Family members wept and hugged each other as almost 100 soldiers departed Canadian Forces Base Gagetown on Monday night for Afghanistan to train troops from that nation.
The soldiers are the start of a wave of troops that will relieve the first rotation of military personnel who have been working with the country's security forces since last summer.
About 50 soldiers from the New Brunswick base joined another 50 from elsewhere in Atlantic Canada as they embarked on a mission aimed at strengthening the ability of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to quell the insurgency.
“This role is historic not only for Canada but for Afghanistan itself,” said Lieutenant.-Colonel Alex Ruff, commander of the Second Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment.
“It is providing the capabilities to allow Afghanistan to develop as a country and be able to do everything they need to do on their own,” he said.
Around 950 military personnel have been stationed in and around Kabul since July, providing classroom instruction to Afghan soldiers and police while also mentoring medical staff.
Small contingents of Canadian trainers have also been deployed to the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west, near the border with Iran.
Troops have arrived in the area in rotations and serve an average of eight months in theatre.
One soldier died last fall as part of the training mission, which the federal government initially described as “low risk.”
Master Corporal Byron Greff of the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry was killed when the vehicle he was riding in was struck by a powerful suicide car bomb on Oct. 29.
Lee Windsor, deputy director of the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick, said Canada's sacrifices in Afghanistan have earned troops respect with their Afghan counterparts.
“That record of combat experience and that knowledge of the unique circumstances of the Afghan environment gives Canadian advisers in the Afghan training schools the credibility they need in order to be respected,” Windsor said.
Though Canada has shifted its focus to training, fighting in Afghanistan has continued amid talk of negotiations with the Taliban and preparations for the handover of greater security responsibilities to the Afghan government.
The United Nations released a report earlier this month that concluded that last year was the deadliest on record for Afghan civilians, with 3,021 killed — an increase of eight per cent from the year before.
Private Justin Dolan, 22, from Miramichi, N.B., is making his first trip to Afghanistan.
“It's a very rewarding opportunity. I can't wait to get over there,” he said Monday night.
Still, he said it was going to be difficult spending eight months away from his family.
“We'll be able to communicate by phone and over the Internet,” he said as he held his 16-month old son Ethan.
For Sergeant Laurie Turner and Warrant Officer Harvey Flowers of Gaspe, Que., the deployment makes a big demand on the couple's family.
She left Monday night, while he deploys three weeks from now, and they'll be posted in different places in Afghanistan.
“There's a lot of emotions leaving the children behind, but I'm looking forward to going to see what it is like over there,” Turner said.
She said the role is much different from a combat mission, and soldiers are urged to create a bond with the Afghan people.
“We're there to help them,” she said.
Colonel Paul Rutherford, commander of CFB Gagetown, told the soldiers that staff at the base are ready to provide full support to their families during their deployments, and he reassured families that the soldiers have been well prepared and well trained.
“You're the very best Canada has to offer,” he said.
Canada's training mission is scheduled to conclude in 2014.
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