The day before I am scheduled to fly to Kandahar for my third tour with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, I receive a phone call, and I'm told we are leaving six hours earlier than planned. Nathalie and the boys don't take the news too well, and even though I know the military is anything but predictable, I'm a little upset that I'm losing time that I could have spent with my family. Sure, it's only six hours, but that's one more meal, a few more hugs, a few more words that are being taken away — before a deployment that will last six months.
Knowing there is nothing we can do, we carry on with a routine as best we can. Later that night, like so many times before departing on tour or leaving for an exercise, I tuck Jeremy, 9, Jonathan, 11, and Alex,15, into bed and spend a few extra minutes telling them how much I love them and instructing them to be good for their mother. Despite the tears, they handle it quite well and are soon asleep — after making me promise to wake them up in the morning. We had already decided they wouldn't be going to school the day of my departure, so I tell them I will.
When Nathalie and I finally go to bed, it is a restless night for both of us. Nathalie tosses and turns, and I just lie there holding her. At 4 a.m. on May 7, I quietly get up, and within a short time, I am dressed and ready to go. I pet the dogs on the head, not sure whether they even know what's going on, and as promised, gently wake the boys up to say one last "See ya." We don't do goodbyes; it might be superstition, but we don't do it.
Nathalie is at the door, and we hug on the dark porch for a few minutes before I wipe her tears and tell her I have to go. She takes a photo of me on the stairs, and the flash momentarily lights up the driveway. I remind her we've done this before and that it will be over before we know it. With one last kiss, I get in the car and make the drive to the Canadian Forces base in Kingston.
Buildings replace tents at Kandahar base
After a few minutes of paperwork, we board the bus for the trip to Trenton. By now, we all know we are leaving sooner than expected in order to allow for the repatriation of Cpl. Michael Starker, who was killed a day earlier. I feel guilty for complaining about leaving early the day before, but none of us knew. It's a solemn reminder of where exactly I am going when the day I leave, one of our brothers is making the final journey home.
The trip to Afghanistan doesn't seem quite as bad or as long as I remember, maybe because I sleep for most of the trip or because the plane is only half full, so we all have room to stretch out. Even the final flight into Kandahar isn't that bad as the plane is once again only half full, and we all manage to stretch out and doze off.
As the ramp drops on the Hercules aircraft, and we shuffle out the door, I realize that Kandahar is not as I left it in December 2005. Sure, the heat is the same, but the Kandahar Airfield military base has definitely changed. The building known as Taliban's Last Stand is now the full-time terminal for military flights and even has digital displays listing inbound and outbound flights.
We leave the terminal, and I can see the base, which serves as the headquarters for NATO Forces in southern Afghanistan, has grown exponentially, both in size and in structure. All of the tented mess halls are gone and have been replaced by hard-structured modern facilities. A number of contingents have even moved out of their portable sleeping quarters into two-storey buildings, with two to four soldiers to a room.
My crew is slated to move into one of these buildings as soon as it's completed, but in the mean time, we are in portable shelters. Even those are an improvement over my last tour, as we have individual beds instead of cots, and some of us even have homemade furniture to put to use.
The base's wooden boardwalk is almost completely surrounded by stores — from the much-publicized Tim Hortons to Burger King, along with a slew of local electronic, video and gift stores. To my surprise, there is even an International Bank of Afghanistan, complete with a bank machine, which is run out of a sea container on the boardwalk. Even though I see people using the machine, I think I'll wait until I'm back in Canada to use my bank card.
At the far end of the boardwalk is the coalition's newly relocated memorial to fallen soldiers, with the original Inukshuk statue that was erected in 2002. Surrounding the statue, inlaid in the ground, are plaques commemorating soldiers from the NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan who have been killed or wounded in the campaign against terrorism. A small plaque separate from the rest is slightly to the front of the memorial and is in remembrance of the people killed in the attacks of 9/11. That small plaque represents the reason we are here and the reason the other plaques are there. Despite its sombre meaning, the memorial is a thing of beauty in an otherwise hostile environment.
Inside the Canadian compound, 20 metres from the front door of where I will be working, is the Canadian memorial to soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Two stone pillars guard the entrance to the memorial, whose walls are adorned with plaques etched with the pictures of Canada's fallen. Surrounding the entire memorial are marble squares, some inlaid with spotlights that ensure the memorial is never dark.
As I stand inside the memorial, it is sad not only to recognize many of the faces on the plaques but to see the sheer number that adorn the memorial. I read the names of those I knew, and as my eyes water, I know there is no shame in it. It is out of respect and recognition of their sacrifice for others.
Kandahar is not the same place it was when I last left it in December 2005, and if it has changed that much, what about the rest of Afghanistan? Eighty-three Canadian soldiers are now immortalized, having made the sacrifice to make this place that much better. It's a sombre start to a new tour.