Canadian soldier on Afghan mission: 'I'm proud'

Last week, CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition aired a special feature called “Our Longest War,” which focused on Canada's mission to Afghanistan. It prompted a huge response from listeners, including a moving email by Phil Palmer, an Afghan veteran, who read his letter on the air.

Canadian soldier Phil Palmer on his conflicted feelings about Afghanistan

Canada's mission in Afghanistan officially ended on March 12, with this C-17 bringing the last troops back to Ottawa on March 18. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Last week, The Sunday Edition aired a special feature called “Our Longest War” that focused on Canada's mission to Afghanistan, which officially ended on March 12.

The segment prompted a large response from listeners, including an email from Ottawa resident Phil Palmer, a soldier who did two tours of Afghanistan.

The producers of The Sunday Edition asked Palmer to come into their Ottawa studio to read the letter on air. Here is the text version.

I heard your program last Sunday morning about Canada ending its mission in Afghanistan, and wanted to share with you a most profound moment I experienced not 15 minutes ago.

I had just finished a walk through the woods with my dog after dropping the kids off at school. It was a cold, quiet March morning. As I was crossing the street near my children’s school, I heard an approaching aircraft. This wasn’t unusual. I live under one of the main flight paths to the Ottawa International airport. When I looked up, though, my heart nearly stopped in my chest.

Phil Palmer is a Canadian veteran who did two tours of Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Phil Palmer)

Immediately recognizable to me, and approaching in a low, slow and deliberate manner in the clear, bright sky, was a C-17 cargo plane, escorted by two CF-18 Hornets. I was gobsmacked to realize that flying overhead – and very close to me – was the last flight of Canadian soldiers returning home from Afghanistan. I had heard about their imminent arrival that morning on the news, and had hoped to see the aircraft fly by. But nothing like this.

As I stood there staring, a truck pulled up to the intersection. I looked over and pointed up. The roar of the aircraft engines was hard to ignore, and the trucker got out to see what I was gesturing at. As we both stood there watching, I was nearly overcome by emotion. I waved, instinctively, in silent tribute. After the aircraft had passed by, the man turned to me and said, “Thanks for pointing, I would have missed it.”

“No problem,” I said. “They were the last of our soldiers returning from Afghanistan.”

The Sunday Edition

On The Sunday Edition March 23, starting at 9 a.m. ET on CBC radio:

  • Loneliness and health: a recent study shows that extreme loneliness is twice as damaging to life expectancy as obesity.
  • No more sexist children's books: Katy Guest of "The Independent"
  • Was the referendum in Crimea counter to international law?
  • The Bad Mother: Marguerite Andersen wrestles with her decision as a young mother to leave her two sons for a year and a half.  
  • Ari Shavit - My Promised Land, the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
  • Karin Wells remembers forestry safety advocate MaryAnne Arcand

And then: “I was there myself, twice.”

He nodded, climbed back in his truck, and went on his way. The dog and I continued home. I choked back the tears.

The moment was profound because of the memories it stirred in me. Because it made me think hard about Canada. And because I’d blurted out to a complete stranger that I was even there. I have served multiple tours overseas, including in Somalia, Bosnia and twice in Afghanistan.

To say Afghanistan changed my life would be an understatement. My wife and I are both soldiers, and in a less than a 10-year period, we spent probably close to three years apart while on different tours — on the ground in Afghanistan or in operations related to 9/11.

That service has left us both physically and emotionally scarred, and we have dealt with issues related to operational stress.

Despite those setbacks, however, we are committed to nursing our relationship, minds and bodies back to health for ourselves and our children. We don’t want to add to the casualty count of this war. 

I lost several friends in Afghanistan. Many others were blown up by IEDs, shot, maimed, emotionally wounded and some ended their own lives after they returned home. I physically left Afghanistan in October 2008, but some part of me remains there.

I’m proud that Canadians – as we did in WWI, WWII, Korea and elsewhere - stood up for values that I believe were worth fighting for. We went to Afghanistan because our allies, way of life and values were attacked. As the conflict raged, we stood alone for a time, refused to relent and remained committed to what we started.

I’m proud that our commitment, however, wasn’t simply to drop bombs, kill and/or capture the Taliban and al-Qaeda. We worked on development, education and health. We helped Afghans see the value in sovereignty, sustainability, self-help and security.

This, I will tell my children, is why their Mummy and Daddy left them behind on multiple occasions.

The debate about whether Canada did the right thing, accomplished enough or tried hard enough in Afghanistan will continue. For me, however, the return of that big, lumbering C-17 that flew over my head this morning signalled the beginning of the end. Farewell to the lost. Good luck, Afghanistan. For me and my family, it’s time to move on.

This summer, Phil Palmer will be medically released from the forces after 26 years of service. He's going to university now, pursuing a degree in political science.


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