By: Scott Taylor
As published on Now Toronto's website November 11, 2015.
There's a new mood in the nation's capital, one of hope and expectation that newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will magically eliminate all the woes created by nine years of Stephen Harper.
Even at the traditionally sombre ceremonies leading up to Remembrance Day, renewed optimism can be sensed among the veterans' organizations that have been battling government bureaucracy to secure improved benefits.
The tragic irony, of course, is that Harper's Conservatives portrayed themselves as proud supporters of the troops. Almost immediately after being elected in 2006, Harper flew to Kandahar to proclaim that despite our mounting casualties in the Afghan mission, "Canada does not cut and run."
Those words played well with their Don Cherry fan base and became a battle cry for the pro-war Colonel Blimp pundits.
In the end, however, Canada did cut and run from NATO's failed intervention in Afghanistan. An elaborate Day of Honour on Parliament Hill on May 9, 2014, couldn't disguise the fact that everyone in the military community knew why there was no victory parade: Canadian soldiers fought for more than a decade to prop up one of the most corrupt and hated regimes on the planet. We failed to provide a secure environment; we failed to create a self-sufficient Afghan military; we failed to rebuild that devastated country's infrastructure. Period.
This was a first for the Canadian military.
Going back to the turn of the previous century, when Canada first deployed an expeditionary force to South Africa during the Boer War, followed by our national mobilization to wage two world wars, Canadian soldiers have historically returned home in triumph. The Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953 and was considered a draw, but South Korea remained independent. So mission accomplished there.
The Afghanistan intervention was also the first time our soldiers found themselves in the role of hostile occupiers rather than welcome liberators. The butcher's bill was steep, with 158 killed and another 2,000 returning vets suffering physical wounds and injuries. But those numbers, we now know, are not the full extent of our soldiers' suffering.
The mental strain of operating in an environment where fanatical insurgents were prepared to sacrifice their own lives to kill or maim Canadians took an unforeseen toll. The percentage of Afghanistan veterans suffering from the mental wounds often referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is far higher than in previous conflicts.
While a large number of soldiers diagnosed with PTSD are receiving treatment, those wounds continue to claim lives. At least 59 veterans have committed suicide since returning from Afghanistan, according to a recent investigation by the Globe and Mail.
But long before the Globe's exposé, as word spread through the mainstream media about the hidden death toll on the home front, the Conservatives seemed to be doing everything possible to anger veterans: closing Veterans Affairs service centres, fighting tooth and nail in court against veterans' benefit claims, appointing former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino, who proved incapable of displaying even the slightest hint of compassion for suffering veterans, as minister of veterans affairs.
The Liberals made a number of election promises aimed at winning back disaffected veterans. In addition to reopening service centres and creating a centre of excellence for the treatment of PTSD, the new government says it will introduce a long-overdue equivalent to the American GI Bill, which will pay for veterans' complete education, no matter what career they choose.
Also promised by Trudeau during the campaign was an end to Canada's air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria - yet another war in which there was no clear vision of what victory would look like.
While we all may know that ISIS is evil doers, the fact is that our soldiers have been fighting alongside some dubious allies against ISIS: Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, his Hezbollah and Russian allies as well as the Iraqi Shiite militia, which is supported by Iranian advisers.
The promise by a newly sworn-in prime minister to treat our veterans suffering from a lost war and bring our soldiers home from another conflict we cannot win is certainly reason for hope during this week of Remembrance. Lest we forget.