Three years after an old man on a bike detonated a bomb that sent molten ball bearings searing through his abdomen, helmet and back, Sgt. Vince Adams stood with square jaw high as his commander pinned a polished medal to his chest during Remembrance Day ceremonies yesterday.
As the first recipient of the new Sacrifice Medal in Kandahar, it was a bittersweet moment for Sgt. Adams. Ten feet away, the marble-etched faces of the four friends he lost that day peered out from the memorial that stands at the heart of the Canadian compound here.
"The medal makes me think of them," he said. "Maybe it sounds cliche or whatever, but it's for them that I wear this. It's not really for anyone else."
First handed out three days ago, the Sacrifice Medal is the new Canadian equivalent to the American Purple Heart, awarded to those injured in combat.
Despite his injuries and the appeals of his family not to deploy, Sgt. Adams returned to Afghanistan. "I want to win," he said. "I don't know what that looks like, but I don't want to walk away for nothing."
It was a rare celebration of life on a day dedicated to the 133 Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan.
Beneath a desert sun and the buzz of a surveillance drone, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Industry Minister Tony Clement and the families of seven dead soldiers watched as Canadian and Afghan soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder through a bagpipe's lament and a speech from Jonathan Vance, the commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan.
In a bizarre turn, the ceremony was capped off with a scene re-enactment from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine , in which two military padres read the lines of spaceship commanders.
The seven families had flown to Kandahar as part of the military's Next of Kin program that acquaints relatives with the land where their loved ones fell. Canada is the only country to provide such a service, and nearly all families of the 133 dead have signed up for a visit, according to Col. Jean-Luc Milot, who heads the program.
During a private ceremony, Afghanistan army commander Abdul Bahshir personally thanked the families and offered them medals of appreciation.
The most heart-rending moments of the day came during a service for the families. Even the normally stock Brig-Gen. Vance struggled for composure as he addressed them. "May our warm embrace comfort you now, and in years to come," Brig-Gen. Vance told the families, pausing momentarily to catch his emotions. "You are family."
Each family then laid a wreath at the memorial and placed letters at plaques bearing the faces of late soldiers.
"It's been a very emotional and healing experience," said Nicole Starker, wife of Michael Starker, a medic who died during a gun battle with the Taliban. "I wanted to get to know this side of my husband, to visit the place that took him."
The wife of Richard Steve Leary, who died in a shoot-out with the insurgents, said while the visit helped salve her loss, she has no problem evoking her husband. "I don't need Remembrance Day to remember," said Rachel Leary. "You wake up every morning and it's your first thought."