'I DON'T THINK ANYONE WANTS PEACE MORE THAN THOSE WHO HAVE SEEN WAR'
KAMLOOPS - Joining the military is a life-changing experience for many young men and women, and while four young Kamloops men joined knowing they were willing to pay the ultimate price to serve their country in Afghanistan, that doesn't change the effect the experience has had on them.
Some of these young men were just boys when they decided to join the Canadian Armed Forces, some served for only a few months, some for years.
Regardless of what happened in Afghanistan, what was seen and what couldn’t be unseen, they all unanimously say if given the chance, they’d do it all over again.
For Charles McGrath, he couldn’t wait to join the military. He joined in 2007 at the tender age of 17 and would have joined sooner if he could.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the army. Ever since I was three feet tall,” he says.
He feels his training as a reservist was geared specifically towards a tour in Afghanistan. McGrath did not think twice about volunteering for a tour and after nine months of basic training was stationed at the Kandahar Airfield working as an armed escort for re-supply envoys from the airfield to the operating bases.
McGrath admits there were times in Afghanistan he was nervous, but never afraid, and says one simply gets used to the sounds of warfare.
“There’s a rocket landing a kilometre over that way; whoop-dee-do.”
In fact, the greatest regret of McGrath’s entire tour was it didn’t last long enough. After only three months, he was hit by a car and broke his leg. He was sent home, which, to him, was a greater agony than the pain in his fractured tibia.
“Being sent back to Canada, recovering and… having all my platoon, my buddies still over in Afghanistan, still in harm’s way, and not being able to do anything. I think that’s the most frustrating thing I experienced,” McGrath says.
McGrath admits even after only three months in theatre, adjusting to life back home in Canada was a challenge.
“Transitioning out of that constant heightened sense of awareness, your guard’s up, you’re ready for anything at any point and you’re working (24 hours a day, seven days a week)…transitioning from that to literally sitting on my ass doing nothing. Coming home was very frustrating, I’m not going to lie.”
Now, McGrath works as a plumbing apprentice in Edmonton. When asked if he’d do it all over again, he replies without hesitation.
“Yes. In a heartbeat.”
Tyrone Carter joined the military in 2002; against his family’s wishes. For him, it was about being part of a cause that’s larger than himself.
“I feel that a lot of Canadians feel that Canada and Canadian soldiers are peacekeepers and they want to help support other countries, or third world countries, and I believe I helped do that on my tour of duty,” he says.
In 2011 Carter spent 10 months in Kabul on a training mission, to advise and mentor the Afghan National Army. He says his mission specifically taught teachers how to get information across to their soldiers more effectively.
He believes he was extremely lucky to have as efficient, or even peaceful, of a tour as he did because other members of his particular camp were not so lucky.
Carter was charged with transporting Master Cpl. Byron Greff only to learn Greff and 16 others were killed by a suicide bomber enroute to camp. Greff’s death made national headlines back in Canada.
“In my opinion, anything goes over there. It doesn’t matter if it’s a training mission, it doesn’t matter if it’s a combat tour. We all fight the same. We all die the same,” Carter says.
Carter confesses to feeling a bit of a stranger in his own home upon returning to Canada. At the urging of his wife, he took an entire year off from working before taking a position with the Kamloops school board. He admits, though, he didn’t agree at first.
“I was just worried about ‘okay now I need to find work, I don’t have a job. I’ve got to find a new career’,” Carter says.
He also feels more could be done to help veterans like himself upon their return into society, citing the Veteran’s Affairs office under the previous government specifically.
“It was clear as day, I don’t think that support was there from the government. Maybe at some point, or in some instances but for the most part, no. I hope that changes,” Carter says.
Alexei Gavriel joined the Canadian Armed Forces as a 16-year-old and by 2008, at age 21, was on tour in Kandahar. The difference between Gavriel and some of his colleagues, is that he has never really left.
“Between 2010 and 2015 I worked in Afghanistan as contractor, where I served principally as a social scientist conducting research on local dynamics of conflict and advising policy-makers,” he says, adding after completing his PhD research at Queen’s University Belfast he plans on returning to the country to continue his work.
Gavriel concedes Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and while attacks are random they are constant.
“(Attacks) could be across town, where you were 15 minutes ago, or outside your gate. You run the risk of being killed at any moment.”
He recalls a story of near-international incident, and near death for him. Gavriel and a colleague were only two blocks away from their destination when it was attacked. They heard a bomb blast, turned their car around and returned to a secure location, all the while attempting to contact friends and family to ensure everyone was safe.
“There were few details at the time but the story eventually emerged that a suicide bomber blew up the front entrance, killing the security guards and several Afghans on the street. Two gunmen entered the restaurant and executed everyone inside,” Gavriel says.
But as was the nature of his job in Afghanistan, he was back to work and on the road again within a few short hours. During a only a few hours of decompression, talk time, his local driver told him 'in Afghanistan, if we lived in fear we could never live at all.' Gavriel says this was one of the most important things he learned while overseas.
Gavriel believes by wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day you can show a veteran you truly care, you empathize with their struggles and understand their sacrifices. He says it’s unfortunate the day has become so politicized, because it really should be for those who served.
“I don’t think anyone wants peace more than those who have seen war,” he says.
Mike Oviatt’s entrance into the Rocky Mountain Rangers in 2005 was considerably less auspicious than some of his colleagues. For him, it was either a life of crime or a life of service.
“The long and the short of it was, I was planning my first (break and enter) at the time that I joined the military. It was like ‘I need money, what can we do? Well we could rip off this guy’s T.V., he’s on vacation, or we could join the military’,” he says.
Oviatt served one 10-month tour in Afghanistan beginning in 2009, where he served a wide variety of roles including operating a battle damage claim centre and reimbursing Afghans for damages done by Canadian tanks and artillery.
While he says he genuinely enjoyed his job, particularly interacting with locals every day, Oviatt’s perception of human nature has changed since his war experience. He believes the world is very much a ‘Hobbesian’ reality, or as the political theorist explained 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.'
“Everybody you met you had to suspect of trying to kill you,” he says.
When asked if he witnessed things in Afghanistan that still bother him today, Oviatt replies simply.
“Yes. And I’m going to leave it at that.”
He admits his transition back home was extremely trying, he needed time 'to just be me' before he was able to rejoin the world. Oviatt found obtaining gainful employment an unexpected hurdle back into society.
“How do you write a resume out of ‘I spent 10 months in a third world country, helping them get money for their destroyed shit and also not dying’?” he says.
Oviatt says whether Canada achieved its mission in Afghanistan or not is not for him decide, saying instead that’s in the realm of politicians. But as a young veteran having served in Canada’s most recent war, he feels Remembrance Day is an important observance; just not for him.
“We don’t need a designated day, or a designated month to remember those guys; we think about that shit every day.”
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