Major Doug Friesen, an Anglican, is senior chaplain with the Canadian Forces stationed in Afghanistan.
The First World War ended 90 years ago on Nov. 11. After a terrible battle in the Ypres Salient in the spring of 1915, Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian army medical officer from Guelph, Ont., wrote his well beloved poem, In Flanders Fields, in which the dead would pose a challenge to the living. “To you from failing hands we throw the torch …“
Canadians would pick up that torch in the global battles of the Second World War, Korea and every peacekeeping mission and the numerous humanitarian interventions ever since. Today a new generation of veterans will join their elders at the memorial services. Some of both generations will bear wounds seen and unseen. All have been changed.
Canadians gather on “Red Fridays” in support of members of the Canadian Forces and their families. Yellow and camouflaged ribbons expressing support for our military personnel abound. Many come to pay their respects when our dead come home, and line the highway from Canadian Forces Base Trenton to Toronto. A nation grieves.
Walking with a friend who was in uniform, I was moved to hear a stranger say to him: “Thank you for what you are doing.” Implicit was the feeling that what was being done is to further the worthy hope for a world at peace where justice prevails and in which all dwell in security and without fear. These are the things that we value as a country, would wish for others, and are prepared to do our part to make them so.
Immediately, Afghanistan comes to mind. Thousands of Canadian Forces personnel have served there since 2002. Some have died and others have been wounded. All are far from home. With them are other Canadians including members of the police, firefighters, aid and development workers and those involved in diplomacy and governance support. If there is to be sustained and lasting peace for the world, particularly for the people of Afghanistan, and indeed all nations – there must be the freedom that comes from security and safe environments. Social infrastructure must be in place, providing such things as schools, water, housing, health care and jobs. There must be good governance appropriate to the culture, and the assurance of a sovereignty that is not threatened from within or without.
Traveling recently in Afghanistan with soldiers of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, one of our reserve units, I thought of their regimental history and June 30, 1916 at Beaumont Hamel when 780 men went over the top. The next day, just 68 answered roll call. July 1 remains a sacred day for the people of Newfoundland. The regiment re-formed and fought throughout the rest of the war, the next war and are now serving in this current mission. From generation to generation young men and women come forth to serve. “To you … we throw the torch.”
On Remembrance Day, and at the commemoration of the Battle of the Atlantic, we will remember the Royal Canadian Navy and their comrades of the Merchant Marine who braved the storms and u-boats of the North Atlantic. We remember Canadians who served in the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force in campaigns such as the Battle of Britain and a myriad of other sorties in Europe and Asia. Their successors also carry on a proud tradition of service.
Our Navy with Air Force helicopter crews will be at sea for long periods of time since 85 per cent of the world’s commerce travels on these oceans. Our ships will be part of international coalitions in places like the Gulf of Aden. Recently our ships, with the United Nations world food program, have delivered aid to Haiti and Somalia. The Air Force, as well as flying for the Afghanistan mission, also engages in humanitarian work, standing by during the recent hurricanes in the United States as well as delivering a Disaster Assistance Response Team to purify water and offer other support during the earthquakes in Pakistan.
Both the Air Force and the Navy with other elements of the Canadian Forces cover a vast geography for search and rescue missions, to ensure our territorial integrity, for environmental and fisheries protection and to aid in times of emergency.
The men and women of the Canadian Forces may be found in Sudan, monitoring a peace process after 20 years of war, and supporting the joint United Nations and African Union mission in Darfur.
As we remember those who have served their country in times past let us think of those who do so now. Let us remember those at home and whose loved ones have been or are now far from home for they, too, are veterans.
As a nation, it is right to remember those who in many places and at many times have served our country in peace and in war and have done what their country has asked them to do.
The torch has been passed to all of us. The ideals remain the same. May all live in that security in which peace and justice and dignity prevails for all and none shall live in fear. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”
Peter Coffin is the Anglican bishop ordinary to the Canadian Forces