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CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD: A war memorial ‘built for soldiers by soldiers’ — that soldiers can’t even go see


As the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jon Vance, said on Facebook, the importance of the new Afghanistan Memorial Hall, particularly for the families of the fallen, “cannot be understated.”

Christie Blatchford
Christie Blatchford

And then of course he and the Department of National Defence (DND) went and massively understated it.

As my Ottawa Citizen colleague David Pugliese reported last week , the hall was in fact opened on May 13 in near-secrecy.

No media were invited, the military having forgotten, perhaps, that among the 190 plaques on the battlefield memorial is that of Michelle Lang, the Calgary Herald reporter who was killed Dec. 30, 2009 with four soldiers — sergeants Kirk Taylor and George Miok, Pte. Garrett Chidley and Cpl. Zachery McCormack — in an improvised explosive attack, or that hundreds of Canadian reporters were in and out of Kandahar, most as military embeds, a few as independents.

No press release was sent out.

No family members of the 159 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in that country were invited, or any of the 1,800 who were wounded.

The Canadian Forces didn’t even announce that the memorial hall, the soldier-built memorial as its centrepiece, had been opened until three days after the ceremony, on May 16.

This was done via “the Canadian Armed Forces Operations” official Facebook page.

The post noted that the event “was attended by senior Canadian military leadership and department management.”

Widows and families were only notified by couriered letters, curiously dated May 10, that the hall “was officially opened on May 13,” though of course by then, at least for some of the recipients, it hadn’t actually happened.

As the Hall is contained within the security perimeter of DND’s new national headquarters (Carling) in Ottawa’s west end, the general public can’t see the memorial — which, at least as I remember it, sprang up spontaneously and remained at Kandahar Air Field for the duration of Canada’s nearly 13-year mission in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the Facebook post said just that: “The Hall and the memorial are not open to the general public, but will be made accessible to families of the Fallen upon request.”

By Tuesday, the blowback having gathered steam for several days, that clear stance had softened.

The handling of the Afghanistan memorial seems on a par, just another act of an absolutely insensate bureaucracy.

Dan Le Bouthillier, head of media relations for the forces, told the National Post in an email that “We are … considering ways to accommodate special visits by the public, on appropriate occasions.”

Astonishingly, even the approximately 40,000 Afghan veterans who served aren’t at this moment allowed in.

Le Bouthillier said “planning is currently underway to facilitate access to veterans who would like to pay respects to their fallen comrades.”

So let’s see: You have, in Le Bouthillier’s elegant words, a memorial “built for soldiers by soldiers,” and you don’t let soldiers in. Yes, that makes sense.

As one of the reporters who was in Kandahar — four trips over 2006 and 2007 — I knew several soldiers who were killed and wounded and felt I had known others through the tearful accounts of the friends who survived them or because I later met their families.

Widow Darcia Arndt was one of these, just 27 when we met in Edmonton. Her lovely husband Ray, a reservist with The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, known as the Eddies, had to battle the bureaucrats even to get a chance at doing an overseas tour.

Ray’s left foot was a club foot, and as a child he’d had surgeries to turn it around, and then learned to walk again.

He managed, but was left with a size 9 right foot and a size 6 left.

The army, of course, had a policy of one pair of boots per man.

For most of his military career, his fellow soldier and later platoon mate in Kandahar, AshVan Leeuwen once said, “Ray probably had the wrong-sized boots on.”

Master-Corporal Ray Arndt was killed in a car accident in Afghanistan on Aug. 5, 2006, nine days away from leaving Kandahar.

By a rare miracle, proper-sized boots had arrived for him just weeks before.

The handling of the Afghanistan memorial seems on a par, just another act of an absolutely insensate bureaucracy.

“The decision to hold a humble, internal event was made by senior leadership to ensure proper reverence.” — Dan Le Bouthillier, head of media relations for the forces

As Ray’s widow Darcia, who is now 39, said Tuesday in a phone interview from Edmonton, she’s checked out the Facebook pictures and doesn’t believe the hall is big enough to hold 158 families. She also understands that it’s nice that the memorial is in a secure location, protected from vandals and the weather.

“But what about some sort of representation from the families? We have a Silver Cross mother, from the Dominion Command of the Legion? Or how about put all the widows’ names in a hat and draw one? That way you have a mother and a widow.”

Poor Le Bouthillier, the media spokesman. “The decision to hold a humble, internal event was made by senior leadership to ensure proper reverence.”

It ensured nothing of the sort. Rather the opposite: It’s as if the country or this government is embarrassed by the Afghan war. There was no shame there. The same can’t be said about here.

Willy MacDonald, one of that long conflict’s most decorated soldiers with a Star of Military Valour for his heroism under fire in an Aug. 3, 2006 battle, said in an email, “…as far as the public is concerned, it was largely them who took the time out of their days to line the Highway of Heroes….(whenever the body of a fallen soldier was returned to Canada)…Their tears fell for people they didn’t know.

“The point is that people care. Why would we withhold something like the memorial from them so that they have the opportunity to do the same there?”

• Email: cblatchford@postmedia.com | Twitter:

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019


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