by Tod Strickland It is funny and strange to find oneself sitting on a deckchair beside the Mediterranean Sea, enjoying a glass of scotch and a good cigar, looking up at the stars and realizing that a year and a half of effort is now behind you.
When I started preparing for this past mission to Afghanistan, the Olympics in Vancouver had just finished with Sidney Crosby scoring his “golden goal” and the people of Canada celebrating--proud, excited and with a little bit of flag-waving thrown in. Now, almost 18 months later, it seems like a lifetime ago.
Soon after the closing ceremonies for the games I found myself driving to Petawawa, Ontario to start setting up a new Brigade Headquarters with the specific task of commanding the last combat mission to Afghanistan. I was to be a section head, looking after all national/strategic issues with responsibility for eight different headquarter cells. Now it is done, and I am within 24 hours from landing at home in Ottawa.
As part of the process of coming home, the Canadian Forces mandates a forced pause in a third nation, apart from both the conflict zone and our home stations in Canada itself. The basic purpose behind this is to allow troops who have been in combat to readjust to the new reality that they are going back to, essentially, life at home. For men and women who have been working for an extended period of time in a war zone, this is an important part of being able to successfully reintegrate back into society at large, and with their families in particular. There are no uniforms, a minimum amount of imposed timings (curfews and briefings) and the opportunity to relax and reflect on the experiences that they have just shared.
The first two missions I participated in (Bosnia) did not have the benefit of this program, and challenges were omnipresent when troops got off the plane. Personally, I had problems with large crowds, and still remember having to walk out of a grocery store; there were just too many people present for me to be able to function in what can only be termed a hyper-vigilant state.
When I came home in 2006, from my first mission in Afghanistan, this type of program was in its infancy. Now it is fully developed, and between classes and the opportunity to participate in recreational activities, it is making the transition from Kandahar Air Field (KAF) to Canada a lot easier.
In addition to the stated aims and goals of the program, there are some unstated ones that matter just as much. The first is enabling people to blow off some steam out of view of their loved ones, in a semi-controlled, safe environment. The staff here are a mix of military and civilian and they exercise their responsibilities in a fashion which allows troops to relax, while still remaining cognizant of the fact that they are Canadian soldiers and their conduct has to remain at an expected level.
A second goal is forcing the realization that you are out of a war zone, and that there are limited controls or boundaries put upon you. After being in combat, with a regimented command structure, and myriad policies covering everything from how you dress, to when you eat, to sudden alarms warning when rockets are coming in, it is a bit of a shock to realize that you are out of that type of environment. You actually have the freedom to choose what you do, when you do it and who you do it with. In some ways it might be comparable to a prisoner being granted parole.
A third, and probably more important aspect of the program, is it gives time to reflect on what you have seen and done over the duration of your time away from home. The most obvious question, certainly on my mind, is whether it was worth it.
The question is probably the most loaded one I have recently read. How do you define whether or not almost 11 months in a combat zone and an additional six months of pre-deployment training are “worth it?” For a simple question, it has more than a few layers.
From a national and institutional level, the costs are incredibly high. Canada has lost 157 soldiers, a diplomat, a reporter, and two aid workers since it first began its involvement in Afghanistan back in 2002. Some of these were killed in combat, others in accidents, and some took their own lives. Each of these deaths are tragic and sad in their own way, and affected families, friends and the nation as a whole.
From a separate perspective, there is the sheer amount of money that was spent on our mission. I cannot even offer a guess at what the expense was in dollars, but I do know that war is neither cheap nor cost effective. There is no simple financial cost-benefit model which would show that war is a good investment. All of us have our own views on whether the money could have been better spent at home, or devoted to aid projects abroad. I have only two arguments in response: first that without security, aid projects do not get implemented and second that sometimes the cost of not going to war is far higher in both financial and human terms.
For Canada, and the Canadian military, there were benefits that accrued as a result of our involvement in Afghanistan. We have demonstrated our support to the people of Afghanistan, and we have improved their lives. Between schools and roads built by our engineers, aid projects that were enabled by the security we brought to Kandahar, and the massive irrigation project known as the Dhala Dam, we have made a difference. Our military is now better trained and equipped than at almost any point in its history. I do not know if these justify the expense in lives or money, but I would argue that they do show a difference was made.
Similarly, there are costs on the personal level. I have now devoted over 18 months of my adult life to this mission, in theatre, which is time that I was not with my family. I have long since given up the birthdays and holidays which I have missed, not to mention the family celebrations, the little moments that take place every day in a marriage, or the quiet times at the end of the day sitting on my deck just enjoying a pause. These, of course, pale in comparison to those of soldiers who come back to broken marriages and empty houses as a result of being overseas.
But equally, I cannot doubt that I have also benefited from my experiences. I have become far more physically fit than I was before I deployed; constant time spent in the gym or running the roads around the airfield will do that. I have also been able to provide for my family and build a life where we are happy and enjoy the moments when we are together. Deployments also tend to force you to focus on what is important, and to realize who you are. I think I am a better man because of what I have seen and done; I know I am a better officer and leader than I would be had I not been on missions abroad.
However, now it is time to go home. It feels very, very good to be done, and to be about to go on a little bit of leave for the remainder of the summer. Thoughts of sitting at home with my wife Zoe, seeing my family and throwing a steak or two on the barbeque all seem far more likely than they did less than a week ago. I cannot wait.
Lieutenant-Colonel Tod Strickland has been serving as Assistant Chief of Staff for Task Force 5-10 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and is a member of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry.