There is not a day that goes by that Lacombe native Paul Szabunio says he doesn’t think about Afghanistan.
Lt.-Col. Szabunio, currently the commanding officer of the Royal Canadian Artillery’s 7th Toronto Regiment, served six months in Afghanistan in 2011, working extensively with the training program for the Afghan National Police primarily out of Kandahar Airfield.
The experience will follow him for the rest of his life, he said.
“It’s given me a profound appreciation for what we have in Canada, so much of which we take for granted, such as electricity . . . the ability to walk down a street and not be afraid,” he said.
Szabunio, 46, was part of the Canadian contingent under the American 10th Mountain Division at Regional Command Headquarters, a member of the Afghan National Security Forces Development Team.
“We were the last Canadians technically allowed to go outside the wire, the last Canadians as part of the combat mission in Afghanistan before everything switched up to Kabul in October 2011,” he said.
He was involved in teaching Afghan forces first aid and how to become mechanics and logisticians, he said, as well as pushing for integration of more females into the security force.
As the 12 year-long Canadian mission in Afghanistan drew to a close with the last troops arriving home on March 18, Szabunio said it’s a moment for a feeling of national pride.
“We are amongst the best, most qualified, most capable professional military force out there in the world today and we proved that in Afghanistan. By the same token, there’s a degree of sadness knowing this came at a cost, 158 killed in that time,” he said.
“But there’s a sense of hope for the future. There’s been a great degree of progress, a great sacrifice and it hasn’t been in vain; there has been change in Afghanistan . . . I think we’ve ended on a high note, a little bit of a sad note and at the end of the day I think history will prove it’s been a well worthwhile investment.”
A key moment that Szabunio said emulates what the mission meant to him and the future of Afghanistan was during one of the police graduation ceremonies where he met the son of Khan Mohammad Mujahid, the police chief of Kandahar.
“His father had been killed not three weeks before by a suicide bomber and for this young man to continue on with his training and stand up there — it was one of the proudest moments I felt when over there, standing next to him. He had such courage and was carrying on his father’s legacy. There are thousands of individual stories out there like this . . . so many Afghans working for a better place.”
Szabunio was born and raised in Lacombe where his mother Millie still lives. He attended his first cadets program in Red Deer and graduated from Lacombe Composite High School in 1985, the same year he joined the military.
His father, the late Victor Szabunio of Lacombe, was born in Niehniewicze, Poland and was deported to a forced labour camp in Siberia in 1940. When he was released, following the Soviet amnesty, he joined the Polish 2nd Corp under British Command as an artilleryman, serving in the Middle East. He was also involved in the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944 when tens of thousands died.
“I grew up under the shadow of the Second World War so to speak and I think it’s safe to say a lot of my father’s own sacrifices and commitment to others have probably been endued within me,” said Szabunio, who went on to serve with the 20th Field Regiment, 78 Battery based in Red Deer for a while, taking him to the former Yugoslavia.
When Szabunio was in Kabul he realized his dad had been within 500 km of where he stood (in Tashkent) when his dad joined the Polish Forces.
Szabunio’s grandfather was a First World War vet and also fought in the Polish-Bolshevik War that followed.
His uncle fought in the Polish Army under Russian command in the Second World War.
“Military blood runs deep in our family.”
Outside his military career, Szabunio travelled to Poland to help an automotive manufacturing facility take off in 1996, created a business development plan for Habitat for Humanity Poland in 2001 and went back to school for a master’s degree in business administration (he’d already obtained a bachelor’s in civil engineering in 1992).
Today he lives in Toronto, where he is on a leave of absence from his job as the strategic advisor to the chief finance officer at Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, while he and his wife Anna prepare for the arrival of their first child.