The National

Silver Cross Mother remembers mission Canada's military would rather forget

Diana Abel's son, Cpl. Michael David Abel, was killed in an accident while serving with the Airborne in Somalia in 1993.

Legion honours soldier's sacrifice, names Diana Abel the Silver Cross Mother

Diana Abel is the 2017 Canadian Silver Cross Mother. Her son, Cpl. Michael David Abel, was killed in an accident while serving with the Airborne in Somalia in 1993. (Royal Canadian Legion)

It was a mission the Canadian military would rather forget, but Diana Abel keeps big reminder of it in her Brampton living room.

"The most important thing in here is the flag," says Abel, this year's Silver Cross mother, gently caressing the golden wings emblazoned on the blue-and-maroon banner that rests neatly folded in a curio cabinet. "This flew over the base in Somalia and it was presented to me at my son's funeral."

It is the flag of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, of which her son, Cpl. Michael David Abel, was a member.

The Airborne went to Somalia on a peacekeeping mission in 1992. That mission ended up costing the Canadian military its reputation. And Diana Abel her son.

"I always said they would never choose me [as the Silver Cross mother] because of the Somalia incident," reflects Abel.

Somalia mission

Cpl. Michael David Abel was killed in Somalia in May 1993. (Abel family)

The Airborne was in Somalia 25 years ago to try and restore some peace and order to a country that was beset by civil war and famine. It was part of a larger United Nations operation.

"My son's job with 3 Commando … they were at the airport, they were to make sure the planes could land with the food because it was a humanitarian mission," Abel says. "So they had to get the food from there to a Belet Huen, which they did."

But things quickly went sideways for Canada.

A Somali teenager, Shidane Arone, was captured sneaking into the Canadian base on March 16, 1993. He was tortured and killed. Eight soldiers would face court martial and four were convicted. In 1995, partly as a result of its disgrace in Somalia and after a public inquiry, the Airborne was disbanded.

Diana Abel's personal tragedy happened in a separate incident a few weeks later on May 3, 1993.

Michael was in his tent when his good friend, Master Cpl. David Smith, came in. Smith began cleaning his gun, dry-firing it without bullets. Smith got up up leave, but then sat down again.

Smith told a court martial hearing that he forgot he had loaded his weapon and thought he was dry-firing again a few minutes later when he pulled the trigger and hit Michael Abel, killing him.

Michael Abel visits with local children in Somalia during his mission there in the early 1990s as a member of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. (Abel family)

Smith plead guilty to negligent performance of duty. He was sentenced to four months in jail and was reduced in rank. A more serious charge of criminal negligence causing death was stayed.

"I was angry, very angry to think that, you know, how could he be so stupid to do this," says Abel, with just a little edge on 'stupid'. "But it was purely an accident."

That accident cut short Michael's mission to help people, a job he truly enjoyed, says Abel. One of the pictures she has of her son shows him surrounded by children, everyone with a big smile.

"He used to give them things," she says. "We sent him things like candy and cookies and different things like that. The last box I sent him was T-shirts — he never got it, but that was for the kids. He loved kids."

Military roots

Michael Abel's grandfather, Bill Iles, was in the RCAF for 25 years and served in the Aleutian Islands during WWII. (Abel family)

Michael David Abel had military service in his blood. His father, David, served 12 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force. And his grandfather, Bill Iles, was 25 years in the RCAF and served in the Aleutian Islands during WWII.

That tradition of military service continues in the Abel family. Michael's nephew John McRae, Diana's grandson, is applying to the Royal Military College in Kingston.

Abel admits the thought of her grandson in the military scares her, but it's the family way.

Diana Abel and her husband David on their wedding day. David served 12 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force. (Abel family)

"I'm proud of the the accomplishments my son made. I'm proud of my father and my husband being in the military. It's a sense of pride I think to think he's going into the family business."

It's a family history not lost on the 17-year-old, in a teenage kind of way.

"I think it's pretty cool. The fact that there's a whole linear connection between my uncle my grandfather and my great grandfather also," says McRae, a Royal Canadian Army Cadet.

McRae will be escorting his grandmother at the national remembrance ceremony in Ottawa on Nov 11.

"He's the spitting image of my son, Michael," Diana says. You see him in uniform, put the two pictures together, they're like twins."

John McRae, Michael's nephew, is a member of the 557 Lorne Scots Royal Canadian Army Cadets. McRae will be escorting his grandmother Diana at the national remembrance ceremony in Ottawa. (Abel family)

The Silver Cross mother is chosen by the Canadian Legion, based on recommendations from the public. Anyone can nominate a potential SCM.

Diana Abel knew two years ago that past members of the Airborne had started lobbying the legion to select her on the 25th anniversary of the Somalia mission.

"I was really proud that of the fact that they had actually accomplished this and that I would be representing them, as well as all the mothers that have lost sons and daughters through the military."

Abel hopes that 25 years after the Somalia mission, Canadians can look past the scandal and appreciate the sacrifice those soldiers made, and indeed that all soldiers make every day.

"They should be thinking that these young men and women put their lives on the line for Canada and they do their job," she says. "They do the best that they can under sometimes very difficult circumstances, but they do their job."

Silver Cross mother on losing her son

4 years ago
Duration 4:04
Silver Cross mother Diana Abel lost her son 24 years ago during Canada's controversial peacekeeping mission in Somalia. On Remembrance Day she will lay a wreath at the national remembrance ceremony in Ottawa, representing all mothers who lost a child in service 4:04


Michael Drapack

Field Producer

Michael Drapack is a field producer with CBC's The National based in Toronto.

With files from CBC's Chris Rands and James Murray