A wave of nostalgia hit Maj. Jason Snider on Tuesday as the last Canadian troops to serve in Afghanistan arrived home.
Snider, deputy commanding officer of the 20th Field Regiment of the 78th Field Battery in Red Deer, was in Edmonton to meet the group as they stepped off the CC-130 Hercules.
The group included one soldier from his own unit who had been stationed in the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif for the past several months.
It was a moment that stirred up thoughts from Snider’s own time in Afghanistan, the soldier and Crown prosecutor said.
Snider worked as part of the Observer, Mentor and Liaison Team during his eight months overseas in 2008, embedded with the Afghan military to train the new force.
“There was virtually no Afghan army in 2002 and now it’s hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.
“When you have an army that expands like that over a short period of time, you essentially have to show them how to be a professional army.”
He worked closely with the district leader of the Zhari district, west of Kandahar City, and the chief of police as the police force was also expanding nationally at a fast rate.
One particular day on tour that Snider said he remembers vividly was when an army vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device just outside where he was primarily stationed at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Wilson in the Zhari district.
“Four soldiers died that day and a number of others were injured. … We ended up dealing with the causalities. … Those kind of moments stand out for you.”
He also can clearly recall the day 36-year-old Cpl. Michael Starker of Calgary was killed.
“He was operating with people I worked with there out on a patrol in Pashmul when they got in a firefight with the Taliban and he was shot. … It’s unfortunate the vivid memories are the ones of people dying but it is what you take with you.”
Snider said he has hope for the war-ravaged country.
“It was nice to see, leaving our FOB, when we’d drive by the school and see Afghan children going to school. They couldn’t do that before. But they could do that in the shadow of a military place. And now to see the statistics and the accounts of all the kids going to school, it gives you hope,” he said.
“With the literacy rate rising, people getting an education and with a legitimate economy, there is some hope. … It’s such a long road though.”
To mark the official end of Canada’s 12-year-long mission in Afghanistan and commemorate the more than 40,000 soldiers deployed throughout that time, flags flew at half mast on March 12, including those at the City of Red Deer and Central Alberta schools.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced May 9 as a National Day of Honour for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.
One hundred and fifty-eight members of the Canadian military died in Afghanistan since troops were posted in 2002.
Two civilian contractors, a diplomat and a journalist also died. Over 40 of them are from Alberta.
The 158th was 28-year-old Master Cpl. Byron Greff, who grew up in Lacombe.
Greff was killed in a suicide car bombing near Kabul on Oct. 29, 2011.
He was the first Canadian soldier to be killed as part of the NATO mission to train Afghan military and police forces after Canada’s role in Afghanistan switched from combat to training in 2011. He is survived by his wife Lindsay and two young children.
Greff family members said they have no comment about the end of the mission.
Cpl. Bombardier Matthew Pylychaty of Red Deer served two tours in Afghanistan, one in 2006 and one in 2008, for a total of 14 months.
“People ask why I went back in 2008 and it was because so many guys I knew and grew up with were going; I didn’t want to be the one that didn’t,” said the 27-year-old who now works as a ConocoPhillips technician in Fort McMurray.
Pylychaty said at least another five men from his high school, Notre Dame, went on tour with him.
“We were there to do a job and we went there to do it in the most professional manner that we could,” he said.
“You could definitely notice some progress from 2006 to 2008; their military seemed to be becoming more self-sufficient.”
Snider agreed to an extent but noted it’s hard to comment, especially from an individual soldier’s point of view, on how the mission has shaped Afghanistan’s future.
“You realize very quickly when you’re over there that you’re one small piece of a very large, multinational mission. … Certainly I saw progress while I was there, but I can’t really comment on the rest of the country or if it’s been maintained,” Snider said.
“We won’t really know how successful this was for a decade or more. This country is so poor and so much of the economy over the last decade has either been opium or foreign aid so for them to get off of that and into a stable economy is a long road.”