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Governor-General David Johnston meets with Canadian troops at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. (Jonathan Montpetit/The Canadian Press)
Governor-General David Johnston meets with Canadian troops at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. (Jonathan Montpetit/The Canadian Press)

Governor-General dons combat fatigues to meet troops Add to ...

Canada's new governor-general completed his transformation into commander-in-chief with a simple but symbolic sartorial act.

The 69-year-old former academic distanced himself from his old life as he donned combat fatigues for the first time to tour Canada' war zone in Afghanistan.

It was something David Johnston had said he was unlikely to do. But then much changes when you become a symbol of the country.

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"This is the first time I've had the uniform on, and I must say I'm very proud to wear it," he said Thursday as he wrapped up a whirlwind tour of the Canadian mission in the southern province of Kandahar.

"We've got remarkable leaders and remarkably able people here, so it gives me a great pleasure to don these clothes and be part of that group for a day at least."

It marks the first foreign visit for Mr. Johnston since he was sworn as the Queen's Representative in Canada last month.

As troops gathered at Kandahar Airfield to hear from their new commander-in-chief, Mr. Johnston said he made one demand upon accepting the position: "To get to Afghanistan as soon as possible."

His stay didn't last much longer than 24 hours, but he sampled most of the major elements of the mission: Helicopter rides, shuras, austere combat outposts and Tim Hortons coffee.

"I just wish Canadians could see about one-tenth of what I've seen here, because seeing is believing," Mr. Johnston told reporters.

"One is really struck by, first of all, the military effort in very, very difficult conditions."

He promised to relay his impressions to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has ordered an end to the combat mission this July. Convinced of the progress being by Canadians, Mr. Johnston said it was it was a shame they didn't have more time.

"I suppose if anything is missing it's simply time to get on and continue this great effort of rebuilding Afghanistan for the Afghan people," he added.

Mr. Johnston's day began as it does for most soldiers based at Kandahar Airfield, with a trip to the Tim Hortons. After introducing him to the troops, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk suggested Mr. Johnston grab a cup of coffee and listen to their stories.

The governor-general was then whisked off to Camp Nathan Smith, home to Canada's civilian reconstruction efforts.

There he temporarily shed his combat fatigues, opting instead for a V-neck sweater more becoming his academic background, to take part in a shura about education with Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa.

He listened closely as Mr. Wesa, himself a former professor at the University of British Columbia, called for closer ties between Canadian and Afghan schools.

"We have to connect university to university, college to college," Mr. Wesa said.

Mr. Johnston then looked on as a fresh batch of Afghan National Police goose-stepped their way through graduation, telling them: "You play such a vital role in ensuring the progress of your country."

He was back in tan fatigues and full "battle rattle" - slang for body armour and helmet - for a trip to a strategic forward operating base in the heart of the volatile Panjwaii district.

It is here where most of Canada's combat troops are based, and which until recently was considered an insurgent stronghold.

But following a series of clearing operations conducted over the past several months, the military now believes it has the Taliban on the run.

The FOB that Mr. Johnston visited is set apart by its giant Canadian flag made of multi-coloured stones set into a hillside, erected by soldiers several years ago to commemorate their comrades who died holding this vital bit of ground.

In honour of Mr. Johnston's visit, the troops gave the stones a fresh a paint job; the vibrant white and reds standing out against the dusty backdrop.

Mr. Johnston responded by holding a smart salute as he inspected rows of Afghan and Canadian soldiers.

If Mr. Johnston has taken quickly to his role as the symbolic head of the military, it was not always apparent that he was willing to accept the trappings that come with it.

Shortly after being sworn in as Michaëlle Jean's replacement in October, the one-time law professor and university president admitted that he knew little about the military.

In an interview with the CBC, he suggested that unlike his predecessor, he wouldn't don the uniform.

"If I had a military background I would've put on the uniform with great pride," he told Peter Mansbridge at the time.

"Perhaps on the last day of the job as a way of showing respect for this wonderful tradition."

Mr. Johnston offered little to explain his sudden change of heart, saying simply: "I've been particularly struck by the quality of people wearing this uniform more permanently."

But other than the uniform, Mr. Johnston's visit was in many ways a study in contrasts from those made by Ms. Jean.

While Ms. Jean was never one to hide her emotions, once even weeping openly for Canada's war dead, Mr. Johnston offered a more measured reaction.

And while Ms. Jean often talked openly with embedded journalists, Mr. Johnston's office had to be prodded by the military to offer any kind of media availability whatsoever.

Reporters were then asked to limit themselves to one question each.

While Mr. Johnston may have looked the part, there is still some breaking in to do. Gen. Natynczyk introduced him at one point as "David Johnson."

Mr. Johnston in turn mangled Gen. Natynczyk's name.

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