The Kandahar Cenotaph, bearing photographs of Canada’s war dead in Afghanistan, was rededicated Saturday in its new home — and this time families of the fallen soldiers were invited.
Hundreds of family members, along with servicemen and women, took part in an emotional rededication ceremony at the Department of National Defence Carling campus.
“In one breath I’m smiling and in the next moment there’s tears running down my face … it’s overwhelming, but I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” said Theresa Charbonneau, whose son, Cpl. Andrew Grenon, died at the age of 23 in the Afghanistan War in 2008.
“I’d be doing Andrew a big disservice if I didn’t come to these, if I didn’t honour him.”
“This place is phenomenal, today was phenomenal. I don’t know how else to put it — it gives me great pride and I’m honoured to be here.”
DND had faced intense criticism earlier this year when the Afghanistan Memorial Hall, which houses the cenotaph, was dedicated in a private ceremony that didn’t include soldiers’ families.
Contrasting the earlier dedication, which was closed to all but a few dozen officers, Saturday’s ceremony saw an overflow crowd as officials and artists paid tribute to the fallen soldiers.
“You know what has been lost,” Gov. Gen. Julie Payette told the families in the crowd. “A wound that this memorial can acknowledge, even if it cannot fully heal it.”
In the opening words of her address, Payette pondered the sight of Canadians who would stand on bridges over Highway 401 with signs and flags as a salute to the deceased soldiers whose bodies were being taken to Toronto from CFB Trenton.
While she said she had been moved by the sight, Payette told the gathered assembly that “those of you here today know more deeply than those civilian Canadians who were waiting on the 401 what that sacrifice was.
“In a very real way, what they did was an act of love. In the words of St. John, there is no greater love than this, than the person who lays down his life for the sake of his friends. If these words have meaning, and I believe they do, then the men and women we honour today loved greatly,” she said.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan also spoke, as well as Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and representatives from the Afghan and American embassies. There were also musical tributes: country artist Terry Kelly performed his song Portraits of Honour, and the Ceremonial Guard Band and Army Voices Choir performed works by Pipe Major Alan Clark, as well as several traditional military works.
Maj.-Gen. Guy Chapdelaine, chaplain general of the Canadian Forces, led a prayer and the actual rededication of the cenotaph itself.
The Canadian Forces had been criticized by soldiers’ families and the public when it dedicated the cenotaph in late May with only senior officials present. The event was inexplicably kept secret for several days until the military quietly announced it on social media. Vance later apologized for the military’s mishandling of the event.
Catherine Jane McKay Byers attended Saturday’s ceremony to honour her son, Pte. David Robert James Byers, who died in 2006 at age 22. She says she was frustrated with how things were initially handled, but was glad that “they listened to us” after complaints were made.
“It was really, really disgusting. It was very upsetting that we were forgotten. We’re the ones that live with this every day. We’re the ones that celebrate birthdays, see our grandchildren grow up without a father. That is our reality.”
The DND Carling campus used to be Nortel’s headquarters, and the multi-building facility retains an open, techy feel: the Afghanistan Memorial Hall sits at one end of a large reflecting pool, opposite the central glass-domed building.
Sunday morning from 7 until 10 has been set aside for soldiers’ family members to visit the memorial hall. From then until 7 p.m., the facility will be open to the public.
Future visitors to the memorial will have to email the Forces first (at firstname.lastname@example.org) to set up an appointment.
Lt.-Gen. Jean-Marc Lanthier said he didn’t think the email system was too much of an obstacle, and that having the memorial on the Forces campus made it more accessible to the service people working in National Defence.
“It’s a physical and spiritual presence to have the cenotaph and memorial hall here,” he said.
The cenotaph had originally been unveiled at the Forces base in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2003. Its centrepiece is made of a boulder from the site of where Sgt. Robert Short and Cpl. Robbie Beerenfenger were killed by a mine that year, numbering among the first Canadian soldiers lost in Afghanistan.
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