Cost of Afghan mission weighs heavily on soldiers

Cost of mission weighs heavily on soldiers

Some in Afghanistan frustrated by toll, lack of clear purpose

By Bruce Ward, The Ottawa CitizenOctober 11, 2009

Padre Normand Cholette sees Thanksgiving in Afghanistan as a chance for soldiers to pause and consider how blessed their lives are compared to the hardships Afghans face.

"Abundance, freedom and security, there isn't much of that here," he said in an interview. "In a way, that should make us more aware and more thankful for the freedom, the security, that we have in Canada."

Soldiers will get a taste of home today with a special Thanksgiving dinner served at the DFAC -- the dining facility -- for their evening meal.

But the Thanksgiving holiday comes amid signs the mission in Afghanistan is taking a toll on some of the Canadian and U.S. soldiers.

Cholette spent time over the summer at forward operating bases, which serve as staging areas for Canadian troops who go out on combat missions. He said "morale remains good" among the soldiers who come to him for guidance and counselling.

And most of the soldiers interviewed over the past five weeks have been upbeat, driven by their sense of duty and determined to do their job as best they can.

But when given the assurance they would not be identified, some expressed their frustration with the mission.

"Our guys get killed but there doesn't seem to be any gains made," one said.

"The Afghans take all kinds of humanitarian aid, but they don't really help us find the Taliban. They never give anything back."

Others said they had no clear idea of what their purpose is here, or what they are expected to accomplish.

U.S. Marines, meanwhile, are taking their own lives at a startlingly high rate, according to recently released figures. Through September, the Marines have recorded 38 confirmed or suspected suicides in 2009. Should that rate continue until the end of the year, it would amount to a 20- per-cent increase from 2008 figures. Suicides among Marines also rose 27 per cent from 2007 to 2008.

At the Fraise Chapel here Sunday morning, U.S. army Chaplain Dan Urquhart wished a happy Thanksgiving to the Canadians attending the Protestant service.

Some congregants asked that special prayers be said for their loved ones. The list included spouses, a friend's son in rehab and a baby boy named Trooper who a few days ago had heart surgery to correct a birth defect.

Thanksgiving will be just another working day for most Canadian soldiers, who do not get a holiday. The average working day runs 10 to 12 hours, and there are no weekends off.

The soldiers have a saying -- "Every day is Tuesday" -- which means they don't get to go to work refreshed after a two-day break.
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