OTTAWA, Ont. – Was it all worth it?
It is a brutally awkward question, especially when posed in the context of Afghanistan.
There is no shortage of people opining about the now-concluded military mission that morphed into a costly, bloody humanitarian exercise.
But few of those voices truly count as much as the ones who’ve stayed largely silent through the tempest of this war – the families of the fallen, some of whom are speaking up for the first time in a series of interviews with The Canadian Press.
Flags that dotted the highway of heroes are folded and put away, and now as the nation moves on, these people will continue to quietly bear the burden – our burden.
They will be left to ponder that uncomfortable question, more deeply and personally than the rest of us, and long after we have stopped trying to answer it for them.
As the last 100 soldiers rush into the warmth of home this week, these people will still have empty places at the dining room table and cling to the mementoes of lives inexorably cut short.
And although the scale of casualties from Afghanistan pales in comparison to the unmitigated slaughter of the First and Second World Wars, they say the grief and sense of loss is no less sharp.
There were 158 Canadian soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors who died over the dozen years Canada’s military spent in both Kandahar and Kabul. Here are their families’ words:
Despite the investment of blood and treasure, the Afghanistan being left behind is far from peaceful and secure.
It teeters dangerously on a knife’s edge and that’s led Michael Hornburg of Calgary – who lost his son 24-year-old Cpl. Nathan Hornburg – to question why the West stayed after it was clear al-Qaeda had been routed in 2001-02.
“I think the Taliban got the message right away about not to shelter the al-Qaeda training bases there,” said Hornburg, recalling the bright September 2007 fall day when three officers came knocking on his door to announce that his “best friend” was lost to him.
“While I support human rights all over the world, in many ways I don’t understand why our Canadian Armed Forces would be there to stabilize Afghanistan.”
Michael Hornburg, who used to read classic literature out loud to his son even into his teenage years, said he tried to convince the boy to become a firefighter, or a cop, rather than a soldier. Their last 25 minute overseas phone conversation, the day before Nathan died, remains seared into his memory.
“From what (Nathan) told us privately and said publicly, he wanted to go and provide a better way of life for women and girls,” he said.
“He was always a very, very strong supporter in his life here in Calgary for the rights of women and girls, but I just don’t know that was worth his life. You know? For a worthless ass piece of (the) Rigestan Desert.”
Other families, including Anne Snyder – whose son Capt. Jon Snyder, 26, died in 2008 – wonder if the Afghans wanted the West there at all.
“Were we fighting a losing battle?” said Snyder, of Head of Jeddore, N.S.
When she sees the persistent, grinding poverty of the Afghan people and unabated violence, including last week’s bloody attack on the Kandahar intelligence headquarters, Snyder says you can’t help but ask questions.
“I don’t want to think my son died for nothing,” she said.
Her way of honouring Jon, who was posthumously awarded the country’s second-highest military medal for bravery, is to counsel other families of the fallen, including most recently relatives of suicide victims. She’s also dedicated a portion of her garden to him where poppies and lilies return each year.
Beverley Skaalrud, whose son Pte. Braun Woodfield, 24, lost his life in 2005, wrestles with questions of political accountability and wonders if the country was mentally and physically ready for war in Kandahar.
“I feel we sent an ill prepared, inadequately equipped, enthusiastic and honourable military team into an area that was beyond our scope and means,” said Skaalrud, who lives in Airdrie, Alta.
“Did we draw the short straw? Was there political gain to be had by someone?”
Her son was proud to serve, but she isn’t convinced the government – both Liberal and Conservative – did enough to support the troops when they were in the field.
LINCOLN AND LAURIE DINNING
Cpl. Matthew Dinning would have celebrated his 31st birthday last weekend and is never far from the thoughts of his parents – Lincoln and Laurie Dinning – since his death in roadside bombing on April 22, 2006.
He believed the Canadian presence was making a difference and that’s all the validation his mother and father needed to hear.
“The soldiers who went over there really believed they could make a change,” said Laurie Dinning, of Wingham, Ont.
“Of course, from a parent’s point of view, the loss of a child is something we’ll never get over. We certainly have been able to move forward in our lives with lots of support from family and friends.”
Every Christmas the family puts two little Christmas trees alongside his grave with purple decorations marking each year since he’s been gone.
Being prepared to give up their lives is second nature to soldiers, and that possibility is something that haunts every military family. But the unlimited liability is not something you expect in the diplomatic service.
Their job is to prevent and war, not become one of its victims. But that’s what happened to Glynn Berry, 59, the political director of the Kandahar provincial reconstruction base, on January 15, 2006 when a suicide bomber smashed a vehicle into a military convoy.
His widow, Valerie Berry, has never spoken publicly. Like every other family interviewed by The Canadian Press, she said she was relieved to see final 100 troops are now safely out of harm’s way.
“From a purely personal perspective I am thankful our troops are returning home after having performed bravely and steadfastly in a very difficult situation, one that it would appear couldn’t possibly have been won in such a relatively short time,” she said.
Berry’s memory is kept alive in number of professional and personal ways, including a memorial scholarship at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, an annual lecture series on foreign and defence policy, and the awarding of a memorial cup at the annual Canada-Wales rugby match in Cardiff – something Valerie Berry says “would have made Glyn beam with pride because as well as world affairs and family he was passionate about the game of rugby and proud of his Welsh roots.”
She continues to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and does special things they normally enjoyed together, such as a walk in the woods amongst the deer or lunch out at a local pub.
“Sometimes, when I’m not sure how to go forward, I ask myself, ‘What would Glyn have said?’ and the answer comes to me.”
Raynald Bouthillier has immortalized his son and the images of other Canadian soldiers on the side of one of his tractor trailers, which rumbles over the highways and byways of northern Ontario.
Trooper Jack Bouthillier, 20, was killed in a roadside bombing in March 2009 and his father harbours “no doubt whatsoever” and doesn’t debate the merits of the mission with himself.
Bouthillier equates the war with the plight of first responders.
“They are ready to take risk to help others, and I think that’s why we went there in Afghanistan,” he said.
“After the World Trade Centre attack, there was no way the world could stay there and do nothing. I think it’s a bummer I lost my son, but you know, I’m not the only one. Many people there did sacrifice.”
For him, it’s not about the cause, it’s about the kind of man his son was, and what he represents to others.
“We’re so proud of the choice of career (that) Jack chose, and what he did with his life. He said, ‘I’m going to do my job as a Canadian and I’m going to give all the support I can to the (Afghan) people.”‘
WAS IT WORTH IT?
If there is something that binds all of the families together beyond their shared grief and sense of loss, it’s the belief that despite the opaque, uncertain ending to this war, their loved ones stood for something more than themselves.
“To say that our involvement was not worth it would be to dishonour my husband and everything for which he stood and everything towards which he worked during his long career,” said Valerie Berry.
“It hasn’t been a perfect conclusion and there is still instability and conflict in the region and a lot more to accomplish by the Afghans themselves but I believe that the quality of life has changed for the better for many people in Afghanistan, partly due to our involvement. Was it worth sacrificing lives? I suppose my thought is that we all die one day and if it is in serving one’s country in the most honourable way possible, then one can ask for nothing more.”
The sense of conviction among each of the fallen is something Anne Snyder clings to as she talks her way through her pain.
“I don’t want to think he died for no reason, and that’s were I’m sort of thinking perhaps it was worth it to him,” she said. “He did say he was doing the job he was supposed to do and he was being successful. He used to say to me, ‘Don’t be afraid, I am where I should be.”‘
While she may not believe it was worth it for Canada, Skaalrud, also fiercely proud of her son, described his desire to help the people of Afghanistan as honourable.
“Was it worth it? No. I don’t believe it was worth Canada’s human cost,” she said. “I can only hope, that the women and children of Afghanistan have gained a taste of freedom that will compel them to fight for it themselves.”
If there is nobility in sacrifice, there is also a tempered generosity of spirit and an expectation that the people whom Canadians fought for will show themselves worthy of what these families have given up.
“Our family hopes the Afghan people will embrace what our soldiers have done for them and just make their country what it should be,” said Laurie Dinning.