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'We did our best': Canadian veterans of Afghanistan reflect on a year of loss

​​The rapid and shocking fall of Afghanistan to Taliban forces this summer has forced Canadian soldiers who served and sacrificed during the 13-year war to re-confront the meaning of their role in the country. 

Canadians who served in Afghanistan watched in disbelief as the Taliban swiftly retook the country

Mark Gasparotto reflects on a 20-year military career and the swift fall of Afghanistan to Taliban forces. (Stu Mills/CBC)

​​The rapid and shocking fall of Afghanistan to Taliban forces this summer has forced Canadian soldiers who served and sacrificed there during Canada's 13-year involvement in the conflict to re-confront the meaning of their role in the country. 

In April, U.S. President Joe Biden announced American troops would begin leaving Afghanistan in May after a 20-year presence. 

By August, the Afghan government had collapsed and Taliban fighters had entered the presidential palace in Kabul.

"I was overwhelmed with memories of things I hadn't thought of for a long time," said retired lieutenant-colonel Steve Nolan from his suburban Ottawa backyard.

Now working as a cybersecurity expert, Nolan recalled a conversation he had over tea with an Afghan army colonel at a NATO forward operating base 12 years ago. 

The man told the Canadian soldier a parable about a wise old farmer. The farmer took his two sons aside, encouraging one to join the Afghan national army, and the other to join the Taliban.

In this way, the family was guaranteed to be represented on the winning side of the war. The joke caught the young soldier off guard.

"At the time I really thought he was testing me — testing NATO's resolve — like, 'How long are you guys really going to be here?'" said Nolan.

WATCH | Afghan veterans reflect on country's fall to Taliban

Afghan veterans reflect on country’s fall to Taliban

1 year ago
Duration 2:00
Retired lieutenant-colonel Steve Nolan and retired colonel Mark Gasparotto, who both served with the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan, say watching the country fall to the Taliban was shocking and surreal.

Complicated feelings

But for Nolan, awarded a Meritorious Service Decoration in 2010, and the 40,000 Canadian men and women who served there, this Remembrance Day brings up complicated feelings.

In 2010, Steve Nolan was awarded a Meritorious Service Decoration for his role mentoring the commanding officer of an Afghan National Army infantry battalion. (Submitted/Steve Nolan)

He said he struggles with the identity of "war veteran," still finding it easier to recognize that figure in his memories of elderly, decorated soldiers he would meet over Royal Canadian Legion clam chowder dinners, when visiting as a newly-enlisted soldier.

He now understands the Afghan officer's parable in a different light.

"Now, reflecting back on it, I realize it's just indicative of the culture, that they've seen so many armies march through and it's earned the nickname 'The Graveyard of Empires' for a very good reason," he said.

In July, Chief of Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre wrote an open letter describing the 'pain and doubt' felt by those who served in Afghanistan, and told veterans of the conflict to "hold their heads high" after Panjwaii fell to the Taliban.

Felt like accomplishments were 'for nought'

Today, retired colonel Mark Gasparotto also searches for new meaning in what he accomplished in several tours as a combat engineer in Afghanistan.

"I've had almost a decade and a half to process that," said Gasparotto who, in 2010, wrote Clearing the Way, the story of the efforts of his battalion to build Ma'Sum Ghar, a NATO base high in the country's southeastern hills.

In the final year of his 20-year career, Gasparotto was military chief of a United Nations team in Haiti providing security during President Jovenel Moïse's election.

Mark Gasparotto, right, is seen in Ma'Sum Ghar, Afghanistan during a past tour of duty. (Submitted/Mark Gasparotto)

On the very same day in July 2021, Ma'sum Ghar fell to the Taliban and Jovenel Moïse was assassinated.

"It certainly felt that day that all my accomplishments in uniform were for nought," said Gasparotto.

He said with the passage of time, he has begun to feel less personally crushed by the global events of 2021. 

"We did our best to provide the space for a possible future to emerge, and that just didn't pan out," he said.

"You need to learn to struggle well in life, and be grateful for what you have."

As he does every year, Gasparotto will take in the Remembrance Day service at "hallowed ground" — the Beechwood National Military Cemetery.

"I know many of the people buried there. In some cases, I saw them die."

When the ceremony is over and the crowd has thinned, he and friends will likely share memories and a toast of whisky with the fallen.

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