KABUL, Afghanistan — As the Canadian flag inched its way down the pole Wednesday at NATO headquarters in Kabul, Master Cpl. Jordan Taylor didn’t necessarily see the red and white Maple Leaf.
The faces of friends who didn’t come home were before his eyes.
Taylor is a fresh-faced kid from Regina, and anyone looking at him would hardly be able to guess he’s a veteran of a unit that saw some of the fiercest fighting during the five-year combat mission in Kandahar.
“I’ve had some good friends who’ve lost their lives here,” said Taylor, who helped haul down the flag on Canada’s longest-ever military mission.
“I see their faces all the time, always remember them. So, that’s what I was reflecting on.”
One buddy in particular came to mind: Cpl. Darren Fitzpatrick.
He died in an Edmonton hospital after being wounded in a roadside bomb attack in March 2010. The two of them joined the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry together. They hung out and watched out for each other.
The wounds this country has inflicted were on quiet, subtle display at the understated ceremony before the headquarters building.
Sprinkled through crowd of three dozen Canadians who stood at attention were troops who’d returned to Afghanistan three, four, even five times in the dozen years the army has been involved in trying to stabilize the fractured nation.
The first Canadian casualties to die were on the mind of Chief Warrant Officer Bill Crabb, who served the first battle group dispatched by Jean Chretien’s Liberal government in spring 2002.
Four soldiers died when a U.S. Air Force pilot mistakenly bombed them believing their training exercise was a real attack on Kandahar Airfield.
“I was thinking of the people we lost over here,” said Crabb. “I was involved in the first strike, the friendly-fire incident in 2002.”
“I went out to help recover the heroes we brought back that day. And in my (next) tour here we lost 23 guys. I couldn’t help but think of them and the sacrifices they made.”
That kind of raw reflection was etched on many faces.
The finality of what took place was only underscored as the last handful of training troops, kitted out in full combat gear, trudged through a soccer field adjacent to the headquarters to board American helicopters for a trip to a holding camp before boarding flights out of the country.
The last pair of Canadian boots to step off the grounds of the headquarters and on to the ramp belonged to Col. Ivy Miezitis, who according to officers watching the departure seemed to dawdle in hopes of snagging the historical footnote.
During the understated ceremony, dignitaries — Canadian and allied alike — praised the country’s involvement and sacrifices.
“Your strength has protected the weak; your bravery has brought hope to hopeless; and the helping hand you have extended to the Afghan people has given them faith that a better future is within their grasp,” Deborah Lyons, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, told an assembly of the last 100 soldiers who served on a three-year training mission.
The war cost the lives of 158 soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors.
“We can wish that the families of the fallen do not lament their fate, but we know that this is not the case. The only small comfort comes from the knowledge that the sacrifices of lost loved ones has been worthwhile, that they made a difference, and that their grief is shared by a grateful nation.”
“It is said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. Your actions and those of your fallen colleagues have stopped the triumph of evil.”
Canadian commandos, hunting al-Qaida, were the first troops to hit the ground in late 2001 and they were followed by as many as 40,000 more rotating through different campaigns, including the five-year combat mission in Kandahar.
British Lt.-Gen. John Lorimer, the deputy commander of NATO in Afghanistan, said the Canadians “repeatedly proved their courage and capability” alongside coalition and Afghan troops, especially in Kandahar “where you not only fought hard, but you fought smart.”
Calling it the end of a significant era, Lorimer said he viewed the departure of the Canadians with “mixed emotions” given the shared experiences of the last 12 years.
“I am sad to see you return home, yet grateful for opportunity to have served alongside such great Canadian leaders along the way,” he said.
The country’s top military commander, Gen. Tom Lawson, spoke about how the government will rally around its veterans now that they’re home.
“We will gather around and continue to support those who suffer from wounds both seen and unseen,” Lawson said in a reference to the suicide crisis that has gripped the military since last fall.
The Defence Department has acknowledged that as many as 10 soldiers — possibly more — have taken their own lives since November. Officials have also faced repeated questions about promises to hire more military mental health staff, to deal with an expected wave of post traumatic stress cases, have gone unfulfilled.
The last Canadian commander, Maj.-Gen. Dean Milner, said the mission taking place over the last three years has been invaluable preparation for the Afghan army, but the progress made is not irreversible and the West needs to continue nurturing both military and civilian institutions.
Ambassador Lyons said Canada will remain engaged in Afghanistan and the focus will be on helping build the ruined nation’s economy, particularly in the resource sector.