afghanistan-cp-w-6831942

Canadian soldiers on patrol in southern Afghanistan in June 2009. (Canadian Press) ((Colin Perkel/Canadian Press))


In 2000, I was stationed at Camp Shilo, Man., with the 1st Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, one of the most storied units of the Canadian Armed Forces.

We had just undergone the Forces-wide changeover of our olive drab combat uniforms for the new ones with the digital camouflage pattern known as CADPAT.

It was similar to many European and U.S. designs. But we all joked that it looked like it was patterned after a jar of relish.

Apparently it was designed on a computer program so as to greatly reduce the enemy's ability to view us, particularly with night-vision goggles.

Today, as my almost second decade of being a soldier winds down, I look back on the last 10 years of rapid change in the Canadian military, much of which had a positive impact on me personally.

These changes ranged from the new relish-jar uniforms, as well as new communications equipment and vehicles, to fitness, pay, military culture and even the civilian perceptions of soldiering itself.

More training, better guns

soldiers_goodbye_cp_9369828

Newlyweds Sgt. Robert Pinet and Kim Pinet say goodbye prior to his leaving Edmonton Garrison for Afghanistan in 2006. (Canadian Press)

At the same time that the new combat uniforms were being phased in, we were putting into the field complete new suites of communications gear, which were at the leading edge of technology.

That meant that signals operators like me had to go back for retraining, which ranged from a few weeks to months, depending on the requirements of our respective units.

The fact that we were finally replacing radios that had been in service since the Vietnam War was only the tip of the iceberg.

Our regiment was also exchanging our aging, towed 105-millimetre howitzers for the new French versions, which we called the LG1-C1.

afghan-storring-392

Observation post. Storring's team camps out on a hilltop near Kabul during the 2005 presidential elections. (Russell Storring/CBC)

Although it, too, was a towed 105-millimetre, the LG1-C1 was much lighter and more manoeuvrable and was capable of out-ranging even our heavier guns.

Almost as soon as they arrived, these new field guns were deployed to Bosnia with the regiment's A and C Battery, where they were sent into the field by NATO as a show of force.

Afghanistan

On Sept. 11, 2001, I remember walking into work for physical training and like everyone else that morning sitting fixated in front of TV as the terror attacks unfolded in New York.

Although I don't think anyone knew where we as a nation or as an army were headed as a result of these attacks, they began a transformation that is still being felt today.

In the wake of these attacks, a 900-member battle group from the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry was immediately sent to Afghanistan.

And then, as this first deployment was starting to wind down in the spring of 2002, a U.S. fighter pilot mistakenly dropped a laser-guided bomb that killed four Canadian soldiers and wounded eight others.

The nature of their deaths, in what was called an incident of "friendly fire," and the subsequent trial of the pilots involved at U.S. courts martial, played a huge part in bringing our military and its new role in the world to every Canadian household.

And it never stopped. From the field uniforms we first used in Afghanistan (not our desert CADPAT!) to the handling of prisoners and the merits of the equipment we needed or put into the field — the Iltis jeep, the phasing out and phasing in again of tanks, the acquisition of new heavy-lift aircraft — we seemed always to be front and centre.

Same, too, for the most important issue of the decade — the 133 soldiers killed and the hundreds more wounded both physically and emotionally in that conflict.

Deployment tempo

From where I sit, Canada's involvement in Afghanistan has been about much more than new equipment or personnel.

Change has affected training, military culture, pay and promotions as well as a slew of other issues that simply evolved or fell into place because of the pressures of modern combat.

Although I joined in 1991 as a soldier, Canada's military was perceived as an army of peacekeepers and much of the training was focused around this concept.

Today, with constant rotations in and out of Afghanistan, our training, fitness and mindset have evolved away from the peacekeeper mentality back to soldiering and war fighting.

Concepts such as the three-block war — fighting, peacekeeping and rebuilding all in the same theatre — which had been discussed for years, are now an everyday reality and put into successful action by Canada and its coalition partners.

Another change has been that the deployment tempo for almost every soldier seemed to increase as a result of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.

I only had one (UN) tour in the 1990s, in Rwanda. But between 2003 and the end of 2008, I completed three six-month-plus tours in Afghanistan.

Canada remembers

Being away from your family takes its toll — missed birthdays, Christmas sometimes, that first bike ride. Being part of a soldier's family is not easy either.

But whether because of Afghanistan or things like the helping out during the Manitoba floods, the acceptance and support of the military by Canadians has jumped by leaps and bounds compared to when I joined.

In the early 1990s, I wore my uniform to work and to Remembrance Day, and tried not to stop anywhere else along the way.

I remember most Canadians seemed indifferent to the Canadian Forces and, on occasion, I remember getting yelled at, or even being given the middle finger salute by not only adults but young children as well.

It was disheartening at times, but I was never one to let it get to me.

Today, it is the complete opposite. I am almost always stopped when I am in uniform by both old and young Canadians, and thanked for my service and what I do.

I have been yelled at from across the street, expecting the worst but only to get waved at or thanked by a well-wisher.

At times I am at a loss for words, as it's still not something I am used to or expect, for doing what I love to do.

Not your father's military

This is definitely not the military it was when I joined in 1991. The changes to the way the Canadian Forces does business, both at home and abroad, even right down to the culture of being military has changed, I believe, for the better.

It has been an eventful 10 years and, until I started writing this article, I honestly didn't realize how many changes there had been, or just how the military had been transformed over this past decade.

It has not been an easy road but all the costs of the new equipment and the headaches of constant change pale beside the deaths of 133 serving Canadians and the wounding of hundreds more.

The loss of these soldiers, Canada's sons and daughters, has been a huge factor in bringing about so many of the changes that I have experienced.

Many of these changes came from the loss of life and the hard lessons learned. Let's hope they won't be forgotten by any of us.