Afghanistan tribute comes to Fort York for Canada Day

Toronto’s historic Fort York will feature an exhibit honouring those killed in Afghanistan on Canada Day.

Dozens of plaques bearing the names of more than 200 people who died

The Memorial Vigil contains 190 plaques representing 201 fallen: 158 CAF members, one Canadian diplomat, once Canadian contractor, one Canadian journalist and 40 United States Armed Forces members who were under Canadian command. (Canadian Armed Forces/MCpl Shilo Adamson)

One of the things Sgt. Hasan Aygun loved most during his almost eight month tour of Afghanistan was the sense of camaraderie "outside the wire" as soldiers called the area outside the safety zone of the remote mountain patrol base where he was posted.

Barbed wire surrounded many Canadian military bases in Afghanistan, creating both a literal barrier and a metaphor for danger, "going outside the wire".

Improvised explosive devices — IED’s in military-speak — were planted outside the wire near the Sper-wan Ghar patrol base, often in clear view of soldiers living at the base. But just as often the bombs were placed unpredictably, making excursions beyond the base extremely dangerous.

‘Outside the wire’, the soldiers’ senses were sharpened, along with their awareness of how much they depended on each other. "Infantry and artillery -- we used to joke about each other all the time," says Aygun, when they were still in training in Canada. "Tell each other they’re useless, just jokes back and forth."

But once in Afghanistan, that changed. "Everybody realizes we have a job to do," says Aygun, who was 24 at the time. "We protect each other."

As a member of the artillery unit, Aygun usually stayed behind the wire, providing fire support to the infantry. But as often as possible he volunteered to leave the base with the ‘forward observers’.

"Our howitzers, we can’t be in direct fight.  We’re firing from the back," Aygun explains. But accompanying the infantry on missions outside the wire, Aygun could see what was happening on the ground. "I can see through their eyes. I know they’re up ahead of us, waiting for our bombs to land to give them cover."

Sharing those risks was what Aygun loved best — perhaps because it intensified the bond that so many soldiers treasure long after their military service has ended.

That disciplined camaraderie is at the heart of a moving exhibit in the officers’ barracks at Toronto’s historic Fort York this Canada Day. The display in the centre of the hall includes dozens of plaques, bearing the names of more than 200 people who died in Afghanistan.

An informal tribute that soldiers created for their fallen comrades, these plaques were once mounted on a boulder at the Kandahar airfield.

Most of the names on the plaques are of Canadian soldiers, but there are also Americans -- under the command of the Canadian military, a diplomat, a military contractor and a journalist.

When the Canadian military withdrew from Afghanistan, they brought the plaques home with the idea of creating a permanent exhibit that will tour Canada this summer, starting at Fort York through Canada Day.  

A set of bagpipes, a ceremonial chaplain’s scarf and a Canadian flag complete the exhibit, symbols of what is sometimes called the ultimate sacrifice.

Sandra Shaul, former museum administrator for the City of Toronto, helped the military find a spot for the exhibit in Toronto.  

As a project manager with the City, Shaul organized the Bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812 in Toronto, and worked with the military on the Battle of York in 2013.  It was the first time in her life she’d worked on a military project and it instilled a new respect in her for the Canadian military.

"If you’d told me at the age of 18," says Shaul, "that I’d have a relationship with the military, I’d ask what you were smoking."

Hasan Aygun show in Sper-wan Ghar in Afghanistan. (Matt Seto)

Looking back, says Shaul, "The mistake I made 40 years ago was to confuse the politics of who sends these people into battle from the people who go."

"Bottom line," says Shaul, "it’s an incredible commitment to make."

As a project manager, Shaul was amazed to find how much she enjoyed working with soldiers who demonstrated — well, military teamwork.

"I was blown away by the sense of teamwork," says Shaul. "As a project manager, I’m usually the enforcer." 

Working with the military, she says, she finally learned to relax. "When they told me, ‘don’t worry, Sandra, we’ll take care of it,’ they meant it. I was just bloody impressed by how smart and dedicated and really organized these soldiers were."

The art world, Shaul says drily, which she was more familiar with, "isn’t exactly characterized by teamwork."

Working on the Battle of York commemoration, Shaul immersed herself in the history of the young soldiers who died on April 27th, 1813.  She was moved to find that their sacrifice two centuries earlier had never been honoured by Canadians.

"At Fort York, 181 people died over six hours," says Shaul. "In 200 years, they were never really acknowledged because they lost the battle."

Shaul was struck by how young the soldiers were.

So when an army officer asked her for advice about displaying the collection of plaques from Afghanistan, Shaul was struck once again at how young most of the soldiers were.

"I just thought, here we go again," says Shaul. "All these young faces, that’s who goes to war.  All the stuff I was cynical about 45 years ago, I wasn’t cynical anymore."

Four years later, back from his tour in Afghanistan, Hasan Aygun is now 28, living at his parents’ home in Scarborough, waiting to hear if his job application with the Ontario Provincial Police has been accepted.

But on Canada Day, he’ll be in military uniform again at Fort York, talking to members of the public about the Afghanistan tribute and sharing his memories of serving at the remote patrol base at Sper-wan Ghar.

"I’m glad I went through that experience," says Aygun. He remembers meeting two of the soldiers whose names are on the plaques. "Every Remembrance Day is a little bit more important to me. It’s great if other people get a chance to see the exhibit at Fort York.  But every soldier carries a bit of the memorial inside them in their own heart and mind."

See the Afghan vigil from until July 3, in the Blue Barracks. Open for viewing 9:00 am to 9:00 pm daily.

About the Author

Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"