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Saluting our Afghanistan vets

Winnipeg tributes to those who served some of many across the nation on special day

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Major Lisa Baspaly speaks to Alex Paul after the first National Day of Honor at a ceremony at The Air Force Heritage Park.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Major Lisa Baspaly speaks to Alex Paul after the first National Day of Honor at a ceremony at The Air Force Heritage Park. Photo Store

Several ceremonies in Winnipeg on Friday paid tribute to Canada's military men and women on the first National Day of Honour.

The largest event was at 1 Canadian Air Division headquarters off Sharp Boulevard in St. James, where the Canadian Forces Base shares space with 17 Wing Winnipeg and the Canadian Norad (North American Aerospace Defence Command) region.

American officers in dark-blue uniforms marched with Royal Canadian Air Force officers to a parade ground in the shadow of vintage fighter aircraft.

Under clear skies and a chilly north wind, about 200 men and women, including military personnel and their families, stood quietly through speeches and prayers.

The sombre ceremony ended with two minutes of silence. A piper played two short salutes, but not the keening Highland lament so often linked with Canada's war dead.

The Day of Honour as it played out in Winnipeg wasn't so much about soldiers' ultimate sacrifice as a country's military commitment.

Across the country, similar events honoured the 40,000 Canadian military and support personnel who served in Afghanistan, the country's largest military mission since the Second World War.

Invited dignitaries at the Winnipeg airbase included Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who said he was proud the base was part of his riding, Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia.

"Every single one of those people were volunteers," Fletcher said, emphasizing the veterans' commitment. "Nobody had to go, but Canada, Canadians and our military families stepped up and helped meet Canada's military obligation."

Canada's Conservative government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, stirred some criticism for its decision to single out the Afghanistan conflict for a special day of tribute apart from the annual Remembrance Day events that honour Canada's war dead.

In Winnipeg, the senior general at the air force event said the tribute was a way to honour the largest military commitment since the Second World War.

"Think of it this way," said Maj.-Gen. Pierre St-Amand, commander of 1 Canadian Air Division and the Canadian Norad region, in an interview at the end of the 90-minute event.

"This is now a part of our history, something that has become a part of our military heritage. All of these factors together have given us cause to stop and think about our commitment and the meaning of the sacrifices."

Canada's 12-year mission in Afghanistan saw many sacrifices. Among Canadians killed were 158 soldiers, a diplomat, a journalist and two civilian contractors.

"They deserve recognition," St-Amand said. "For the country to take a few hours to pause and think about that, it's recognition for our members. It's a big deal."

Brookside Cemetery's Field of Honour was part of the nationally co-ordinated ceremonies just after the noon hour. The Brookside ceremony was conducted by the army reservists from 38 Canadian Brigade Group.

After that, the Norwood St. Boniface Legion Branch No. 43 hosted a smaller remembrance at Legion House Museum, 134 Marion St.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2014 A4

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