Letter from an Afghan Veteran

Two CF-18 fighter planes escort a Canadian C-17 Globemaster as it does a fly-past before landing at the airport with the final troops returning from Afghanistan, Tuesday March 18, 2014 in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Two CF-18 fighter planes escort a Canadian C-17 Globemaster as it does a fly-past before landing at the airport with the final troops returning from Afghanistan, Tuesday March 18, 2014 in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)


Our special feature on our program of March 16, Our Longest War prompted many of you to write to the program - some listeners questioned the value of the mission, others congratulated former ambassador Chris Alexander on his frank assessment of Canada's role. Still others, wondered about the future of this country's armed forces. But one email stood out for its simplicity, its power and its eloquence. It was from Phil Palmer, in Ottawa. Here it is:

Mr. Enright:

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. 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 flyby.  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," 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. In less than a ten-year period, my wife and I spent probably close to three years apart - on the ground in Afghanistan or in operations related to 9/11. That service has left us both physically and emotionally scarred, and 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 IED's, shot, maimed, emotionally wounded, and some ended their own lives after they returned home.  I physically last left Afghanistan in Oct 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 is why - I will tell my children  - that 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, C17 that flew over my head this morning signaled the beginning of the end.

Farewell to the lost. Good luck Afghanistan.  For me and my family, it's time to move on.

Best regards,

Phil Palmer

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