Families of the fallen answer call of Kandahar for perhaps the last time

Keith Gerein, Postmedia News: Sunday, March 20, 2011

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — A long five years have passed for Tim Goddard since his daughter, Capt. Nichola Goddard, became the first female Canadian soldier to be killed in combat.

In that time, there have been many occasions to lay wreaths, say prayers and shed tears over her death, but Goddard felt there was still one thing he needed to move a little nearer to some form of closure.

So when he was recently presented with an invitation to travel to the country where his daughter died, he couldn’t say no.

“It’s good to be here to see the full moon over Kandahar and taste the dust and just be in this place where Nichola was,” Goddard said Sunday, following a sombre memorial service at Kandahar Airfield. “My wife, Sally, decided she didn’t want to come; she feels at peace with things as they are. I felt a duty to come.”

As it turns out, Goddard’s trip was likely his last opportunity to go. With Canada’s combat mission winding down over the next few months, the next-of-kin visit going on this week is expected to be the last in Kandahar.

In total, relatives of 10 slain Canadian soldiers made the journey to the airbase. Besides Sunday’s service, their program includes talks with Canadian commanders, tours of parts of the base and a visit to the airfield hospital.

“Nichola was always outside the wire. She only spent a little time here at Kandahar base, but I wanted to see it,” Tim Goddard said, sporting a loud, multi-coloured tie that Nichola used to laugh at every time she saw it.

He said he was gratified to hear from commanders that the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers have now led to a much improved security situation in southern Afghanistan, allowing coalition forces to install new roads, schools and clinics.

“My work is education, so for me, to see those kinds of things happening and that kind of progression, that’s what it’s all about.”

Another mourner who felt the call of Kandahar was Laszlo Miok, whose brother, Sgt. George Miok, was killed on Dec. 30, 2009, when a roadside bomb hit his vehicle. Three other soldiers and journalist Michelle Lang also died in the incident.

Laszlo said he hopes the Canadian government finds a way to continue inviting relatives to Afghanistan.

“My brother would have wanted me to come out here to see the lifestyle he lived, what he did out here, how he enjoyed his job in Afghanistan,” Miok said of George, who was a beloved junior-high teacher in Edmonton when he was not overseas as a reservist.

“These next-of-kin visits are very informative for the families. It provides them with a lot of comfort, not only the ceremonies, but with seeing the place and hearing about the operations happening.”

Accompanying Laszlo to Sunday’s service was his mother, Anna Miok, who used a tissue to carefully clean George’s likeness engraved on his memorial plaque.

“I still have three good boys, but I really miss the fourth,” she said, wiping away tears.

Also remembered Sunday was Capt. Jonathan Snyder, one of very small group of soldiers to be awarded the Star of Military Valour.

The Edmonton-based soldier earned the honour for his actions during a gun battle in June 2008 in the Zhari district west of Kandahar City. Snyder was travelling with a company of Afghan soldiers he was mentoring when the group was ambushed on three sides by up to 30 Taliban insurgents.

Two Afghan troops were killed immediately, while the rest of the group withdrew. Snyder was asked to take two other Canadian soldiers and retrieve the Afghans’ bodies.

“They went back into the kill zone, grabbed those soldiers and their weapons and dragged them back,” said Col. Francois Riffou, one of Snyder’s commanding officers. “That’s a pretty serious exercise in leadership.”

Four days after this show of bravery, Snyder was killed when he fell down a well during a night patrol. At the time, he was planning his wedding to his high-school sweetheart, Megan Leigh-Stewart, who was at Sunday’s ceremony but did not talk to media.

“This was a guy of exceptional character and intelligence who loved to lead his troops, whether it was in training, socially or on the battlefield,” said Lt.-Col. Tod Strickland, who knew Snyder in Edmonton and during his first tour in Afghanistan in 2006.

Other attendees included relatives of Cpl. Anthony Boneca, Pte. Demetrios Diplaros, Cpl. Jonathan Couturier, Lt. Andrew Nuttall, Sgt. John Faught and Pte. Tyler Todd.

The mother and brother of Trooper Cory Hayes also came for the ceremony, which was coincidentally held exactly two years after Hayes died.

Canada’s top commander in Kandahar, Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner thanked all of the relatives for coming to experience a small taste of a soldier’s life in Afghanistan.

After laying wreaths at the memorial, the families received a flag from Col. Timoor Shah, commander of the Afghan army unit based at Kandahar Airfield.

“They will be remembered in world history for their sacrifices,” he told attendees.

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Moms, dads weep at memorial

Service for families held at Kandahar Airfield

By Tara Brautigam, Canadian Press KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Mon, Mar 21 - 4:54 AM

ANNA MIOK KISSED her right hand, touched the monument that bears her son’s name and wept in a gesture that symbolized the pain of a mother who has lost her child to war.

It was one poignant moment of many Sunday as the families of 10 Canadians killed in Afghanistan paid tribute to their loved ones at Kandahar Airfield in what could be the last ceremony of its kind before the military mission ends.

One by one, the parents, spouses and siblings of those killed placed wreaths at the foot of the monument dedicated to Canadians who have died as part of the Afghan mission.

Laszlo Miok said he made the journey to Kandahar for the first time in memory of his younger brother, Sgt. George Miok, a 28-year-old Edmonton school teacher who died on Dec. 30, 2009.

"My brother would’ve wanted me to come out here to see the lifestyle that he lived, what he did out here, how he enjoyed his job in Afghanistan," said Miok, 32.

"I know at times it’s hard to justify whether it’s worth it or not when it comes to such a loss. I think something needs to be done and sacrifice is sometimes part of that when it comes to endeavouring in such a great cause."

The roadside bomb that killed Miok also claimed the lives of Pte. Garrett Chidley, Cpl. Zachery McCormack, Sgt. Kirk Taylor and Michelle Lang, a reporter for the Calgary Herald who had been in the country for just two weeks.

They were travelling in a light-armoured vehicle on a muddy road outside Kandahar city when it struck several hundred pounds of homemade explosives. Five others were injured.

The father of Capt. Nichola Goddard, who was the first Canadian woman to be killed in action while serving in a combat role, said the next-of-kin memorial service provided him a measure of comfort.

"It was quite peaceful, more than I anticipated," said Tim Goddard, a former professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.

"I came with a blank canvas just to see what would happen and to see what I would feel, and so it’s been a really eye-opening visit."

Nichola Goddard, a 26- year-old artillery officer from Calgary, who attended high school in Antigonish, died in a Taliban ambush in the Panjwaii district on May 17, 2006.

"It’s been a long five years and it was good to be here . . . and sort of taste the dust and be in this place where Nichola was," her father said.

For Donna Beek, the visit served as a reminder that her son, Trooper Cory Hayes, sacrificed his life for a just cause.

"People say, ’They died for nothing,’" she said.

"I don’t think so. I think we came, we made a little bit of peace for them, we showed them a better way of living. And now as we pull out, as we must . . . it’s up to them to move on in their own way."

Hayes of Ripples, N.B., was killed exactly two years ago in the Shah Wali Kot district in northern Kandahar from an improvised explosive device. He was 22.

The commander of Task Force Kandahar thanked the relatives who attended and said he hoped they will leave with a better appreciation of the role their loved ones played in the mission.

"Hero is a word not often used in everyday life, but a word entirely appropriate when speaking of those who we remember here today," Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner said.

"A hero is a courageous individual, an individual admired for remarkable qualities such as courage, duty and selfless service. Each of your loved ones possessed and displayed such qualities in spades."

There was some brief doubt whether Sunday’s service was going to proceed after the Defence Department discovered nearly two months ago that the publicly funded trips did not clearly fall within spending guidelines.

The costs of this visit were paid for by the military families fund, which is financed by private donations and fundraisers.

Since Canada’s mission began in 2002, 154 military personnel, two aid workers, a diplomat and a journalist have died in the country.

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