Politics

Families of fallen soldiers to attend 'highly emotional' re-dedication of Afghan cenotaph

Families of fallen soldiers to attend 'highly emotional' re-dedication of Afghan cenotaph

It started as a simple two-tonne boulder, a nondescript hunk of rock plucked from the lonely Afghan wilderness and hung with a few plaques, but through almost a dozen years of war and heartbreak it has morphed into a major symbol of national sacrifice.

The cenotaph that will be re-dedicated Saturday in a large public ceremony in Ottawa looks almost nothing like the original, humble soldier's monument first unveiled in 2003 by a grief-stricken combat engineer.

It is bigger, more elegant and — as was demonstrated last spring — exceedingly more powerful.

As many 1,100 people, including 585 family members who lost loved ones, are expected to attend the service on the grounds of the new National Defence Headquarters.

The Canadian cenotaph at Kandahar Airfield, as it was in 2006, at the outset of the combat mission. A larger version of the monument, which included American soldiers killed under Canadian command, was brought back to Canada in 2011. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

The ceremony follows public anger and frustration that occurred in May when the memorial hall, which houses the cenotaph, was opened in a private ceremony that included only senior government officials and high-ranking members of the military.

Family members were excluded and the public wasn't notified until three days after the commemoration.

The country's top military commander, Gen. Jonthan Vance, apologized for the frustration and hurt feelings and the federal government organized Saturday's event, allowing the family of each fallen soldier to bring up to six members, at public expense, to Ottawa.

The gesture is deeply appreciated, said Jim Davis, of Bridgewater, N.S., whose son Cpl. Paul Davis was killed in the rollover of an armoured vehicle in 2006.

The families of fallen soldiers are tight-knit and have a support group that meets regularly. Shortly after the controversy over the private ceremony erupted, almost three dozen families were in Ottawa where defence officials took them on a low-key tour of the memorial hall in June.

Any lingering hard feelings, said Davis, evaporated once they saw the cenotaph and the reverence in which the memories of their loved ones were being treated.

The expanded Canadian cenotaph at Kandahar Airfield, photographed in 2008. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

"I was feeling the spirit of all those fallen soldiers because they were all there in a group," he told CBC News, "It's just highly emotional. And for anybody that's in grief, I think it's a wonderful experience to be in that room, in that hall."

Part of the angst surrounding the cenotaph has long involved the choice of location, It is behind the security perimeter at the new defence complex in west Ottawa and not easily accessible for the general public, which the families had wanted.

Davis said he's heard the explanations about protecting the site and preserving it from the elements, but still doesn't entirely accept why the building could not have been erected as an addition to the Canadian War Museum.

The cenotaph — portions of which were displayed on Parliament Hill six years ago and subsequently toured the country — originally stood outside of the Canadian task force headquarters at Kandahar Airfield.

Sharon and Jim Davis, the stepmother and father of Cpl. Paul Davis who died in a LAV accident in Afghanistan in 2006, place flowers atop a cenotaph that commemorates the 83 Canadians killed in the country since 2002, at Kandahar Airfield on Wednesday, April 16, 2008. (The Canadian Press/James MCarten)

It was dismantled and brought back to Canada following the end of combat operations in 2011.

At the time, it included 192 black granite plates etched with the photographs of Canadian soldiers and civilians killed during the decade-long conflict, as well as those of Americans who died while under Canadian command in Kandahar.

A proposal by the previous Conservative government to create a separate, lasting, public memorial to Afghanistan has been stuck in bureaucratic disagreements across four different departments and agencies.

Shortly after last spring's controversy, the National Capital Commission announced a site for that new monument had been chosen. The monument will be installed at Lebreton Flats, near the Canadian War Museum.

A design competition is expected to follow.