It wasn’t quite light outside when my plane touched down at the Edmonton Airport. The sudden jolt of the landing gear hitting the tarmac shocked me half-awake. I slowly looked around the plane and saw my compatriots in various states of sleepy shuffling—putting up tray tables, stretching stiff limbs, buttoning up open tunics. There was a blearily frenetic energy in their movements. We were home. After seven months of deployment to Afghanistan, we were home.
We excitedly walked down the stairs of the plane and straight on to a waiting charter bus which was to take us back to Canadian Forces Base Edmonton. I lay my head against the window of the bus and dozed while I half-listened to the quiet talk around me. Much of it revolved around food. What was the first meal back in Canada to be? I had already made up my mind on that front: I wanted a bacon cheeseburger—the greasier the better.
The sun was just starting to appear above the horizon when our bus entered Edmonton. We stopped at an intersection and I was surprised to find myself looking out the window at a small group of people standing on the street corner holding up a sign that said “Thank you.” They cheered and waved at our bus; we bemusedly waved back as the light turned green and the bus lurched forward again. I remember being quite taken aback that anyone even knew that we were arriving that day. I was even more surprised that they seemed to know the time and route of our bus.
As we traveled through Edmonton to the base, around a dozen of these small groups lined our path. They all cheered and waved and held up signs that thanked us or welcomed us home. It was touching to see all the people that got up at god-knows-what-hour just to wave at a passing charter bus full of exhausted troops. It was nice to know that they cared enough to know we were coming back.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time in the mid-1990s that soldiers were advised not to wear their uniforms in public. It wasn’t so long ago that the Canadian Military was treated with an mild neglect, if not outright disdain by the people that it professed to serve. Amid scandal and budget cuts, a “Dark Age” set in and despite the heroic efforts of individual Canadian soldiers, the Canadian public often met members of the military with distrust and derision. Looking back, I wonder if the troops coming home from Somalia, or the Balkans, or Cyprus, or the Golan Heights, or anywhere received a warm welcome home. It’s sad to think that they probably did not.
Canada’s Armed Forces are officially done with Afghanistan. The last troops—if they haven’t already returned—are on their way back. It is my hope that these last few troops are welcomed back as gratefully as I was. Unlike those who served in the “Dark Age,” I think they will be.
I don’t know what we accomplished in Afghanistan. It’s still much too early to tell, and it will take greater minds than mine to predict the final outcome (if such a thing exists). However, I can tell you with certainty that Canadian soldiers have won a great battle in that distant land. We have won back the hearts and minds of the Canadian public. Soldiers and Veterans today can stand taller that they could 20 years ago. They can proudly profess their membership in the profession of arms without the epitaph of “baby killer” being thrown in their face. The respect of ordinary Canadians may prove to be the greatest prize gained after 13 years of combat.
I only hope this lasts. As our mission in Afghanistan ends, a new era of budget cuts and military listlessness seems poised to arise. You might be tempted to think that a new “Dark Age” might come, but I have no such fear. Budgets may be cut; deployments may be limited; but I think that Canadians have re-learned a vital lesson: hate war—love the warrior.
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