File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS The Maple Leaf flies at half-mast over the memorial to fallen soldiers at the Canadian task force headquarters at the Kandahar Airfield. People can now visit the Afghanistan memorial at the new National Defence headquarters.

New Afghanistan memorial will be opened to public, Gen. Jonathan Vance says

OTTAWA — Members of the Canadian Armed Forces, veterans and their families can now visit the Afghanistan memorial at the new National Defence headquarters whenever they wish, Canada’s top military commander says.

The memorial inside the building’s secure zone — whose centrepiece is the cenotaph that once stood at Kandahar Airfield — was quietly unveiled last week in a ceremony that didn’t include families of soldiers memorialized on the monument, and no public notice.

Chief of defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance said Friday that the memorial was opened without enough thought to how people who aren’t regularly in the secure zone would be able to see it.

“I am truly sorry for our insensitivity and the pain, anger and frustration that this decision caused you. I accept full responsibility for it all,” Vance said in a statement.

He said the monument is designed to be a daily reminder for staff at the military’s suburban Ottawa headquarters of the cost of war, and is in a custom-designed hall where it’s safe from vandalism and the elements.

Meanwhile, the Forces believed a public monument close to downtown Ottawa, which hasn’t yet been built, would be the national memorial for Canada’s Afghanistan mission and more accessible to visitors.

The monument at the new headquarters has shiny black plaques featuring each of Canada’s military and civilian war dead and stood for years at Kandahar Airfield, a major Canadian base for the 12-year Afghanistan mission that began after the 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the United States,

Its cenotaph was a constant reminder of the mission’s growing cost.

The memorial was moved to Canada after the end of the combat mission in 2011, toured the country and then put into storage until it was opened last week with a small internal ceremony.

Veterans and families of military members who died in Afghanistan reacted with disappointment and, in some cases, outrage. Some said the quiet opening was a sign the Canadian government wanted to suppress memories of the Afghanistan war in which 158 Canadian soldiers and seven civilians were killed.

“Sadly, in trying to do the right thing by getting the hall opened quickly so people, especially families of the fallen, could arrange to visit, we alienated and angered these same people,” Vance’s statement said.

“Importantly, we also utterly failed to communicate the intent to hold an inclusive event in the future, following the opening of the hall, to properly dedicate the memorial.”

Vance said the memorial hall will be opened to everyone who wishes to visit once security concerns are dealt with.

In the meantime, members of the Forces and their families can schedule visits by emailing AfghanistanMemorial@forces.gc.ca. They can also just show up, present military identification, and will be immediately escorted inside for a visit.

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