KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Heavy hearts were lifted just a little Wednesday during Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada’s Afghan war zone, where widows came in hopes of finding meaning in their sacrifice and the next generation of veterans moved to firm the nation’s resolve.
Afghan National Army soldiers stood by their Canadian counterparts as a small crowd, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Industry Minister Tony Clement among them, gathered around the sprawling marble cenotaph at Kandahar Airfield.
The memorial is etched with the names and faces of the 133 Canadian soldiers who have died as part of the Afghan mission since it began in 2002 — a list that includes Cpl. Michael Starker, who was killed in a gun battle with Taliban insurgents in 2008.
“I miss him,” said Starker’s wife Nicole, who was among the family members of seven slain troops who made the trip to Kandahar to mark Remembrance Day in the country where their loved ones gave their lives in the name of a greater cause.
“Happy memories… hopefully those will come with time. Mostly it’s just pain right now, still.”
The trip to Kandahar was the fifth such visit arranged by the Canadian Forces, which aims to help relatives cope with the grieving process of losing a loved one.
“I knew him as a man, a husband, an uncle, a brother, but not really as a soldier,” Nicole Starker said. She wore a pin in the heart of her poppy emblazoned with her husband’s initials.
“To be able to see where he was and to visit the place that took him — that’s a huge part of our life, and his death, that I didn’t have.”
After meeting privately with Afghan National Army Brig. Gen. Abdul Bahshir, the families attended a modest ceremony that followed the traditional laying of the wreaths.
Task Force Kandahar’s normally composed commander, Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, struggled to keep his emotions in check as he told them their presence was “good for all of us.”
“May our warm embrace comfort you now, and in years to come,” he said, pausing to restore the tenor to his voice.
The relatives took part in what has become a tradition for next-of-kin returning to Afghanistan: writing a letter to their loved one and leaving it by their name-plate on the cenotaph, which is also etched with an image of each soldier.
As one father left his letter, he gently brushed the impression of his son’s face, looked skyward, and returned to his seat.
“In a letter you can say those things you can’t say out loud, or maybe don’t want to say out loud,” said Rachel Leary, whose husband Capt. Richard Steve Leary, 32, of Brantford, Ont., was killed in a shootout with insurgents in 2008.
“It was tough, I cried all the way through it. But it was done — I just felt I got to say the things I never got to say.”
With the pain, however, anger also lingers.
“I have mixed emotions about the land of Afghanistan,” Nicole Starker said. “I guess I hate the terrorists. I hate the people who killed him.”
With anger, there is also resolve.
Vance was joined by MacKay in awarding a Sacrifice Medal to Sgt. Vince Adams, making him the first to receive the newly minted decoration in Kandahar.
Adams had his abdomen ripped open by shrapnel from a suicide bomber in 2006. After months of rehab, he convinced his family to let him return for another tour in 2009.
“I want to win (the war),” he said. “I don’t know what that looks like, but I don’t want to walk away for nothing.”
It is the moral dimension of a mission often shrouded with grey areas that provides solace for those who seek to understand the contribution their loved ones have made.
“Their children deserve to go to school, they deserve to know how to read and write,” Leary said of the Afghan people. “But those weren’t things they were given, and I’m proud to say my husband was part of that.”