By Murray Brewster and John Ward, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA – As Canadians paid tribute to the 40,000 soldiers who took part in the country’s 12-year Afghanistan conflict, padre Phillip Ralph gave thanks for the small mercies that come with the end of a war.
It means the Baptist minister from Ajax, Ont., will no longer get those three o’clock in the morning telephone calls when there were casualties.
Ralph’s job was to be “a door-knocker” along with another officer and tell families that a loved one wasn’t coming home; a task the reserve force captain of over 20 years carried out five times.
Ralph’s searing, intimate view of the conflict was a world apart from the thundering 21-gun salute, the marching bands, the fly-pasts and the cluster of armoured vehicles that overran Parliament Hill on Friday for a nationally televised commemoration that played down pomp and emphasized practical.
When the country was asked to pause for two minutes of silence (at 1:30 p.m. ET), it was the families to whom Ralph had the “privilege of ministering to” that came to mind.
“On the one hand, some of those families you wish you’d never met under those circumstances, but on the other hand it was a privilege to know such wonderful families who allowed their sons, their daughters, their husbands, their wives to serve,” he said.
Some of those families were among hundreds feted at a closed-door corporate breakfast where many in the close-knit community were able to catch up with one another and proudly thrust photos of their lost loved ones before Ottawa’s political and business elite.
Later in the day, they sat in bleachers on the wind-swept lawn in front of Parliament to witness the display of national appreciation before a crowd of a few thousand mostly uniformed members of the military, veterans and civil servants, some of whom ate their lunch and ducked out when the speeches started.
The national day of honour was billed as a way for a grateful nation to show its appreciation, but outside of Ottawa municipalities and community groups, such as the Royal Canadian Legion, were thrown into a fit of last-minute planning. Some, notably Summerside, P.E.I., even moved their events to Saturday in order to ensure a good turnout.
One of the keynote speakers in Ottawa was a combat engineer who won the Medal of Bravery for crawling into a cramped space to spend two hours defusing an improvised explosive device in 2010.
Sgt. Dale Kurdziel, an engineer from Gagetown, N.B., thanked the country for its support.
“The work was far from easy, the hours long and the danger always present, but one of the most important things that kept us going was the knowledge that we were never far from the thoughts of folks back home,” Kurdziel said.
“Letters from kids all across the country, care packages addressed ‘To any Canadian soldier’ from complete strangers or a quick phone call home to get something as simple as words of encouragement were the things that put a smile on our faces.
“During the tough times, the truly difficult moments … these were the things that helped us make it through.”
It was left to Gov. Gen. David Johnston and Prime Minister Stephen Harper to offer the country’s formal gratitude.
“I’d like to offer you my deepest thanks for your service and your sacrifice,” said Johnston.
“It’s a unique opportunity for us to say thank you to the men and women who have fought and served for Canada,” said Harper. “We are here today to honour their dedication, to honour their heroism and to honour their sacrifice.”
But the political divisions exacerbated by the war were less easy to paper over as both Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau were out of town.
Speaking in Calgary, Trudeau paid tribute to the soldiers.
“I’m not going to play politics with today,” he said. “I’m going to be serene in my support for the men and women in the Canadian Forces and the extraordinary work they did and I’m glad to see that all political parties are united across the country like I am here in Calgary in supporting this day of honour.”
Mulcair, who was in Montreal, put out a statement throwing the spotlight on the ill and injured.
“My thoughts are with the families and loved ones of all those who paid the ultimate price, as well as those who still struggle with the psychological aftermath of this war,” he said.
The military has been faced with a rash of suicides and attempted suicides in a crisis that’s put pressure on the government to live up to its commitment to hire more mental-health professionals.
The Conservatives, who’ve carved at least $2.1 billion out of the defence budget, have also fought bruising battles with veterans over benefits and pensions.
The strain was evident at times, as many of the senior commanders who prosecuted the war, such retired general Rick Hillier, showed up in understated civilian attire and wasn’t seated among the VIPs.
The only thing to distinguish retired lieutenant-general Marc Lessard, who commanded NATO’s entire southern region in Kandahar in 2008, from one of the civilians on the ground was a tiny military order of merit pin on his lapel.
He said he wanted to mingle with the public, but was happy the government hosted the event.
“It was tough for all those that served, but finally, finally we have this day,” he said.
The flash and brass that jazzes up many military ceremonies was toned down. The fly-past involved Chinook and Griffin helicopters, a Hercules, an Airbus and Globemaster transport planes.
These mundane workhorses that carried the loads in the 12-year campaign lumbered over the Peace Tower, stark against a slate-grey sky. They included a hulking Leopard tank and a Bison armoured ambulance; a Coyote reconnaissance vehicle and a long-barrelled M-777 howitzer that can throw a 155-mm projectile 30 kilometres.
A relay of wounded Afghan veterans travelled to Ottawa carrying a baton which held the last Canadian flag flown in Afghanistan. The baton was handed to Harper, who then handed it over to Johnston, the formal commander-in-chief of the Forces.