It’s been a long time since I sat down to put my thoughts to internet paper. With a full-time editing job and freelancing writing on the side on evenings and weekends, it can sometimes be a challenge for me to find a few spare moments to do my own writing. It usually requires something I care passionately enough about. Which is why I am sharing my thoughts today.
I grew up as what many would derisively call “an army brat.” It certainly had its downsides, not least of which was moving too often for my liking, but overall I never really thought much about my dad’s military career. To me, it was just my dad’s job, no different than the jobs other dads did.
Until I was in my teens. Until my dad was posted to peacekeeping duty in the Golan Heights in the Middle East. Only then did I start to think about what could happen to my father while he was on duty. I didn’t know exactly where Golan Heights was, or anything other than that the people there had been in conflict for a very long time. Yes, dad’s mission was classified as peacekeeping, but everything I’d ever heard about the Middle East until then made me aware things could easily change in a moment.
I worried a lot when dad was gone. It was in those six months, when I’d lie awake at night and wonder if he was safe—if he would come home—that I truly began to understand what my dad’s work in the military meant, not only for him and for my family, but for Canada. With that understanding came a new pride in the fact that my father was in the military.
It wasn’t until the Afghanistan war that I fully realized how lucky we’d been as a military family. Although dad did go to the Middle East on his peacekeeping mission, he also came back, and he never engaged in combat in this 32 years of service. In recent decades, other military families have not been so lucky. They have seen their loved ones go off to war, and their loved ones have seen things no human being should ever have to see. Too many Canadian soldiers came back scarred and wounded. Too many never came back at all.
That point was driven home deeply one day in late 2006. I was living in the Middle East myself by then, teaching at a college in Abu Dhabi. My dearest friend Bev had a brother who was serving in Afghanistan. Because I was away from home, I often read the Edmonton Journal online. That day, I read a headline that two Canadian soldiers had been killed by a suicide bomber. For the first time, reading such a headline gave me more than just a general sense of sadness; instead a sick feeling settled in my gut. Later that night, I arrived home from work to find an email from Bev. It had no subject line.
Before I opened and read the email, I already knew what it would say. Corporal Albert Storm had been one of the soldiers killed that day, November 27, 2006.
My friend’s life changed forever that day, as did those of her family and the family of Sergeant Major Robert Girouard, who was killed in the same senselessly tragic attack.
My gratitude for having my father come home from the military and retire when so many others did not and my sorrow for my friend’s loss and the way it irrevocably changed her life led me to Project Heroes, an art exhibit created by three Edmonton artists: Susan Abma, Shairl Honey and Cindy Revell. The title of the exhibit is “Canada in Afghanistan: The Faces and Stories of Sacrifice.”
These three women spent years tirelessly painting the portraits of soldiers killed in Afghanistan so that their sacrifices would be remembered and honoured and so that Canadians could get a small glimpse of who each soldier was as a person and all the specific things that were lost when they lost their lives.
In January of this year, I read an ad in the WestWord newsletter (Writers’ Guild of Alberta) looking for writers to write profiles of the soldiers. I knew instantly that I wanted to contribute to this project and got in touch the same day. To date, I have had the honour and the privilege of writing profiles of eight soldiers.
When I sat to write each profile, I had a research packet of information and anecdotes from the soldier’s loved ones. I also had a copy of the portrait that I set up beside my computer. The deep responsibility I felt as I wrote the profiles surprised me. I needed to get the facts right, but also to capture the spirits of these brave people who put everything on the line for what they—and we—believe in: freedom, democracy, justice.
Another surprise was how well I was able to get to know the soldiers from these snippets of their lives and these artistic renderings of their faces. I could connect with who they were from their eyes and their facial expressions. Through the process of writing about the soldiers, I learned more about their military careers. More importantly, I learned about what and who they loved and left behind, and in doing so, appreciated their sacrifices in a much more personal way.
I cannot thank Project Heroes enough for the opportunity to know and share these soldiers’ spirits with other Canadians. I cannot thank the soldiers, their families and their friends enough for their sacrifices. I hope that I have indeed accurately represented each soldier’s essence and that their loved ones accept these profiles as the gifts of thanks I intend them to be. This is how and why I remember Canada’s soldiers this November and every November.
Lest We Forget.