After two tours of duty in Afghanistan Sgt. Chris Gillis sees Canada differently than he once did.
It started in 2007. He patrolled Kandahar on the lookout for Taliban insurgents. This year, he trained members of the Afghan army, returning in March.
When Afghan children spotted the red maple leaf, he says "they came running shouting 'Canada! Canada!' and wanting to shake our hands."
"Despite the fact that we're out there doing war work, there is a lot of respect for what it means to be Canadian."
A Hamilton native, Gillis enlisted in the army at age 22, hoping to eventually become a police officer. He did 10 weeks of basic training and 24 weeks of battle training, eventually joining the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Edmonton.
Canada was already in Afghanistan but Gillis didn't know much about world politics. Once he started training, he was too busy to think about it.
When he was asked to go to Afghanistan, he was excited but his family was afraid.
"For me, my motivation was knowing I could contribute in a significant way to a vastly important part of human history."
Before he left, "I told my family I loved them, and that no matter what happens, don't take it out on the mission, because I was there on my own free will and I believed in the mission."
'Hearts and minds'
He served the six-month tour conducting counter-insurgency. His orders were straightforward: patrol, resupply, and win "hearts and minds." Everywhere he went, his backpack contained water, ammunition and a soccer ball. He also handed crayons to Afghan children.
He patrolled communities where many lived in small mud huts. There was little electricity. Internet access was sporadic. Gillis used a satellite phone to call home, but not often. His family sent care packages that included candy, chips and Maxim magazines.
To unwind, Gillis started "South Park nights," when soldiers gathered around his laptop, watching all nine seasons of South Park on his hard drive.
On patrol, the Afghan people knew Canadian soldiers from American, British or Australian ones. And Canadians got a unique reception.
"American soldiers do what they do well, and I know a lot of great American soldiers, but they don't have the best international reputation," he said. But Canadians were very well received.
Fifteen Canadians from Gillis's battle group were killed while he was there, many of them close friends. On his way home, his plane also carried three dead soldiers.
"I felt grief and anger. But it reinforced why we were there — because there are bad people doing bad things to people who want to be left alone."
While on a leave, he met his future wife, Kelly, in Hamilton. They were married on July 19, 2009. They have two daughters, two-year-old Isabelle and 18-month-old Natalie.
On the most recent trip, Gillis had a markedly different role. He trained a command team of Afghan soldiers in Kabul. He had reliable internet and an Xbox in his room. He used Skype every night.
But even working "behind the wire," he lost another close friend. Master Cpl. Byron Greff was killed during a suicide bomb attack on his NATO convoy.
Mission ends in 2014
Gillis returned home believing more than ever in his country, and the mission, which ends in 2014.
He is currently on leave until October and enjoying downtime at his home in the south end of Hamilton. He hopes to become a local police officer and not have to return to Edmonton again.
"Seeing some of the guys we've lost over the years has given me an appreciation for what we have," he said.