Sobs, silence mark final family pilgrimage to remember loved ones in Kandahar

Matthew Giesebrecht needed to taste the dust, feel the sand and hear the cannon thunder the way his wife did, to better understand what the last days of her life were all about.

The family of Master Cpl. Kristal Giesebrecht views her granite remembrance plaque at the memorial to fallen in Canadian soldiers at Kandahar Airfield

The family of Master Cpl. Kristal Giesebrecht views her granite remembrance plaque at the memorial to fallen in Canadian soldiers at Kandahar Airfield

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Matthew Giesebrecht needed to taste the dust, feel the sand and hear the cannon thunder the way his wife did, to better understand what the last days of her life were all about.

On Tuesday at Kandahar Airfield, he got his wish.

“It’s been everything I expected,” said Giesebrecht, whose wife Kristal — a master corporal in the Canadian Forces who was born in the southwestern Ontario town of Wallaceburg — died in a roadside bomb blast on June 26, 2010.

Giesebrecht was part of a cadre of grieving Canadians who travelled to Kandahar in hopes of speeding the healing process by seeing for themselves the country where their loved ones lost their lives.

Tuesday’s visit, which also included a British family, was the 17th such pilgrimage to be organized by the Canadian Forces, and the last before Canada’s combat operations formally end in July.

Giesebrecht was taken aback at the emotional reaction some of the soldiers had upon meeting the group for the first time.

“It’s the look on their faces; the genuine feelings of thanks and comfort that our presence not only provides us, but provides them.”

Giesebrecht suggested he’s at peace with his loss and found the journey to Kandahar inspiring. His wife — the “girliest-girl” he’d ever met, he said — rarely spoke at home of her life in uniform.

“I thought she was an incredible person, but as we’ve spent these last 11 months getting to know the military and the people she cared for when she wasn’t at home being the Kristal that I knew,” he said.

“I am so proud of who she was. It’s like discovering someone all over again.”

Started in November 2007 by former general Rick Hillier, the trips have become not only reminders to Canadians at home of the human cost of this brutal guerrilla war, but an important healing journey for the 180 relatives who have taken part.

Guy Scherrer, whose son Cpl. Yannick Scherrer died March 27, said his emotional wounds are still fresh because his boy is the latest Canadian soldier to be killed in action.

But he said he’s glad he came because it will help with his grieving.

“Yannick was our baby, and this kind of support from the army is extremely helpful,” said Scherrer, who wore a white T-shirt expressing support for Canadian troops.

His wife Josee broke down in sobs and crouched to the ground after a wreath was laid at the foot of her son’s granite plaque, which hangs on a white marble monument at the heart of Canada’s section of the sprawling army base.

The Canadian army also invited in the family of Capt. Ben Babington-Browne to the memorial service after the British engineer was killed in a CH-148 Griffon helicopter crash in July 2009.

In the absence of a plaque for Babington-Browne, Canadian organizers set up a wooden easel to display an enlarged photo, which his mother, Nina, tenderly kissed after placing a wreath at its base.

Inviting Babington-Browne’s mother and brother was an important gesture because he died alongside Canadian soldiers, said Rear Admiral Andrew Smith, chief of military personnel.

The visit was paid for by the Military Families Fund, an organization Hillier set up to foot the bill for costs and expenses not covered by the federal government.

National Defence had been financing the trips, but stopped a few months ago when it was discovered the federal Treasury Board had not approved the expenses.

The department is still going through the approval process, and intends to reimburse the payments the private fund has already made to date, Smith said.

“In the fullness of time (the costs) will be reimbursed through public funds.”

Under the program, the families of soldiers killed in action are flown via military aircraft to Kandahar, where they’re allowed to tour the base, meet the commanders and troops and take part in a public memorial service.