Even before Canada's involvement in Afghanistan officially ended March 12, the debate had begun on whether the mission was successful.
The conflict cost 158 Canadian soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors their lives. Some 2,000 others were injured.
On the monetary side, some estimates put the price tag of the mission at $30 billion or higher although an accurate accounting may be many years down the road because of the difficulty in distinguishing directly related operation costs from those of normal DND functions. There are also the unknown long-term costs of caring for injured soldiers, as well as, productivity losses related to personnel suffering from operational stress disorders.
In recent months, the war has also raised controversy about whether the government is doing enough for veterans. There has been a spate of suicide in recent months, at least eight including three in one week in November 2013 and two more just two weeks ago.
In January, the closure of eight Veterans Affairs offices led to a showdown between veterans and Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino.
And, on March 18, government lawyers responded to a class action lawsuit by the veterans group Equitas Society saying, "At no time in Canada's history has any alleged 'social contract' or 'social covenant' having the attributes pleaded by the plaintiffs been given effect in any statute, regulation or as a constitutional principle written or unwritten."
Sgt. Todd Appel, a member of the Canadian Forces 10th Field Regiment stationed at the Yorkton Armoury, is willing to leave that debate to others.
"I'm a soldier and I do my job," he said. "We don't have a right as a soldier to make those decisions, we leave those decisions in the hands of the Canadian people. It's a moral contract, which is some of the things they're discussing now."
As to the question of whether the mission was successful, Appel, who served three tours in Afghanistan, saw a lot change in the country between 2002 and 2009, particularly in terms of the competence of Afghan forces.
"There was a big difference," he said, "I know a lot of guys that worked with the "omelette" (OMLT, Operational Mentoring Liaison Team) and training the Afghan National Army. There was huge improvements. They are very gutsy soldiers, they just needed the skills and the training to hone that so there was quite a bit of improvement in that."
He is not sure, however, whether the changes are sustainable.
"It takes time," he said. "I don't know if enough time was passed. It's like anything; everybody believes what their parents tell them is right and it takes generations of seeing a change before things actually happen."
Even so, Appel is confident Canada did the right thing.
"We have commitments to NATO and the UN and part of our commitment is deploying troops when required to, which could pay off in the future if we need the assistance of everybody as well," he said. "So, our role was a lot bigger than just should we be there or shouldn't we, It's promises that we've made to other countries that we need to honour in case we need to call upon them."
A dangerous job
Appel has done seven tours of duty in his military career including Croatia and Bosnia on UN peacekeeping missions and Pakistan as part of the DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) that responded to the humanitarian crisis following that country's 2005 earthquake. He also did a stint at the North American Signals Intelligence base at Alert, Nunavut. He first deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 as a radar technician at Camp Warehouse, the multinational operations centre just outside the Afghani capital of Kabul. His final tour, in 2009, was also a relatively safe posting --if such a thing can be said about any job in Afghanistan--to Kandahar Airfield (KAF).
Deploying involves things most Canadians rarely have to think about. For example, Appel said he always makes sure all his affairs are In order before he goes knowing that there's always a significant risk of not coming back.
Still, it is what he signed up for.
"There's excitement, fear, you're scared, but it's a bit of an adrenaline rush," he explained. "Like any other job, if you were to go to school for your entire career and never do what you were trained to do, it's kind of pointless, so it's kind of nice to be able to go over and do what you trained to do and serve your country, which is what we wanted to do in the first place. For me, it's better than everything else. You're doing something for your country, you're proud of your country, you're proud of what you're doing; it's addictive."
It was during Appel's second Afghanistan tour in 2007, he faced the greatest risk. Stationed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ma'Sum Ghar in Kandahar Province during some of the fiercest fighting of the war, imminent danger was a daily reality.
"The biggest thing was probably the rocket attacks when I was in Ma'Sum Ghar," he said. "We usually got rocketed every night between eight and nine o-clock; that was the worst for me."
Ultimately, though, he learned to cope with it.
"At first it was a little bit scary, but after a while you just get used to it. Normally it was when I was about to go to sleep so I'd roll over and try to go back to sleep," he explained." The thing is that their technology isn't like ours, so their accuracy was very low, it was a 'Hail Mary' shot into a big camp and it doesn't really matter what you do, if it hits you it hits you, if it doesn't it doesn't and that's the thing about being a soldier, it doesn't matter how good you are at your job, there's things that are out of your control."
He was also always acutely aware there were plenty of his colleagues who had it worse.
"Our job in the artillery is different than the infantry, so we're not the guys right on the front line," he said. "We can attack from 30 kilometres away so our biggest security was wide open space. If we could see a kilometre around us, especially with thermal, nobody could get close before we knew they were there and we could prepare, whereas the infantry were the ones entering compounds and getting in firefights. Their job is a little more dangerous than ours."
It may be hard for civilians to imagine there could be something worse than being shelled, but Appel suggested there are. The geography and climate of Afghanistan is varied, but the south, where Canadian Forces were largely stationed is a true desert characterized by less than eight inches of rain annually and oppressively hot in summer.
"You never feel clean, never, ever, ever, because no matter what you do there's dust in the air," Appel said. "And it's not like regular dust, it's more like baby powder, for the most part, so if you step in the dirt, the baby powder floats up all the way up to your face so there's no, 'if you drag your feet you get dirty,' no, it's all the time you'll get dirty."
Adapting to those conditions was also a challenge with the equipment.
"For us, it's a lot more difficult with the weapons, adapting to them, cleaning them regularly, same with the vehicles and the air filters and all that kind of stuff," he said. "[The dust] gets into everything and causes problems."
At the main bases, Camp Warehouse and KAF, for example, there are mitigating strategies, but out in the field there is no getting away from it, Appel explained.
"They do a lot of crushed rock in the camp to keep the dust from coming up," he said. "Out in the FOBs and austere positions there's nothing you can really do other than clean your equipment regularly, cover up the engine area and the weapons when they're not being used to prevent the dust from getting in, but you still get some in there. We switched from using oil to using graphite so the dust doesn't stick to it."
The daily grind
"It depends on your job," he said. "When I was in KAF, it was normally an eight to five job and then as required in the evenings and seven days a week, so you're always on call if needed. When we're outside the wire, we had shift schedules for sentry and our main job was to fire the guns, so whenever we got a call that [the infantry] needed support, we stopped what we were doing and we manned the guns, unless you're on sentry; we always had people out there 24 hours a day."
At times, though, there could be long periods between calls for support.
"It gets pretty boring," Appel said. "We play a lot of cards and different games, some people work out. They had sat phones there. They had Internet, so even though we were in the middle of nowhere we had satellite Internet that we were allowed so much use a week so you can still keep in contact, whereas my first tour, when I was in Croatia, we got a 15 minute phone call a week and that was it, and letters, so it was quite a bit different from my first tour to my last tour."
Basically, it is more than a full-time job, but they do get some time off.
"Normally what we'll do is we'll come back to either a FOB or to KAF to reconstitute, bum up on more ammo or resupply food and water, get laundry done, sometimes get a break, a day or two off depending on what the next mission is or how soon you have to get out the door again," he said. "A lot of times they do a lot of rotation with the infantry, us not so much because we can sit in a remote area and support a wide area, especially if it's slow moving, we could sit there for three months and whatnot, so at the end of the three months, we'll move back, whereas the infantry may have rotated four or five times, or more in that timeframe. We go back to KAF, we switch to gate guard so we're only working four hours a day for a couple of days and get a little rest and sleep."
They also might get to see a show. All the countries represented at KAF bring in celebrities, musicians, actors, comedians, professional athletes and other prominent people. In addition to the obvious entertainment value, Appel said it is a morale boost to know the people are behind them.
"It's nice and they stress their appreciation of what we do and that Canadians are proud of what we do and whatnot," he said. "The only bad thing is not everybody gets to see it because depending on your rotation, you may be out for that two months and you may miss the show that comes there once every tour so a little bit more of that would be a little bit better."
IEDs (Improvised Everything Devices)
Afghanistan made IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) a household term in Canada, but the infamous Taliban bombs were not the only thing being improvised in the country.
For example, in the field, the artillery soldiers would use a shell casing from the big guns as a urinal. They would plant it in the ground, Appel explained, with holes punched in the sides at the bottom to disperse the smell into the ground.
Other innovations also helped the troops feel a little more at home.
"There's a lot of stuff we don't have, so we use an ammo can with some charcoal and lighter fluid, we have Coleman stoves so we take the grill off of that and we make a barbecue," he said.
"We get sheets of plywood, wood is scarce over there so whenever we can we try to get some wood. We slide them along the edge of our ammo trucks which gives us another foot and a half height so we can store a lot more stuff in our trucks and then when we do get to a position we can use it to build a facility to use as a washroom and give you a little bit of privacy. It takes a little bit more time and normally when we set it up, we're going to be there for a long period of time.
"We can also build shelter for shade cause a lot of times it will range from 30 degrees Celcius to as high as 60 degrees Celcius and if you don't have any shade it gets pretty warm."
Last week, on CBC Radio's The House, Defence Minister Peter Mackay said he wished Canada had better equipped Canadian Forces in the early days of the war.
"I don't think the ferocity of the mission perhaps dawned on even military leaders, let alone political leaders of two different governments," he said. "In retrospect, we could have perhaps prepared our soldiers better through both equipment and training."
Appel said he noticed the change over time.
"The equipment's gotten a lot better," he said. "Even from my first tour in Afghanistan to the third tour, we were continually upgrading our techniques and our tactics, because they keep changing theirs, so we have to adapt all the way along. Just because you were there three years ago, it could be a completely different situation, depending on your job, as well."
Appel explained some of the changes included more heavily armoured vehicles and a switch from sandbags to Hesco Bastions—collapsible wire mesh containers with heavy duty fabric liners that can be filled with earth or sand—making it a lot easier to build protection around their positions.
Ultimately, the last word serves as a reminder of how lucky Canadians are to live in a country at peace.
"Everybody hopes that life will be normal," Appel said.
"A Canadian person doesn't understand that they don't have to live in fear every day of their lives because they don't have to worry that a school is going to blow up. There is the possibility where a gun is at school, but it's not a daily occurrence that you're just walking down the street or down a back alley and you step on a land mine or you're caught in a firefight just because you're at the market at the wrong time."