Nunavut’s Afghanistan veterans praised at Day of Honour
“It sunk in that indeed, the danger was real"
Const. Henry Coman likes to believe he made a lasting difference in Afghanistan.
Coman, originally from Pangnirtung but raised in Iqaluit, put his life on hold in 2007 after reading an advertisement on an internal RCMP website that sought volunteers for the war zone on an internal RCMP website.
“So I put my name in and I was selected as one of the people to go over,” Coman said.
That’s how his year-long mission started as part of Canada’s contribution to the Afghanistan war, a decade of combat that for Canada, ended earlier this year.
Canada has now set aside May 9 as a National Day of Honour to pay tribute to the 40,000 people who served as part of the mission in Afghanistan.
Several notable Canadians have submitted video messages webpage marking the day, including Governor General David Johnston and Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price.
The message gallery allows people to “discover how Canadians from coast-to-coast are sharing their thanks with our troops and their families.”
A ceremony on Canada’s third coast also took place May 9 in Iqaluit, with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Cadet Hall, which included a moment of silence and a speech from Iqaluit resident Lt.-Commander Suzanne Otchensash, who also served in the Afghanistan war.
Otchenash was deployed to Kandahar airfield in 2011 as part of the closure mission, she told a few dozen members of the public who attended the event, along with Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna and Commissioner Edna Elias.
“We landed on Kandahar airport in the dark, in the middle of the night, and were met by buses that drove us to the tents — that would be our homes for the next few months,” Otchensash said.
Otchensash said her job was to ship materials back to Canada — but there were constant reminders of being inside a war zone.
“A little while into the deployment, I lay on the floor of my room, in the middle of the night with my pillow, where, as instructed, I had landed as I rolled out of bed in response to the rocket attack sirens,” Otchensash said.
“It sunk in that indeed, the danger was real,” she said. “Those rockets, however random and generally ineffective, could and have caused injuries, and even death to a few of my fellow soldiers.”
Coman — who laid a wreath during the ceremony on behalf of the RCMP — didn’t see any live combat in Afghanistan.
In training, mentoring and advising the Afghan National Police, Coman’s mission was more long-term, geared toward making that country safer into the future.
“We trained police officers there in some of the skills that they were certainly lacking,” Coman said.
“And hopefully they’ve gone and shown the training to the other police officers that we couldn’t train personally ourselves,” he said.
Coman also guided the police force in downtown Kandahar when necessary.
“Part of the duties was to take part in the QRF — the quick response force.”
That means when the quick response team would be called upon by the Canadian military, he would help guide Afghan National Police to guard certain areas of Kandahar.
Although it was a rewarding experience, Coman said it was difficult leaving behind a wife and two daughters in Iqaluit .
Kandahar is 8,700 kilometres away from Iqaluit, but even from this distant vantage, Coman saw how the mission in Afghanistan could have an impact beyond the Middle East.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re disconnected from the rest of the world […] the world’s shrinking every year it seems like,” Coman said.
“I know one of the things they were looking at doing was trying to eradicate the poppy fields to prevent the opium from leaving,” he said.
Afghanistan is the largest producers of opium in the world, the drug used to make heroin.
“That does travel throughout the world and Canada. We are affected to some extent, even though we are isolated,” Coman said.
At the ceremony, Iqaluit’s deputy mayor Mary Wilman laid a wreath in memory of Cpl. Jordan Anderson, who died in action in 2007 at the age of 25.