Sergeant Ed Wadleigh of Deep River, Ont., is a 31-year-old Canadian Forces combat engineer. During his 10 years in the British and Canadian armies, he has served three tours of duty in Afghanistan. On his most recent, from May to November of 2010, he was stationed at Combat Outpost Ballpeen, at the southwest tip of the town of Nakhonay in the Panjwai district. At the time, it was the most frequently attacked Canadian outpost, sometimes coming under fire daily. His seven-person section alone found 35 IEDs.
I am an Afghanistan veteran, and I am not homeless, shell-shocked, drunk or punching walls. I am not the modern version of the scruffy Vietnam vet living in a cardboard box, nor do I pay much mind to the label “Afghan vet.” However, I am forever grateful for the uncertain hand of chance that meant I was able to return home to my family, alive and with all my limbs. I am proud of what we achieved in my time there, even though the final outcome is far from certain.
Sometimes I find myself longing for the stark simplicity of life at a combat outpost. Sometimes I find normal, everyday life to be boring, mundane, insignificant and dull, particularly when compared to the rush and thrill and terror of combat. Sometimes I miss Afghanistan, no matter how insane that thought may seem to the average person.
I miss the daily tragic comedy of life in that place: The insane fearlessness of the Afghan National Army. The goofy, Keystone Kops-meet-Lawrence of Arabia ways of the Afghan Police. The craftiness of our foe, which was surprising given his routine displays of stupidity. The sturdy stoicism, yet outright welcoming nature, of the local elders and kids. I miss the camaraderie of living in spartan, isolated conditions at what seems like the edge of civilization; the dichotomy of a bearded, robed mullah living in a mud hut – with no electricity and toilet facilities best described as “the sidewalk” – sending text messages on a cellphone.
It is a world of violence, death, ancient tribalism, terror – offset by compassion, hope and kindness.
Most of all, I miss being privileged to witness acts of courage and heroism that will never be spoken of or known to many Canadians.
It’s not all rose-tinted spectacles. There’s a lot I don’t miss: The heat. The daily roll of the dice where you don’t know what you’re going to head into or whether you’ll come back out. The study of a foot path for any ground sign to see if there are things there that shouldn’t be. The high-pitched, staccato beep of a metal detector that has found metal.
And worse things: The smell of blood baking in the 2 p.m. sun. The discovery that not all wasps are vegetarian. The smell of detonated homemade explosive. The fizzing, rushing sound of a rocket-propelled grenade, knowing that this time it’s really close to you. The knowledge that a very bad day in your part of the world means that somewhere, eight hours west of you, someone else with a heart full of love who is now asleep is going to have their world destroyed in about five hours’ time. And knowing all too well the meaning of the phrase Angel Flight.
I would love to live up to the stereotype that I did it all for my country. But in all honesty, if you had asked us at the time, very few of us would have been able to say we were in Afghanistan because it was the right thing to do. We were all there for our own reasons – be it to prove oneself, to play your part in a grand adventure, or simply to get in scraps and gunfights for a few months and to fuck shit up. But one thing we all know having returned is that we were there – and those who weren’t will either forever wish they had been, or at least will never understand what exactly there means.
But if I could ask one thing of all Canadians for Remembrance Day, it would be this: Spare not a thought for the fallen. Think instead of those left behind, the families. All soldiers join knowing the risks, and all soldiers deploy to wars even more aware of those risks, and are willing to take them, for themselves, for the challenge, or simply because it is expected. But no family freely offers their loved one up. No family truly thinks it could happen to their loved one. But in the end, it is they who pay the sacrifice long after their loved one is gone. Think of them, remember them, this November 11.