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Sgt. Patrick Tower at CFB Edmonton, Alberta December 14, 2006. Tower become the first ever Canadian to receive the Star of Military Valour. The courageous soldier saved at least four comrades in a brutal Afghanistan firefight. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Sgt. Patrick Tower at CFB Edmonton, Alberta December 14, 2006. Tower become the first ever Canadian to receive the Star of Military Valour. The courageous soldier saved at least four comrades in a brutal Afghanistan firefight. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Sgt. Patrick Tower and Maher Arar, 2006 Add to ...

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Sergeant Patrick Tower was on his way to a training course at the military base in Wainwright, Alta. He stopped for an early coffee at the base café, and there learned of the horrific terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

At about the same time, a slumbering Maher Arar awoke to the insistent jangle of the phone in his San Diego hotel room. It was a company colleague, travelling with him on a business trip, calling to tell him to turn on the TV.

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In Wainwright, Sgt. Tower felt a chill go up his spine. For the rest of the day, their agenda scrapped, he and his military mates talked of nothing else. The steely, soft-spoken sergeant quickly concluded that their lives would never be the same.

Once he realized it was no joke, Mr. Arar was equally stunned. No one in San Diego was in the mood to do business, either. He, a Canadian Muslim, and his friend, an American Jew, sat together for the rest of the day and watched the terrible tragedy unfold. Sickened by the deaths of so many innocent people, he, too, thought nothing would ever be the same.

But neither Mr. Arar nor Sgt. Tower had any idea just how dramatic the changes would be. Although different in so many ways, both are products of 9/11, their destinies forever altered by what happened on that clear morning.

Within five years, Sgt. Tower, now 34, would face a High Noon gunfight down a dusty alley in wild, remote Afghanistan.

He would display such courage under fire that he would receive the Star of Military Valour, the highest decoration awarded to a Canadian soldier since the Second World War. But the award came with a heavy price: That day, four Canadian soldiers died. One of them was his best friend.

Barely more than a year after 9/1l, Mr. Arar, 36, would be physically and emotionally traumatized by a Kafkaesque nightmare that included months of torture in a hellish Syrian military prison as an alleged al-Qaeda terrorist -- all the result of erroneous information passed on by the RCMP.

Since his return to Canada in October, 2003, the case of the software engineer has rarely been out of the news, as he struggles to recover from his ordeal and seek justice.

His long campaign culminated this year with the release of two extensive reports by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor of the Ontario Court of Appeal that cleared Mr. Arar, called for him to be compensated and made far-reaching recommendations to safeguard against further egregious mistakes by Canadian security personnel.

For Sgt. Tower's bravery, chosen to represent the heroism of all the soldiers involved in Canada's first military combat mission in more than 50 years, and for Maher Arar's own brand of courage and quiet dignity in his quest for redress, the disparate duo of the soldier and the Muslim Canadian are the twin honorees of The Globe and Mail's Nation Builder Award for 2006.

Both men are modest heroes, insistent on deflecting attention from themselves to others they consider more worthy. Both are proud to be Canadian and proud of what they have achieved. And neither is ready to abandon what they have been fighting for.

Sgt. Tower is determined to go back to Afghanistan. He has already signed up for another mission there in 2008. "I've seen the al-Qaeda training camps. There's nothing that says someone training there isn't going to target Canada," he says. "There's a lot of Canadian blood, people's souls, over there. You can't just up and leave. That term, 'withdrawal with honour.' It's not in my vocabulary."

Mr. Arar's mission also has taken a toll. In addition to its impact on his family and his inability to work, there are lingering shadows from his captivity. He admits there are times when the stress is too much, when he feels like he's 60 years old and yearning "to be on a different planet."

"Does all this mean I am going to stop the fight for justice?" he says. "No. The government should understand that.

"You know what? I am paying a price. But if they think I am going to be quiet, they are wrong. I will never give up. I will go to the end."

Sgt. Tower earned the Star of Military Valour for leading a courageous three-man dash through a hail of enemy fire over 150 metres of open ground to aid a pinned-down group of soldiers that had suffered heavy casualties. The citation said: "Sergeant Tower's courage and selfless devotion to duty contributed directly to the survival of the remaining platoon members."

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