By Sarah Wylde
In 2008, from May to November at the age of 24, I got an amazing opportunity to work overseas in Afghanistan for six months. It was amazing, scary and an eye-opening experience. I will always remember my time there, both the hard and good days. Including spending Remembrance Day there.
Kandahar Airfield (KAF) is a US base in the Afghan desert. It is dusty and there are the occasional sandstorms, which I enjoyed. It was quite hot, but it was a dry heat so was easier to manage, I remember taking a picture of the thermometer outside and it saying it was 55 (131 F) degrees Celsius. There are military and civilian workers from many different nationalities. A constant sound of helicopters and planes in the background. The Canadian military was there for over 12 years in different roles from 2001 – 2014. The main area of the base was the wooden boardwalk. It had stores and food from different countries. There was a Subway, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Dutch restaurant, Green Beans Coffee, and when I was leaving a TGI Fridays was being built. Canada had some retail, ice cream shop and of course Tim Hortons. It was funny to think that back home in Canada there are numerous Tim Hortons in one city/town, but here there was just the one. There was always a line, everyone having their favourites, the British soldiers, for example, loved the French vanilla cappuccinos. The people who worked at Tim Hortons were always told we were the safest place because we had all the coffee and doughnuts.
Two weeks before I was due to come home, we had our General Service Medal ceremony for serving as a support role in KAF. One of the occasions we are able to wear our medals for is Remembrance Day, which I was still going to be there for.
Even though it was November 11, 2008, I can still remember it as if I were standing there today. It was a hot sunny and dusty day, so like most other days. The group of us there were helping each other put on our medals and making sure they were on straight. We were wearing out regular tan uniform pants and our black ceremony shirts. We were in the vehicle compound and the Canadian flag was at half mass with the armoured vehicles in the background. To the left and right of the flag were Canadian soldiers in their desert combats. In between, them was us and another civilian company that were there in support roles. In the front next to the half-mass Canadian flag was the podium for the speakers. There was someone there playing the bagpipes, the Chaplin read a prayer, some Canadian soldiers said a few words, a co-worker went up and read a poem about Remembrance Day she wrote, then someone read In Flanders Fields. Participating in any Remembrance Day is powerful, but to participate in one in an actual war zone was emotional and moving. Then the trumpet began to play the Last Post for the two minutes of silence.
While the trumpet played my mind couldn’t help but think back over the past six-months, and the reality of where I was. I started thinking of the soldiers who lost their lives and those who were injured. Being a civilian in Afghanistan I saw and experienced things that non-military personnel do not usually see or experience. Namely, Ramp Ceremonies, we would stand on the tarmac with the soldiers and after the Chaplain spoke of the fallen soldier and said a prayer, then the bagpipes would play Amazing Grace. Behind the bagpiper is the fallen soldier’s comrades carrying him/her to the waiting Hercules plane to take them home, while all the other soldiers are saluting. Sometimes on the side, you see injured soldiers in a hospital bed or wheelchair that was injured in the incident. At the end of the Ramp Ceremonies, you cannot help but look back at the casket(s) covered in the Canadian Flag in the plane and let the emotions take over. To this day whenever I hear Amazing Grace that is what I think of. I will never forget, is what I’m thinking as the trumpet plays again.
Once the two minutes of silence was over and the Remembrance Day ceremony was done, we stayed and had coffee and doughnuts with the soldiers. The bagpipes still playing in the background. Chatting and talking about where we are from, and what types of vehicles were parked here. A line of military and civilians by the flag wait to place their poppy on the wreath.
Coming from a military family, Remembrance Day always meant something special to me, but to have spent one there in a war zone with the Canadian military and the great people I worked with, is something I never thought I would get to experience, and I will always remember.
When it was time to come home shortly after, I brought back memories, experiences, a deeper understanding and greater respect for those who serve in the military. This rare experience taught me a lot about who I am. You can’t help but learn about yourself, after all, you have been in a war zone for the past six months.
So please, thank a Veteran, thank a Soldier, wear a Poppy, and take the time to go to a Remembrance Day ceremony.