My maternal grandparents lost their only son in the Second World War.
They and their eight daughters could only imagine what his life could have been. But they never stopped being thankful for what his short life represented to their future: freedom, peace and opportunity. And they never lost their perspective on the power of war to change lives, and alter the course of history.
Sgt. Neil John Kidney was two months short of his 22nd birthday when his plane was shot down during a bombing raid over Europe in 1944.
He left behind his parents, his sisters and a grateful nation.
He also had a small role in creating an astonishing legacy of sacrifice and heroism that has been built upon again and again by Canadian soldiers.
But in many ways his life, and death, remain far more personal.
What he represented for our family is not uncommon: 64,944 Canadians died in the First World War, nearly one per cent of the total population at the time; 44,093 Canadians died in the Second World War; another 516 Canadians died in the Korean War; 110 Canadians died in the Vietnam War, fighting for the American military; 133 Canadians have died in Afghanistan, and the conflict is nowhere near over; hundreds more Canadian military members have died in the service of their country during peacetime.
And each one of those lives was incomplete. Each one of those lost lives left an unfathomable void in the lives of family and friends.
For the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, the sorrow is no doubt far too raw to allow reflection.
But reflection, years later, can give a clear, edifying perspective on war.
Thirty-two years after my uncle died, my mother stood over his gravesite in Harrogate, Yorkshire, England, and wept. I assumed as I stood beside her in 1976 that she was simply mourning her brother.
But years later, as her grandsons reached the same age, she confessed that her tears came in part because she was so thankful. Her five sons were all near or in their 20s in 1976 and she knew that we would likely never be asked to make the sacrifice her brother did.
Her tears were her way of thanking him for helping ensure her sons were safe; that their lives could be lived to their fullest.
As she related this to me earlier this year, she did so because she recognized that the world had turned again, and now her grandsons’ generation was at risk; maybe not at risk to the degree her brother was, but certainly at greater risk than at any time in decades.
And she was right — our young soldiers are again sacrificing their lives at the request of their nation. Certainly many Canadians don’t believe we should remain involved in the conflict in Afghanistan. But that doesn’t make us any less thankful for the sacrifices these young men make on our behalf.
We should never lose sight of the fact that our lives of freedom, peace and opportunity came at great cost, and that cost continues to be paid on our behalf by young men and women.
Soldiers like my uncle lived only briefly. But the enduring memory of their sacrifice has had a powerful influence on the world. It should not be forgotten.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.