Canadians take the time each Nov. 11 to remember those who died in service of country, and those left behind to mourn their friends.
And while most of the surviving veterans are from conflicts which took place a half century ago in Korea and the Second World War, an increasing number have served in Afghanistan.
Canadian Forces have lost 158 soldiers to the Afghan War since February of 2002, 123 of which were from hostile circumstances, such as small arms fire from enemy Taliban fighters, or the more common improvised explosive devices. It was these deaths that led to widespread public opposition to Canada’s involvement in a combat role, causing the federal government to withdraw troops from Kandahar province in 2011 and redeploy them to the “green zone” in Kabul for mentorship and training.
Although certainly safer than being in active combat, 650 Canadian infantry soldiers, engineers, medics, and other members of the military remain in Afghanistan where the difference between life and death is just a car bombing away. As Canada approaches its 12th year of involvement in the mission, the drawdown in Canadian Forces members will continue to just 375 by Christmas, and 100 by January. A skeleton crew will stay on until the final mission ends in March.
One member of that crew is Col. Bryan Gagné, a reservist from Ladner with a considerably important job. Gagné was deployed in June to be a senior advisor to Lieutenant General Mohammad Akram, the Vice Chief of Staff for the Afghan National Army (ANA). Akram is essentially second in command of the ANA under Lieutenant General Sher Mohammad Karimi, and a former Governor of Kandahar during the time a small but capable number of Canadian Forces personnel kept security in the province.
“Since he’s come to Kabul he’s insisted on Canadian advisors to be with him when most other senior generals will just take what they can get from the coalition,” says Gagné via phone from Kabul, a time difference of 12 and a half hours.
Gagné advises Akram in four key areas, including military budget, troops readiness, logistics, and infrastructure. On a daily basis Akram must be kept up to speed in all these areas, as well as participate in military traditions, such as parades, the awarding of new commissions, and ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
Gagné says he draws on his command experience in the military along with his experience as a business owner in Ladner.
“I bring a certain amount of corporate knowledge, so that enables me to steer the analysis, steer discussion, and allow them to just get a better outcome on where to go on a day-to-day basis.”
Gagné joined the British Columbia Regiment in 1987, and commanded it from 2003-05. He also commanded the 39 Canadian Brigade Group out of Vancouver at the Jericho Beach Garrison from 2010-12. Because the unit’s headquarters are based out of CFB Edmonton, Gagné split time between Vancouver and Edmonton before receiving the call to deploy to Afghanistan.
Gagné says one of the highlights of his job is meeting Afghans and experiencing the unique culture through his mission. Afghanistan is made up of several indigenous and nomadic tribes–Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, among others–and Gagné says he experiences the flavour of each as he travels.
“Once you break the trust barrier with Afghans, particularly senior Afghans, you become part of their extended family, and they really do embrace you and support what you do,” says Gagné.
“And Canadians have been immensely successful here in Kabul because of who we are and what we do and just the way that we interact because of our cultural diversity back home.”
Gagné says Canada’s mission in the country has “matured” to the point where the ANA is ready to take responsibility for its own security in most regions, albeit with ongoing NATO support. And Canada’s reputation as an important ally throughout the conflict is evident, not only in the manner in which Canadians are treated but appreciation for our contributions.
Gagné visited Kandahar Airfield (KAF) in September with Akram where many signs of Canada’s command there are now gone–except for the hockey rink at the centre. But outside the wire there are lasting examples.
“I think Canada has a legacy there,” he says. “We built a dam down there, we spent millions of dollars in education, in Polio eradication, and to enable the security environment to allow for the building of many hundreds of schools.”
Gagné says the role change to training and mentorship has given Canadians an opportunity to shine in a non-combat role. He is among half a dozen Canadian colonel’s assisting and advising high-ranking ANA officers in the “green zone” or “behind the wire.”
Gagné says the security situation is improving throughout the country and in the areas he has toured with Akram.
“We assess security through the Vice [Chief] as a function, and we’re seeing a whole lot of improvement,” he says. “Occasionally there are setbacks, as you read in the media, but the Afghans are certainly not allowing that to pull them down.”
Gagné is referring to the persistent attacks by the Taliban, not only within the largely lawless rural areas controlled by the shadow government, but within the heavily fortified Green Village of Kabul. Three weeks ago a militant detonated a car filled with explosives near a convoy, killing a family of six. And though the capital city has enjoyed relative peace in 2013, it was only a year and a half ago that militants killed seven people in response to a visit by U.S. president Barack Obama.
Gagné, however, knew the risks going into the mission.
“When the chain of command comes knocking for an opportunity to deploy, of course there’s always those things that go through your mind about safety and family and risk,” he says.
With a wife and seven-year-old daughter waiting for him back in Ladner, Gagné knows the danger is always there when working in “theatre.” He phones or Skypes back home every couple of days to let them know he’s safe.
But as a reservist who hasn’t had many opportunities for deployment in his career outside of NATO missions within the former Yugoslavia, he says he looked forward to his mission in Kabul and the opportunity to use his skills in a meaningful way.
“So, for me it was quite an easy decision. Obviously, there is risk and we live with risk every day. But it’s something subconsciously that you need to put aside. We know what we’re doing here. We know what we need to achieve.”