Though just four Afghanistan veterans were honoured at a “welcome home” celebration in Esquimalt last weekend, the event was not without a lot of heart.
“There were some things (over which) I got choked up,” said Leading Seaman Gareth Eley, one of the few CFB Esquimalt personnel and Afghanistan veterans who attended the appreciation event on Saturday at the Esquimalt Dockyard branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
Similar ‘welcome home ceremonies are happening across Canada, spearheaded by legion representatives at the national level, and coinciding with the recent end to Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan.
Veterans were also invited to celebrations at branches in Victoria and on the West Shore.
“We thought, why not reach out and welcome them home and maybe give them a little hug and a handshake and a smile,” said Ches Dicks, president of the Esquimalt Dockyard branch. “It didn’t happen for us, it was unfortunate.”
Still, the event was well-attended by Rear-Admiral Nigel Greenwood, representing the West Coast fleet, Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins and Randall Garrison, MP for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, and legion branch members.
Regardless of the turnout, Eley said he wouldn’t have missed it.
“I thought it’d be a good way to show the community that people (from CFB Esquimalt) have gone (to Afghanistan) because this is a navy community and there aren’t many of us that have gone,” said Eley, who served in Kandahar, Afghanistan from October 2009 to May 2010.
Another reason for the low attendance may be that Afghanistan veterans don’t see themselves as veterans.
“I’m starting to get used to the fact that I’m called a vet,” Eley said. “When you see veterans, I think Second World War.”
Poor timing may also have been a factor since many military personnel are now on holidays, said Sara Helmeczi, base public affairs officer.
About 330 personnel from the naval base were deployed with Task Force Afghanistan in the past 11 rotations, she said, adding that in that time some members may have been posted to other bases following their tours of duty.
Still, the ceremony reflects the important role that legion members play in honouring the role of the veteran, said Capt. Grant Whittla, who served in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2004-2005.
“I think by publicly recognizing the 10 years that we’ve been in Afghanistan, it maintains that commitment to the Canadian Forces in the eyes of the public that I think was lost during the Balkan conflict and the peacekeeping missions,” Whittla said.