"Canada offered its thanks Friday to the 40,000 veterans of the 12-year war in Afghanistan, and the troops said thank you in return.

There was a 21-gun salute and a pipe band and a parade, but the National Day of Honour on Parliament Hill played down the pomp and emphasized the practical.

One of the keynote speakers was a sergeant, a heroic combat engineer who won the Medal of Bravery for crawling into a cramped space to spend two hours defusing an improvised explosive device in 2010.

Sgt. Dale Kurdziel, an engineer from Gagetown, N.B., thanked the country for its support.

"The work was far from easy, the hours long and the danger always present, but one of the most important things that kept us going was the knowledge that we were never far from the thoughts of folks back home," Kurdziel said.

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A girl waves a Canadian flag in the crowd during the National Day of Honour ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa May 9, 2014. The event marks the end of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

"Letters from kids all across the country, care packages addressed 'To any Canadian soldier' from complete strangers, or a quick phone call home to get something as simple as words of encouragement were the things that put a smile on our faces.

"During the tough times, the truly difficult moments ... these were the things that helped us make it through."

'Very respectful'

The day's events drew praise from Silver Cross Mother Wendy Miller and her husband Ray Ealdama, whose son, Andrew, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Miller and Ealdama had criticized the government in an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics on Thursday, saying their grief was exacerbated by poor treatment by the government.

"My son didn't die for them to turn around and treat his mother like a secondary-class person. Sorry, it's not fair," she told host Evan Solomon. "We're not asking for cash or money. I just want the respect. You've got him. His name's up there. Fine. You don't disrespect his mother. He loved me so much."

On Friday, Miller and Ealdama gave the day an A grade.

"When everybody spoke today, it was at the right time. They have their jobs to do, just like we have our jobs to do," Miller said.

"They were very respectful to all of us today, and they spoke when they should have spoken, and they were silent when they should have been silent."

Ealdama said the government "did Canada proud" with the ceremony and events.

'Collective promise' to remember

Gov. Gen. David Johnston and Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered the country's formal gratitude.

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A Canadian Forces CH-147 Chinook helicopter prepares to land on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday in preparation for Canada's National Day of Honour on Friday. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

"I'd like to offer you my deepest thanks for your service and your sacrifice," said Johnston.

"It's a unique opportunity for us to say thank you to the men and women who have fought and served for Canada," said Harper. "We are here today to honour their dedication, to honour their heroism and to honour their sacrifice."

"We have also come together as Canadians to make a collective promise. It's the same promise our forebears made after the conflicts of their time and it is simply this: We will remember."

The flash and brass that jazzes up many military ceremonies was toned down. Even the fly-past overhead didn't have the glamorous CF-18 jets that usually handle such duties.

Instead, there were Chinook and Griffin helicopters, Hercules, Airbus and Globemaster transport planes. These mundane workhorses that carried the loads in the 12-year campaign lumbered over the Peace Tower, stark against a slate-grey sky.

Thousands watched

Thousands of onlookers watched the ceremony and later wandered among a series of static displays where soldiers in their ordinary camouflage uniforms displayed the tools of their trade.

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Crowds gather on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, May 9, 2014 as part of the Day of Honour to pay respects to the veterans and the dead of the Afghanistan war. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

They included a hulking Leopard tank and a Bison armoured ambulance; a Coyote reconnaissance vehicle and a long-barrelled M-777 howitzer that can throw a 155-mm projectile 30 kilometres.

And there were sniper rifles and machine-guns, grenade launchers and carbines, the workday weapons for ordinary soldiers.

Senior politicians, top military brass and thousands of onlookers joined many families who lost loved ones or nursed them through grievous wounds.

The families of many of the 158 soldiers killed over the mission carried photos of their lost sons, daughters, brothers and sisters as the crowd bowed their heads for two minutes of silence.

A relay of wounded Afghan veterans travelled to Ottawa carrying a baton which held the last Canadian flag flown in Afghanistan.

The baton was handed to Harper, who then handed it over to Johnston, the formal commander-in-chief of the Forces.

Mobile users can re-read the live blog here.

With files from CBC News