OTTAWA — Canada offered its thanks Friday to the 40,000 veterans of the 12-year war in Afghanistan, and the troops said thank you in return.
There was a 21-gun salute and a pipe band and a parade, but the National Day of Honour on Parliament Hill played down the pomp and emphasized the practical.
One of the keynote speakers was a sergeant, a heroic combat engineer who won the Medal of Bravery for crawling into a cramped space to spend two hours defusing an improvised explosive device in 2010.
Sgt. Dale Kurdziel, an engineer from Gagetown, N.B., thanked the country for its support.
“The work was far from easy, the hours long and the danger always present, but one of the most important things that kept us going was the knowledge that we were never far from the thoughts of folks back home,” Kurdziel said.
“Letters from kids all across the country, care packages addressed ’To any Canadian soldier’ from complete strangers or a quick phone call home to get something as simple as words of encouragement were the things that put a smile on our faces.
“During the tough times, the truly difficult moments … these were the things that helped us make it through.”
Gov. Gen. David Johnston and Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered the country’s formal gratitude.
“I’d like to offer you my deepest thanks for your service and your sacrifice,” said Johnston.
“It’s a unique opportunity for us to say thank you to the men and women who have fought and served for Canada,” said Harper. “We are here today to honour their dedication, to honour their heroism and to honour their sacrifice.”
“We have also come together as Canadians to make a collective promise. It’s the same promise our forebears made after the conflicts of their time and it is simply this: We will remember.”
The flash and brass that jazzes up many military ceremonies was toned down. Even the fly-past overhead didn’t have the glamorous CF-18 jets that usually handle such duties.
Instead, there were Chinook and Griffin helicopters, Hercules, Airbus and Globemaster transport planes. These mundane workhorses that carried the loads in the 12-year campaign lumbered over the Peace Tower, stark against a slate-grey sky.
Thousands of onlookers watched the ceremony and later wandered among a series of static displays where soldiers in their ordinary camouflage uniforms displayed the tools of their trade.
They included a hulking Leopard tank and a Bison armoured ambulance; a Coyote reconnaissance vehicle and a long-barrelled M-777 howitzer that can throw a 155-mm projectile 30 kilometres.
And there were sniper rifles and machine-guns, grenade launchers and carbines, the workday weapons for ordinary soldiers.
Senior politicians, top military brass and thousands of onlookers joined many families who lost loved ones or nursed them through grievous wounds.
The families of many of the 158 soldiers killed over the mission carried photos of their lost sons, daughters, brothers and sisters as the crowd bowed their heads for two minutes of silence.
A relay of wounded Afghan veterans travelled to Ottawa carrying a baton which held the last Canadian flag flown in Afghanistan.
The baton was handed to Harper, who then handed it over to Johnston, the formal commander-in-chief of the Forces.