But this year, July 1st marked the official pull-out of our combat troops, the day marking the end of combat operations for the Canadian military.
So I got to thinking - what was Canada Day like for those members of the Canadian military in theatre in Afghanistan this year?
Was July 1st a time of celebration? Reflection? Fond wishes? A passive goodbye party? Or was it just cause to celebrate as one of the few occasions they are allowed two beers and barbecued hamburgers? Maybe all of the above?
For what it's worth, here's the view from Canada’s top commander on July 2nd as he bid farewell to combat troops in Kandahar.
Gen. Walt Natynczyk, in his final address before the formal end of operations, urged returning soldiers to watch their "battle buddies" and take care of each other as they begin the long journey back to regular life at home.
His remarks had a poignant ring for the soldiers of the 1st Battalion Royal 22e Regiment, as two of the four deaths in the last combat tour were suspected suicides.
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Natynczyk, the chief of defence staff, also spoke to the uncertainty most soldiers feel about the end of the Kandahar mission and what will become of an army that has evolved and takes enormous pride in being a fighting force.And, of course, Peter MacKay had to chime in too.
The world is an unpredictable place and the general noted how no one would have expected at this time last year that CF-18s would be involved in a NATO-led bombing campaign over Libya.
"Who knows what the future will bring," he said.
His comments were echoed by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who told troops during a town hall outside of the new Canada House at Kandahar Airfield that the mission in Afghanistan is not done, but simply evolving.Says he.
"We don’t leave tasks undone in Canada. We finish what we start," he said, referring to the training mission in the country’s north where up to 950 soldiers and support staff have started to deploy.
Well, it may supposedly* be the end of "combat" for Canada but it's far from the end of Afghanistan.
From now until March 2014, our military is to be deployed in a non-combat role to train the Afghan National Army. And we are to be centred in Kabul instead of the "always volatitile Kandahar province" (which seemed to be its official media name). Up to 950 military personnel will be provided to train the Afghan National Army and up to 45 civilian police officers will be deployed to train the Afghan National Police.
That's nice. But Afghanistan remains a volatile and challenging environment - have we made any real progress over the past ten years?
Our key achievements so far are said to include building and repairing 50 schools in Kandahar province, rehabilitating the Dahla Dam and its irrigation system, and contributing to the eradication of polio across Afghanistan.
And along with international partners we have helped train and mentor about 50,000 Afghan troops. The Afghan National Police now numbers almost 116,000, more than the 2010 goal of 109,000 set by the Afghan government and by the International Security Assistance Force. And, last but not least, our civilian and military police mentors have helped train and guide over 2,800 police officers since 2008.
We're told that through this work, we have provided necessary funding to build police stations, pay police salaries and equip officers. And as a result, a growing number of Afghans in Kandahar province say they feel safer in their communities. God, I hope so after all this.
But hey, as good as that sounds, we best not forget to add to our list of "accomplishments", finding and detonating (intentionally or not) a hell of a lot of IEDs. And routing out a lot of Taliban, some of whom later returned to the roost. After all, we paid dearly for that particular chunk of work.
But now we're told that our "new" role in that war-torn country will build on the accomplishments of our mission over the past 10 years. Our objective, we are told, remains the same: to help build a more secure, stable and self-sufficient Afghanistan that is no longer a safe haven for terrorists.
To do that we will focus on four key areas:
•investing in the future of Afghan children and youth through development programming in education and health;Funny, they say that hindsight is always 20/20. And yet I'm not so sure about that at the moment. Or perhaps we're just not far enough removed yet to develop that focus. Not I, anwyay.
•advancing security, the rule of law and human rights, including through the provision of up to 950 trainers for Afghan security forces;
•promoting regional diplomacy; and
•helping deliver humanitarian assistance.
Oh well, I'm glad it seems to be working out well for Prime Minitster Harper, anyway. /sarcasm off/
Forgive me I seem to be rambling. It's just that I probably am.
But I started this post wanting to wish a belated Happy Canada Day to our troops in Afghanistan, those soon on their way home, those just arriving to help pack things up and those who will remain behind to continue training the Afghan army, engage in development programming in education and health, promote regional diplomacy and help deliver humanitarian assistance. You know, what they said.
So, anyway, like Happy Canada Day, guys (and gals), eh.**
* I say "supposedly" because, call me crazy, but I just can't see how we can focus on the training or development work without engaging in security, aka combat. I mean, isn't that how we got here in the first place?
** If I sound a bit ambivalent there at the last, it's probably because I am. Not about wishing our troops a Happy Canada Day but about ... well, maybe it's kind of like how we speculate it might be for the troops, not sure if I'm feeling celebratory, reflective, or something else after writing this post. Perhaps a couple of