Afghanistan vets slam Canada’s military over failure to award service medal
Canadian soldiers who served in Afghanistan were supposed to receive service medals for their part in combatting terrorism.
But more than four years after the mission ended, that promise still hasn’t been honoured.
The medal is the South-West Asia Service Medal (SWASM), awarded to those who serve 90 days in direct support of operations against terrorism in Southwest Asia from Sept. 11, 2001 to July 31, 2009.
Veterans of the war in Afghanistan who spoke with Global News say despite a promise from the Canadian military they never received the SWASM because the name of the mission changed.
“[Medals] are the most important things in a soldier’s military career,” said Michael Blois, a former master corporal who served two tours in Afghanistan and also served in Bosnia.
“When the government or the military says ‘we are going to award something to you’ and then changes the position and never awards it to you, it is an insult to us.”
Blois was injured during a nighttime firefight near Panjwaii district in Kandahar. Rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) struck the walls around his LAV as he sat in the turret spraying machine-gun fire at insurgents.
He was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury from the blasts of the RPGs and ended his military career.
“I lost one soldier in my section,” he said. “I’ve lost countless friends… and I’m still losing friends to things like suicide.”
WATCH: Michael Blois shares his story of being critically injured while serving Afghanistan
Blois, the former president of the Afghanistan Veterans of Canada and now a lawyer based in Toronto, said despite earlier promises made by top military officials, he and many others weren’t awarded the SWASM medal as the Afghanistan mission changed in the summer of 2006 from the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom to the NATO International Security Assistance Force.
“The service in Afghanistan didn’t change from the operation before mine where it was awarded to the one I was on,” he said. “We were still fighting terrorism, we were still in Southwest Asia. So there is confusion over why it was never awarded.”
Blois received the General Campaign Star, which is awarded to soldiers who serve overseas in the presence of an enemy, for his service in Afghanistan but said he and other soldiers should receive the SWASM.
Mark Levangie, who served a tour in Afghanistan in 2007, said while he was honoured to receive the General Campaign Star it doesn’t specifically recognize those who served in Afghanistan.
“We were promised the entire time we were getting both medals and we didn’t,” Levangie said. “The medal that we did get didn’t accurately represent our service in Afghanistan.”
The SWASM medal depicts Hydra, a multi-headed serpent of Greek mythology that symbolizes international terrorism. The Hydra is transfixed by a Canadian sword and over the design is the Latin phrase, “ADVERSUS MALUM PUGNAMUS” or “We are fighting evil.”
“The cost to mint these medals would be fairly minimal compared to the sacrifices made,” Levangie said.
Levangie has started a petition calling for the SWASM to be issued to all those who qualify, which has received more than 3,100 signatures as of Thursday morning.
“I served in Afghanistan in 2006-07 during Operation Medusa. And again in 2008-09. We were told we would be receiving this medal and told later that we would not receive it due [to] the mission name change,” wrote Rodney Pollard from Waterville, Ont. “My experience, the mission difficulty or danger did not lower or lessen because the government decided to change its name. All veterans deserve this medal being there or anywhere that they qualify for it.”
Operation Medusa was a Canadian-led offensive in 2006 to drive the Taliban from the Zhari and Panjwaii districts near Kandahar. Twelve Canadian soldiers lost their lives in the fighting.
Canada’s Department of National Defence said the SWASM medal was phased out in 2009 and that as of June 1, 2012, a total of 12,688 SWASM medals have been handed out.
“The Department of National Defence places high importance on recognizing the sacrifices and efforts made by members of the Canadian Armed Forces,” a spokesperson for National Defence said in an email. “Until July 31, 2009, there were two different medals for two different types of service in Afghanistan: The South-West Asia Service Medal with an Afghanistan bar for all non-NATO service, mostly under the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF); and the General Campaign Star – South-West Asia for all NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) service.”
“[The] Canadian Honours Policy precludes dual recognition, meaning that one can only count a specific service toward one particular campaign or service medal.”
Conservative MP James Brassard, who represent Levangie’s riding and whom the petition was addressed, said he is aware of the issue and is in contact with National Defence critic James Bezan.
“The SWASM medal is an issue we are aware of and we are in communication with the petition sponsor,” a spokesperson told Global News. “We are watching with interest as the numbers of signatures increase.”
Global News reached out to Defence Minister Harjitt Sajjan’s office who declined to comment.
Blois and Levangie said this is another example of the federal government’s failure when it comes to the Veterans Affairs file.
“The mission has ended in Afghanistan and there hasn’t been a whisper, or any talk of addressing this mess,” said Levangie. “This is just one more drop in the bucket for all the different things that are wrong with the government and Canadian forces recognizing and appreciating soldiers.”
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