With our mission here definitely winding down, there is an incredible amount of work to be done just to finish things off. This has meant some very long days for pretty much everyone as the calendar rolled over from June to July.
Hundreds of troops, along with their vehicles, weaponry and wide assortment of equipment, have been making their way in from our two districts, while concurrently the Mission Closure Unit has been arriving from Canada to execute the somewhat daunting task of sorting, packing and shipping the tons of materiel that have accumulated over the past five years. In short, everyone has been working flat-out for the past month and the opportunity to take a pause for part of an afternoon could not have been better timed.
Canada Day started with free coffee, donuts and ball-caps for the troops, courtesy of Tim Hortons. Soon enough the area around our quarters was a sea of red ball caps which, if nothing else, served to indicate the popularity of our iconic coffee shop. Adding a little bit of humour to the day, actor Mike “Bubbles” Smith of Trailer Park Boys and TV personality Rick Mercer, who came over to cheer the troops along with a small troupe of entertainers, got behind the counter to serve the soldiers. I am not sure of the popularity of Trailer Park Boys or the Rick Mercer Report in Quebec, but I can say that there was more than one surprised recipient of a double-double.
Over at Regional Command South, our higher headquarters here in Kandahar province, the Canadian staff opted to take a lunch break and serve a “Stampede Brunch” complete with real maple syrup and the now ubiquitous ball caps. Adding to the veritable tidal wave of red, additional hats were broken out which had been donated by the Royal Canadian Legion to every Canadian Forces member serving in Afghanistan. Although perhaps less artistic than the ladies; hats found on Parliament Hill with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, there is something about the simple maple leaf which I think most soldiers found appealing. Adding to the festive atmosphere all of the Team Canada members, including Mercer, Bubbles, Amanda Rheaume and André-Philippe Gagnon, came over for pancakes and scrambled eggs, mingling with the crowd in the 40-plus degree heat.
For the rest of the afternoon and into the early evening, work continued. Bluntly put, there is too much to do to be able to take a full day off. Vehicles and weapons still need to be cleaned of the ever-present dust, kit must get packed and stored away and there is always another piece of paperwork which seems to demand attention. In some ways it is like trying to move a small town, while concurrently keeping an accurate picture of where everything is in the process. This would be difficult enough without always accounting for weapons, ammunition and the mountain of documents which accompany military operations. That being said though, by late afternoon, it was becoming evident that it was time for another break, and as ever increasing numbers of us finished working for the day, we made our way back to our quarters and Canada House.
By supper time, the atmosphere at Canada House was starting to feel electric. Part of it was likely the decorations and dance music which permeated the place; part of it was also the fact that we were all authorized two free beer to go along with our barbecue dinner. Within a short period of time, the sand and gravel street in front of the quarters was awash with soldiers and Canadian civilian staff in a mix of uniforms, civilian clothing and the now ever-present red hats. Music mixed with conversation, which inevitably seemed to turn to a discussion of how few days remained until different flights were headed home, what activities folks were planning for during their four days off in Cyprus, and just how glad people were to be departing Afghanistan.
Once the sun set, the concert began and everyone moved to surround the stage in Maple Leaf Square. Hosted by Mercer, the show seemed to have something for everyone. Ottawa-area artist Rheaume opened the show, playing a mix of cover songs and original material. Like many of the team and many of us now here, this was not her first trip to Kandahar. Bubbles immediately followed, guitar in hand, and had the crowd roaring with laughter. His songs are not in the category of “family entertainment” but they did work for the crowd which was in front of him. Closing the show, the man of a million voices, Gagnon, wowed the crowd with a history of rock and roll. Knowing that the vast majority of our soldiers were born about 30 years after Elvis Presley first took the stage, I was surprised by the reaction of the crowd, which gave round after round of applause as the show continued. After the show, the entertainers stayed on hand late into the evening, posing for pictures and signing autographs for all who asked.
Watching the news from home and seeing the coast-to-coast celebrations that took place, it all seems a little surreal. There was a time, not that long ago, that outpourings of national sentiment like we had here, or people had at home, would not have been either as significant or as meaningful as they seem to be for many Canadians. Flags and bunting, red t-shirts and overt patriotism are not things we see on a daily basis, but on Canada Day, particularly in Kandahar, I think a little bit of national pride and visible happiness at being Canadian are not bad things.
Lieutenant-Colonel Tod Strickland is Assistant Chief of Staff for Task Force 5-10, and member of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan.