New Jersey

Local family remembers son’s deployment to Afghanistan

By Chris Drost

The mission

When Canada deployed troops to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, it was the largest military deployment for Canada since World War II. So now, on Memorial Day, our thoughts turn to those who have shared in the effort and to the families who have waited patiently at home.

The Afghanistan operation was part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force that came into effect after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the United States. The goal was to make Afghanistan a viable country with better governance, a stable and safe place, and not a haven for terrorists. More than 40,000 Canadians served between 2001 and 2014.

During the time Canadian troops spent in Afghanistan, they helped improve diplomacy, human rights and development. During those years, 158 Canadians died, plus another 22 in non-combat roles.

In 2021, after 20 years, the Islamic Republic was overthrown and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was re-established under the Taliban.

The family remembers

For local Cardiff family Cameron and Sharon McKenzie, it was a difficult time when their son Pete was posted to Afghanistan.

“We expected it,” said Pete’s father, Cameron, when asked how he reacted when his son told him he was being posted to Afghanistan. Pete had been in the military for about a year and a half at the time. He was deployed in October 2008 and returned home in late July 2009. He served in a supporting role as a communications specialist with the Canadian Forces Joint Signals Regiment in Kandahar.

When it came time for Pete to intercede, his father recalls first going to Kingston, where his son lived, to put him on a bus bound for Trenton for his flight. “After the bus left, we drove to Trenton and sat at the end of the runway until his plane took off,” Cameron explained with obvious emotion.

“Even though Pete was a signals operator working with radio and computer stuff, there was no safe location as there were constant indiscriminate attacks. Everyone stationed there was required to be armed at all times, even in support roles,” Cameron said.

“It was a war in our living rooms. During World War II, troops had to rely on letters to communicate with family. We were able to speak to Pete about once a month, and he spoke to his wife and children every couple of weeks,” Cameron added. The soldiers were assigned a time slot in which they could phone home.

Pete was home for a visit on Christmas 2008 but was scheduled to return overseas on Christmas Day. According to Cameron, it happened that there was a big snowstorm in Toronto and the airport was closed. “There were 40,000 disappointed travelers in Toronto and one very happy one in Kingston whose flight to Toronto was cancelled. Pete has to stay one more day.”

When Pete was serving in Kandahar, Cameron and his family made the decision not to tell Pete’s grandmother that he had been sent to Afghanistan. “She lived in a home and was so worried. We spoke as a family and decided it would be best not to tell her.” Even after Pete returned home, he didn’t tell his grandmother. Then one day, a minister who visited his grandmother about once a month noticed in her room a photo of Pete in uniform with his Afghanistan medal. “At that point we had to admit, but in the end she agreed that it wouldn’t have been good for her to know,” Cameron said.

“If a Canadian soldier was injured or worse, there would be a communications blackout. This meant no one could call and inform anyone else of the incident until the military had a chance to notify the family first,” Cameron explained.

When Tim Hortons opened a location in Kandahar, the Canadian troops brought a bit of Canadian culture with them. Pete particularly enjoyed this having previously worked as a baker at Tim Hortons in Bancroft. It was apparently popular with Canadians and troops from other countries.

“I don’t think anyone would look back and say the mission wasn’t valid, but unfortunately the radicals are back and it’s the way it was before. We don’t want to think we went in vain. The other thing is that soldiers do as they are told. That’s their job,” Cameron said.

“I used to worry about him [Pete] travel back and forth. He was just a country boy. When he was young and at parties I told him to just call your dad and I will come and get you. You couldn’t do that when he was abroad.”

“We are very proud of our soldier’s son. my grandson, [Pete’s son], just started Army Cadets this fall in Haliburton. Cadets, the best youth program in Canada,” said Cameron.

From Pete’s point of view

Pete has an insight into his mission in Afghanistan. “People remember Afghanistan and tell me what a shame it was for nothing,” Pete said.

“If you do something for a while, it changes your values. Some things don’t bother me that would bother others,” he explained.

Pete also served in Kuwait as part of a support role against ISIS. “My unit was loaned to the Royal Canadian Airforce,” Pete said.

In 2016, after returning from Kuwait, Pete made the decision to leave the military. He was officially released on November 7 of this year.

“Returning to civilian life has been difficult in varying degrees,” Pete said. He still lives in Cardiff but works for a company that does aircraft upgrades in Peterborough. Luckily, he returned with no lasting mental or physical problems.

“My father got me to read about World War II. I see that one of the books he gave me was signed by the last person in the North Africa conflict who died earlier this year.”

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