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Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner, commander of Task Force Kandahar.Dene Moore

When René Allard was a boy cutting grass in a local cemetery he never thought much of the monuments to the soldiers who fought in the First World War.

"Nov. 11 wasn't a day I used to find special," he said.

But Remembrance Day was given new significance when he learned his son, Sapper Matthieu Allard of Val D'Or, Que., had been killed by an improvised explosive device in Kandahar's Zhari district last year.

"It changed my thinking a lot," Mr. Allard said, choking back tears.

He was among the families of eight fallen soldiers who made the trip to Kandahar Air Field to take part in what will likely be the last Remembrance Day ceremony with Canadian soldiers in combat in Afghanistan.

The families joined more than 200 soldiers and dignitaries to honour the 152 members of the Canadian Forces who have died as part of the Afghan mission since 2002.

Canada will begin withdrawing troops next year, and while Ottawa has signalled it will extend the mission, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday soldiers won't be fighting insurgents in their new role.

During Thursday's ceremony, the commander of the Canadian mission in Kandahar told the crowd it is worth recalling that soldiers died here for the "common cause of freedom and human decency."

"It is important that we take the time to mark this day, especially here in Afghanistan," Brigadier-General Dean Milner said.

"(It is) a place which is so close to the sacrifices made by the brave men and women who fought in this theatre."

The ceremony carried many of the hallmarks of similar ceremonies to be held across the country. Last post was heard, flags were lowered to half-staff and the bagpipes played their way through the Piper's Lament.

When it was over, soldiers removed the poppies from their uniforms and pinned them to the black granite monument that sits outside Canadian military headquarters.

It was a subdued affair compared those of year's past. There were no visiting politicians and fewer Afghan officials were in attendance.

In their place: the raw emotion of friends and relatives who sobbed uncontrolably as they placed poppies on the cenotaph.

For them, Remembrance Day will never be the same.

"We can't forget why they fought, why they died," said Jean-Marc Gaudreault, whose son, Trooper Richard Renaud, died following an IED blast in 2008.

"Nov. 11 is a way of remembering what they gave their lives for: our democracy, our liberty."

The family of Master Corporal Charles Philippe Michaud, who was killed by an IED in Panjwaii district last year, said coming to Afghanistan has allowed them to better understand why he was so intent on deploying.

"He's my little brother, but he's also a soldier," said Denis Michaud. "It's the soldier that's being honoured."

Many spoke about the sense of closure they received from seeing elements of the mission first hand. Gaudreault compared it to a "pilgrimage."

"To close the circle of my mourning I had to come here," he said. "Life goes on, but I can always say he's my hero."

The search for meaning takes other forms as well.

Mr. Allard's son won a competition to design his unit's insignia. Now his father examines the design closely, hunting for symbols that might provide a gateway into Matthieu's thoughts.

He wears the patch on a frayed baseball cap and points to the words "White Devils," which sit below outstretched white wings and a crown.

"What I see in it is that the army sometimes has a bad reputation because it's violent," he said.

"I see the white as innocence. It says, 'Okay, you might see us as demons, but we're really angels."