Diana Abel has been surrounded by the Canadian military her entire life.
Her father was a soldier, and she moved around a lot as a young child as his postings changed. She would go on to marry a soldier, and then to have a son, Michael David Abel, who showed an early and keen interest in joining the Canadian Forces himself. He signed up in 1985 and by 1987, he had been accepted into the Canadian Airborne Regiment.
But in early May 1993, Abel and her family were confronted with one of the harshest realities of military life. Sometimes, loved ones don’t come home.
“I relive (it) every time I hear of one of our soldiers losing his life or her life,” Abel told Global News, recalling Michael’s death 25 years ago in Somalia.
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Just 27 at the time, Michael Abel was shot accidentally by a fellow soldier who was cleaning a firearm as the two sat chatting in a tent.
This year, Diana Abel has been named Canada’s Silver Cross Mother, a role bestowed each year by the Royal Canadian Legion. As is the tradition, she will lay a wreath during the Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on behalf of all mothers who have lost children in the service of their country.
“People say, ‘Is this going to be a form of closure?’ But it’s not the closure I’m looking for,” she said. “It’s the actual representation of all Silver Cross Mothers … and also to honour the members of my son’s regiment.”
Michael Abel died instantly from a single gunshot wound to the head, his family was told, becoming the only Canadian casualty in a peacekeeping mission that had been designed to bring stability to war-torn Somalia, but instead ended under a cloud of controversy.
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More than two decades later, his mother says public memory of the mission has faded, but focus still seems to remain on the negative aspects. Those included the savage beating death of a Somali teen at the hands of Canadian soldiers, and the shooting of another unarmed Somali man caught trying to steal supplies. It was dubbed “Canada’s national shame.”
“They came home in disgrace. They were treated very badly when they came home,” Abel said of her son’s fellow soldiers, adding that the majority did their jobs “with absolute respect for Canada.”
“They have served their country well, (and) they are suffering all kinds of problems like PTSD … a number of them are going through their second or third marriage because of it.”
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Abel now remembers her son as an avid skydiver and motorcycle enthusiast who had a soft spot for children and was involved in local Scouting programs and hockey programs in Petawawa.
She received several letters from him during his time in Somalia, and he was just two weeks away from coming home when he died.
“He was of mixed minds when he was there because they were sent in not properly equipped. They went in with winter uniforms,” she recalled, adding that the regiment’s mandate also seemed to be constantly shifting and theft of humanitarian supplies was common.
Abel said she accepted long ago that Michael’s death was an accident, and the fellow soldier who was responsible “has to live with that. I feel sorry for him in that respect.”
On Saturday, Abel will be accompanied by her grandson (the son of her daughter) at the National War Memorial and at various other events throughout the day. She said it’s somewhat surreal to be chosen after watching so many other Silver Cross Mothers fulfil the role on Remembrance Day.
“I am very honoured to be named to this position,” she said. “I take it with great honour to be representing … all the mothers who have lost children – male or female – in combat duty.”