Every single day, she remembers.
But during the first 11 days of November, Leona Stock can take those memories to a special spot for her son Stephan. His name is written on a white cross adorned with his picture, a Canadian flag and a poppy in Calgary’s Field of Crosses.
It was at a high school career day where Stephan first learned about a possible future with the Canadian Armed Forces and took on training a short time later to become a combat engineer.
“He was hooked,” Leona recounted.
Stephan hugged his mom, dad and brother goodbye in February 2008 when he was deployed to Afghanistan. He was 24 years old.
Six months later, he was killed in the line of duty.
“He was killed Aug. 20, 2008,” Leona explained as tears filled her eyes. “They hit an IED (improvised explosive device.) Three of them didn’t make it.
“Sometimes it’s just fine, I can talk about Stephan. But then other times it’s just very… it’s emotional and I don’t think that will ever go away. It’s just something that stays with you.”
Leona and her husband were able to go to Afghanistan for Remembrance Day in 2009.
They found solace standing on the same soil their son once did, and also meeting and connecting with other parents who shared their unthinkable fate.
“It did a lot of healing for my husband and I,” Leona said.
“It’s just unbelievable what it can do — meeting and talking to people that are going through the same (things) as you.”
It’s a pain that will never go away, but the emotions are even more raw this year with what has unfolded in Afghanistan as the Taliban have once again taken control of the country.
Military Family Resource Centres (MFRC) across the country offer a spectrum of services and resources for all veterans’ families, including those of the fallen.
“One thing we ensure is we are always there for them,” said Calgary MFRC executive director Warren Hartwell.
“While this week is a particular focus on remembrance, we’re there 365 days a year, because that ultimate sacrifice never goes away. It’s there every day of the year and we’re there every day of the year as well.”
Hartwell has seen the impact the situation in Afghanistan has had on Alberta families first hand and his team has not only provided continued support, but also picked up the phone to check in.
“We’ll use warm calls, just to reach out to families and just ask that simple question, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Is there anything that we can support you with?'”
And those phone calls have made a lot of difference in the last few months, according to Hartwell. MFRC Calgary operations manager Cassie Reeves said there’s been two main emotions.
“For some people it’s been avoidance. When they’ve seen the news, (they) turn off the television and avoid the situation,” Reeves said.
“For the other family members, I think they’ve just taken comfort in what it was — the purpose their sons and daughters, husbands and wives were sent to Afghanistan for. There was a reason for it.”
“There are pieces families don’t have control over,” Hartwell said. “But one thing we’ve noticed from our family and the feedback they received is how proud they are. How proud they are representing Canada as a country and the impact their sons and daughters had in Afghanistan.”
“We’ve had a lot of members reach out, expressing their desire that they need to talk to other people who have been in the same situation as them as well,” Reeves said.
MFRC actually held a meeting in Lethbridge for veterans to share their feelings, be pointed to resources and to create that sense of community.
“People needed to bond together with other people that understand the situation they’ve been in,” Reeves said.
That is something Leona knows all too well. She has reached out to the MFRC and connected with families.
While she had no way of knowing that goodbye embrace in 2008 would be the last time she would hug her son, she finds immense pride in knowing he followed his passion and made a difference.
“It’s hard seeing his friends get married and have kids,” Leona said.
As she stood in the Field of Crosses, she said there is one thing she will make her mission.
“We just want to make sure he’s not forgotten, and that means so much to our family.”