Sarah Wylde remembers her experience of honouring troops on a military base overseas in 2008.
In 2008, at the age of 24, I got the opportunity to work overseas in Afghanistan for six months. It was an amazing, scary and eye-opening experience. I will always remember my time there, both the hard days and the goods days, including spending Remembrance Day there.
Kandahar Airfield (KAF) is a United States base in the Afghan desert. The area is quite dusty and there are occasional sandstorms, which I loved. It was always hot, but it was a dry heat so it was easier to manage. I remember looking at the thermometer outside and it saying it was 55 degrees Celsius.
There were military and civilian workers of many different nationalities. The constant sound of helicopters and planes hummed in the background.
The Canadian military was there in different roles from 2001 to 2014. The main area of the base was the wooden boardwalk. It had stores and food vendors from many different countries. There was a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a Burger King, a Dutch restaurant, a Green Beans Coffee, and as I was leaving, a T.G.I. Fridays was being built.
Canada had some retail including an ice cream shop and of course, a Tim Hortons. This was where I worked.
It was funny to think that back home in Canada there are numerous Tim Hortons for one city, but on this base, there was only one. There was always a line and everyone had 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 were able to wear our medals was Remembrance Day, which I was still going to be there for.
Even though it was nine years ago, I can still remember it as if I were standing there today. It was a hot, sunny and dusty day, like any other.
The group of us 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-mast 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 were us and another civilian company in its in support roles. In the front, next to the half-mast Canadian flag was the podium for the speakers. The ceremony included someone playing the bagpipes, the chaplin reading a prayer, some Canadian soldiers saying a few words and a co-worker of mine went up and read a poem about Remembrance Day that she wrote. And then someone read In Flanders Fields.
Participating in any Remembrance Day ceremony is powerful, but to be at one in an actual war-zone was emotional and moving. 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. In these 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, the comrades of the fallen soldier carried him or her to the waiting Hercules plane to take them home, while all the other soldiers saluted. Sometimes on the side you’d see soldiers in a hospital bed or wheelchair that were injured from the same incident.
At the end of the ramp ceremonies you cannot help but look back at the caskets covered in the Canadian flag on 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 think as the trumpet plays.
Once the two minutes of silence were over and the Remembrance Day ceremony was finished, we stayed and had coffee and doughnuts with the soldiers, with the bagpipes still playing in the background. A line of military personnel and civilians waited by the flag to place their poppy on the wreath.
Coming from a military family, Remembrance Day always meant something special to me, but to spend one 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.
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.
So please, thank a veteran, thank a soldier, wear a poppy and take the time to go to a Remembrance Day ceremony.
Lest we forget.