The last command team from the last Canadian Forces' fighting mission in Afghanistan returned home to Canada on Friday. And as the task force's ranking enlisted man, Chief Warrant Officer Gerald Blais, walked off the plane to hug his wife, he told her that this time he wouldn't be going back.
"Done," he told her.
For Canada's military, the day was a coming home where the end of a tough mission was the most important thing, even if the mission's legacy remains unclear. After more than five years of combat in Kandahar, the outcome is now in the hands of other troops from other nations, and Afghans. But the hot, tough and bloody job of the Canadian Forces combat mission is done.
Children jumped up and down, waiting for their fathers and mothers to walk off the plane; families waited anxiously for soldiers, some of whom had been gone for as long as 11 months.
Friday's return home was, in a sense, a way to mark the return home of the Kandahar combat mission. The last Canadian commander overseeing combat troops there, Brigadier-General Dean Milner, flew in on a Canadian Forces Airbus with more than 100 of his team. An CF-18 fighter escorted them into Ottawa, where the top brass, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, and anxious family waited to greet them.
"It's a bit of a timeless scene, I think: soldiers returning from active service and the overwhelming sense of joy and relief as they come off the plane and see their loved ones," Mr. MacKay said. "You can't help but feel very proud as a Canadian to recognize that these are exceptional citizens that do so much for our country, that do so at great sacrifice to themselves, to their families."
Brig.-Gen. Milner steered clear of answering all the questions about whether the return home is bittersweet when the battle rages on, and the baton has been passed to the American troops taking over Kandahar.
"We feel good, we feel proud of the accomplishments," he said. "We definitely flattened the fighting season which normally happens this time of the year and a little bit earlier on [and]assisted with governance and development. …"
"Our goal was to set up the Americans for success, and we feel very good about what we accomplished.
There has been talk of a new, more substantial memorial to the mission in Afghanistan, but Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, suggested that the real, permanent commemoration will wait: there are still 950 troops heading to Afghanistan as trainers, and the army is conscious that its men and women will still be on a mission there, he said.
Mr. MacKay, like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, argued that the mission's accomplishment was in the suppression of the export of terrorism from Afghanistan, and more hope from development projects. "I don't despair," he said.
Canada's top general, Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk, cited things like the transformation of an al-Qaeda training site in Kandahar, the Tarnak Farms, into an experimental farm, or the re-opening of 41 schools in the province's Dand district, as signs of real progress. The troops are proud of their accomplishments, he said, but the overall legacy will take years to judge.
"When you talk about legacy with the military, it always takes a very long time," he said. "I think it's going to take a few years before we find out how things unfold."