Mark Kelley: Canada Day in Kandahar

The Maple Leaf delivers a splash of colour to Kandahar Airfield on Canada Day, reports Mark Kelley, the host of CBC's Connect.

Every day is grey at Kandahar Airfield. The sprawling military base, known as KAF, is always covered in layers of dust from the crushed stone roads, the concrete walls, concrete buildings and bomb shelters, and the constant traffic of tanks, trucks and military aircraft.

On top of that, you've got 30,000 soldiers, dressed in desert khakis, who, by design, blend into the landscape.

Colour is almost like a dangerous outlier here. But there is one splash of colour that lights up this dull place — the Maple Leaf.

Mark Kelley and the Maple Leaf at Kandahar Airfield. ((CBC))

You see it flying at the Canadian compound at KAF, or outside soldier's tents, even spray-painted on walls surrounding Canadian installations. 

To me, it's like a sign of life. And on this Canada Day, it's a sign of pride. This is the last Canada Day at KAF, the Maple Leaf's last stand in this part of Afghanistan. But it's not leaving quietly.

There are about 3,000 soldiers here celebrating all things Canada. Not just the day, the country and the flag. But the almost six years they've spent in this region waging war in search of peace.

Royal message to troops

Text of the message released Friday in Ottawa from Prince William and Kate to the Canadian Forces:

  "It is with a deep sense of pride and admiration that we send our best wishes to all Members of the Canadian Forces, whether based here at home in Canada or on active service in various parts of the world. To Canadian Servicemen and women, aid workers and diplomats in Afghanistan, we join with all Canadians gathered here on Parliament Hill on Canada Day in thanking you from the bottom of our hearts for your extraordinary commitment and contribution to the cause of peace.

 "This has not come lightly. Because Canadian Forces are always at the fore, the sacrifices have been great. For this, the Canadian Forces are respected around the world. They have made a difference to the lives of many thousands who most need assistance through compassion and humanity. We are honoured to thank you and congratulate you for a job well done. Godspeed your safe return to your family and friends, and to Canada."

Much has been made of the fact this is Canada's first combat mission since Korea, but the soldiers I met said they spent more time reaching out to the Afghan nationals than they did hunting down the Taliban.

An American soldier told me, "Your guys are different from us. You're here to be nice. We're here to pick a fight."

Yes, the Canadians fought when they had to — shot back when they were attacked — and died trying to make a difference. But what I've learned being here, is that the soldiers did more than carry out their combat mission. They carried themselves well under pressure, and under fire. Good ambassadors.

Back home, they know Canadians have grown tired of a war with no end, questioning not only if the soldiers have accomplished anything, but if it was really worth coming here in the first place. Especially the Quebec-based Van Doos, whose home province has all but turned their backs on them.

But after losing 157 soldiers to a war many were indifferent to, you can imagine why, on this Canada Day, the soldiers want to celebrate themselves.

This will be the biggest bash ever here for the troops, as many are gathered at KAF to catch a flight home in the coming days, while fresh troops are arriving to help pack up the Canadian corner of the base.

How will the war in Afghanistan be remembered? The soldiers aren't sure, though some fear history may not be kind. But that's for another day.

On Canada Day, they're wearing bright red Team Canada ball caps, Canadian flag bunting is draped all around the hangar-like Canada House, and a massive Maple Leaf has been strapped to the side of one of the warehouses.

For a group of soldiers who have walked side by side with death, today this base, this place, has come alive. It's their day. And they deserve every moment of joy they can squeeze out of it before the flag comes down, and this base goes back to being simply grey.


Mark Kelley

Co-host, The Fifth Estate

Mark Kelley loves a good story. His passion for giving a voice to those stories has taken him from Cape Spear, Newfoundland to Old Crow, Yukon -- from Dhaka, Bangladesh to Defiance, Ohio. He is an International Emmy award winning journalist, and a six-time Gemini/Canadian Screen Award winner.