stop doing.”
And now the government says it doesn’t have any kind of social contract with its veterans. That in response to a lawsuit fighting a move to change the way wounded soldiers are compensated, from a lifetime pension to a lump sum payment.
Lawyers fighting our veterans in court. Our soldiers deserve better. Much better.
- Rick MacLean is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.