Friday, December 19, 2008


Last Spring, a freeway near me was renamed "The Highway of Heroes". It was a special designation recognizing a 100 mile ribbon of asphalt running from Trenton, Ontario to downtown Toronto. This is the route taken when Canadian soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan are returned home.

Military protocol requires the bodies of our fallen be flown to CFB Trenton, where their families have been gathered to receive them. Then a procession of hearses and limousines ferries them on a solemn two hour trip to a morgue in Toronto where their autopsies are performed.

As of today, 103 Canadian soldiers have made this final journey of repatriation and that alone would seem reason enough to rename a road.

But that's not the whole story. Because right from the return of our first casualty something very special has happened along this stretch of road.

While our politicians debate whether or not we should be in Afghanistan, a debate that ramps up in the media with each new casualty, ordinary Canadians are doing something else. They are coming in ones and twos, carrying flags and homemade banners and waiting, sometimes for hours, to show their respect as the fallen pass.

This grassroots show of affection and respect has grown to the point where thousands now line every mile of the route, a truly overwhelming sight to witness.

This week I was in traffic going the other way when our last three fallen soldiers were returned. I'd passed several of the overflowing bridges and overpasses, so I knew what lay ahead, but it hadn't prepared me for the moment when the procession arrived.

Traffic ahead slowed, then came to a stop. As the leading police cars passed on the other side of the median, two elderly gentlemen got out of the car in front of me. They walked to the shoulder, came to attention and saluted as the hearses passed. The Semi behind me laid on his air horn, sounding a long, forlorn salute of his own.

Inside one of the limousines, a woman placed her hand on the window acknowledging one of the banners or maybe the high school kids standing in the bed of somebody's pick-up with their hands over their hearts.

It only took a minute for the vehicles to pass. One of the old guys wiped away a tear as they returned to the car. The other gave me one of those waves old guys give you when they've disrupted the flow of things. And then the traffic started moving again.

An hour or so later, some talking head on CBC radio was going on about how the latest deaths meant we were paying too great a price for the mission. It made me wonder if anybody in the media ever considers that the immediate moment of grief might not be the best time to suggest a family's sacrifice has been in vain.

I've never had to go into combat and I'm not sure what it would take to make me willing to risk my own life or take someone else's in the name of a cause or a commitment made by my country. But I look at Afghan women executed for seeking rights Canadian women don't think twice about. I see little girls disfigured with acid because they just want to go to school. And I see cultural treasures destroyed because they represent the "wrong" religion -- and I figure having fewer of the guys perpetrating those crimes around is probably a good thing.

I also think that we should be doing a little more to let our men and women in uniform know we care about them than simply paying our respects on their final journey home.

If you'd like to send a Season's Greeting to one of our men or women in Afghanistan, you can do so by going here.

And if you'd like to do more, say make a donation to comfort those who've been wounded in battle, assist a military family or help out the people of Afghanistan who have been ravaged by this war, you can do any (or all) of those things by visiting this site.

However you may feel about their mission, these people are half a world away from their families at Christmas and each and every one of them is tackling a problem that requires a heroic personal sacrifice.

Let's show them that we care.


Dr. Dave said...

Excellent post. There is nothing more crucial, and nothing more lonely, than giving yourself to your country, to serve in arms. Either in peacetime or wartime, it is the bravest thing a citizen can do. If only others who haven't served thought like you did on this fundamental issue...a hell of a lot more good would get done. And a hell of a lot more bad would never happen.

DMc said...

A lovely piece Jim. I've been so moved by those spontaneous highway gatherings I can't even tell you.

However, please be careful to ramp down the "if you question our mission you don't support the troops stuff." It's just not true. And that canard in the USA quieted questions that should have been asked and papered over abuses that should never have been tolerated.

You can question the efficacy and the conduct of the mission while at the same time saying, "give them everything they need while they're there, now that they're there." And honor them when they come home having made the ultimate sacrifice.