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Remembrance Day can be a difficult and reflective time for veterans, but it will be especially so this year for Canadians who served in Afghanistan.

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on Aug. 15 — the same day the Canadian federal election was called — and the withdrawal of Western troops that month brought back memories for so many Canadian veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

As they reflect on Remembrance Day this year, they’re also thinking of the countless Afghans who assisted them as interpreters and in other roles. Some veterans remain critical of the Canadian government’s slow pace at getting those Afghans out of their country, and they’re wondering about the fate of those left behind.

The Star spoke with seven Canadians who served in Afghanistan about their reflections on Remembrance Day. They include current and retired military members, and one Canadian who served with the British Army.

Their thoughts and emotions regarding Remembrance Day this year vary widely — from anger and sadness, to a sense of hope.

Jody Mitic

An ex-sniper and former Ottawa city councillor, Jody Mitic says he feels “emboldened” this Remembrance Day.

“I feel energized,” he said. “Yes, it’s a stoic moment and a moment that deserves reverence, but I almost feel like it’s a starting line for me and for many other veterans.”

Describing what he sees as a “leadership failure” in Canada and other countries, Mitic says he’s not giving up on the idea of another political run, and has made it a personal goal to get veterans elected to city councils across Canada.

“For veterans to have effect in Afghanistan, we have to take positions of leadership and change in Canada,” said Mitic, who lost both his legs in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan.

“I think people that maybe have a vested interest in how Afghanistan turns out — rather than just a political one — maybe we’ll get a shot at it.

“I know that for me, having gone and fought there and left parts of my body in Afghan soil, I feel like I have a vested interest in the well-being of all Afghans, regardless of who is in charge.”

Karine Lachapelle

A mix of anger and sadness is how former intelligence officer Karine Lachapelle is feeling this year.

“I’m sad because I think that the population of Afghanistan in general deserved a better outcome,” said Lachapelle, who served in Afghanistan in 2009.

“I’m angry because I think the Canadian government and Western governments in general have abandoned the people of Afghanistan, particularly those that supported our mission in country, as well as elements of civil society that we propped up.”

Remembrance Day is “always a little bit challenging for me as a Canadian,” Lachapelle said, pointing out the narrative around who is a veteran often focuses more heavily on individuals from older conflicts and missions.

“A veteran is not even someone who was deployed overseas. It’s someone in the Armed Forces and who served during that time their country,” she said.

Lachapelle pointed out that tens of thousands of Canadians rotated through Afghanistan over more than a decade, “and yet they’re barely in public view.”

“There needs to be a modernization of the concept of veteran,” she said.

“People need to understand that veterans live and work in their communities, and that amputees, for example, are also amputees in their 20s and 30s from the war in Afghanistan, and not just from the Second World War.”

Rodrigo DeCastro

Remembrance Day is always a sad and solemn day for Rodrigo DeCastro, who this year will especially be thinking about the Afghans left behind.

“The bottom line is, it’s not harder because of the friends I lost over there — that’s hard every single year. If it’s harder, it’s because it’s made us think more this year of our Afghan friends who stayed behind and remained in Afghanistan,” he said.

“For me, it was always the young kids. I would always think these kids deserve better. They did so then and still do now.”

DeCastro said no one he served with went to Afghanistan “out of a certainty of what the outcome was going to be. They did it out of a certainty of purpose.

“The chapter that’s being written now, it’s not the one that any of us would have preferred to be reading, but it doesn’t negate the chapters that came before and certainly doesn’t diminish the pride for me of serving with folks over there, both military and civilian,” he said.

DeCastro, who went to Afghanistan in 2008 and again in 2009-10, remains a member of the Royal 22nd Regiment (known as the Van Doos), where he currently serves as a lieutenant-colonel.

Seeing images of the fall of Kabul brought back memories for him. While it made him think that the people there deserved a better outcome, it didn’t lead him to think that it was all for nothing.

“Not once before, not once since, have I felt that the people we lost there were lost in vain, because I’m confident that everybody there that had a contact with Afghans were better for having known them, the same reason I’m better for having known them,” he said.

Maureen Wellwood

Now a colonel serving with the Canadian Armed Forces, Maureen Wellwood spent time in Afghanistan as a major from 2009 to 2010. Remembrance Day has always been important to her, but has felt different and more personal since she served in Afghanistan.

She acknowledges the questions about the value of Canada’s commitment and sacrifice in the country.

“We were there for a number of years — for some people we were there for most of their life — and during the time we were there, we made a significant difference and their lives better,” she said.

“So while we have to fully acknowledge that the changes we made in Afghanistan are not necessarily enduring, some of the impacts we had absolutely are, and just those positive impacts for me are worth the sacrifice that our soldiers made.”

Bruce Moncur

The founder of the Afghanistan Veterans Association of Canada has been busy trying to keep morale up among veterans this year.

Bruce Moncur is also a driving force behind Valour in the Presence of the Enemy, a non-profit pushing to have the Canadian Victoria Cross bestowed to a Canadian Armed Forces member, Jesse Larochelle, for bravery while serving in Afghanistan. The country’s highest honour, it has not actually been awarded to anyone since its creation in 1993.

There’s a petition calling for Larochelle’s case to be examined, and Moncur is trying to get as many signatures as possible this Remembrance Day as a way to get morale up amongst veterans.

“To show them that we did a lot of really cool things while we were there, inoculation, education, building highways, building schools,” he said. “We also have Canadian soldiers doing a lot of things domestically, like fighting COVID on the front lines … We have a lot to be proud of.”

Moncur served in Afghanistan in 2006, including taking part in Operation Medusa, Canada’s largest operation in the country.

He said morale has doubly taken a hit this year due to Afghanistan and the ongoing sexual misconduct crisis in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Between that and Afghanistan, “I think we still need to focus on the fact that 42,000 Canadians are doing this amazing work every day, putting their boots on, and still coming to work.”

Matt Luloff

At first, Matt Luloff didn’t think this Remembrance Day would feel different, “but it certainly does” given ongoing media coverage of the situation in Afghanistan and the stories of people left behind.

Luloff, who is now an Ottawa city councillor, said he was told the interpreters who worked with his platoon did not make it onto any flights back to Canada.

“I find that to be absolutely heartbreaking,” he said. “These interpreters came to battle with us, and stood shoulder to shoulder with us and helped us to understand what the Taliban was doing while we were fighting them in real time.”

Luloff, who went to Afghanistan in 2008 and served in combat outposts, said the uncertainty of what’s happened to the Afghans with whom he worked “adds an extra layer of mourning” this year.

“When you’re mourning for your pals, you know where they are, you can go to their graves,” he said. “But these Afghans that were beside us during this war, I don’t know if they’re safe.”

He said he’s proud of the work the military did in Afghanistan.

“I’m proud of it because of the 20 years of stability that we offered a people in desperate need of stability and I hope that the decades that we were able to provide that stability will inspire the next generations of Afghans to stand up to the tyranny of the Taliban,” he said.

David Mack

A Canadian who served in Afghanistan with the British Army in 2009, Mack also helped create Valour in the Presence of the Enemy.

And like so many other veterans, he’s especially upset over the treatment of Afghans who helped soldiers on the ground.

“I’m very critical in the way the Canadian government failed to actually effectively withdraw individuals who were on the list to be withdrawn,” he said. “There’s just an incredible inertia within the Canadian government.”

In terms of Afghanistan itself, Mack said the question that so often comes up is, was it worth it? He said he doesn’t think it’s a fair question, because “as a profession of arms, you live by the sword and die by the sword,” a commitment military members make.

“When we put the uniform on, we all knew post-911 where the world was going,” he said. “If we make a decision to deploy troops, then that’s the ‘worth it.’ It’s as simple as that.”

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