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News - All - 12 Nov 2009

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12 Nov 2009
The price that soldiers pay

Across the country this week, in small towns and in sprawling cities, Canadians gathered, red poppies pinned to their breasts, to pay homage to the sacrifice and bravery of soldiers who have fought to preserve our country’s values. Flags fluttered, wreaths were laid, prayers were said and tears shed.

Canadians seem to have found a new respect for the difficult job carried out by members of our Armed Forces: turning out in seemingly greater numbers for Remembrance Day ceremonies; paying moving, silent tribute to the fallen along the Highway of Heroes, the route travelled by the repatriated bodies of the fallen upon return to Canada; writing letters of support to troops far off in the barren hills and dust of Kandahar . In Waterloo Region, Grand River Transit kindly kept a promise and provided three buses to shuttle veterans and their families between legion halls for Remembrance Day gatherings.

It is fitting and right to remember the horrors of wars past, and to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives on the battlefield, facing dangers most of us can barely contemplate. It is also reassuring to see that Canadians increasingly recognize the valour of those who have gone to battle, and want to support them.

The toll of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan is well known: media regularly report that, to date, 133 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have died there. (Mentions of the deaths of two Canadian aid workers come up less frequently.)

But beyond that tragic loss of life, there is another heavy price paid by the men and women who serve in dangerous territory. It is a price that gets far less attention than the sombre coverage of ramp ceremonies, repatriation, funerals and grief-stricken families.

Hundreds of Canadian soldiers have been wounded in the Afghan war. The numbers are less readily available than the death toll, but at least 360 were wounded by the end of 2008, almost half of them so seriously that they had to be flown home to Canada for treatment.

There are no ceremonies to mark the suffering of the wounded, no national rituals to salute their sacrifice.

These are not troops with mere flesh wounds: soldiers have come home from Afghanistan with third-degree burns, with missing limbs, with impairments that will forever alter their lives and the lives of their families. They spend their days, which stretch to weeks, months, and even years, labouring to achieve incremental progress in their ability to put weight on a leg whose bones have been shattered by a bomb, to rally muscle and nerve to touch finger to thumb, to regain the ability to do basic tasks such as climb stairs or dress themselves.

They are, to be sure, well assisted by the Department of National Defence, with compensation, quality medical and rehabilitative care and support systems. But there is no denying the burden they and their families bear.

Consider the example of Capt. Trevor Greene, who was meeting with village elders in Afghanistan in 2006 when he was attacked by an axe-wielding villager. Greene speaks bluntly and movingly of “the desperation of the family” when combat troops are injured. “Families need help.”

Helping those soldiers in their fight, which continues long after they’re flown home from the battlefield, is one very concrete and meaningful way Canadians can choose to support our troops. Former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier established a Military Families Fund two years ago, meant to help military personnel and their families cope with the unique demands of military life. Canadians can continue to encourage the government to maintain high-quality services for returning troops, right across the country and to ensure they are provided with the help and opportunities they need if they can no longer serve in the military because of injury. They can push, in particular, to ensure that wounded reservists, who make up one-fifth of all troops now serving in Afghanistan, are given the medical help and financial aid accorded to full-time soldiers.

Such support would translate the sentiments evoked so powerfully on Remembrance Day into meaningful action.

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