KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Grieving Canadians and Britons said goodbye on Tuesday to fallen relatives on Kandahar Air Field, a rare reminder in the heart of the war in Afghanistan of the human cost to Western armed forces that has made the decade-long conflict so unpopular back home.
Canada organizes family visits after a member of their armed forces is killed in Afghanistan so that relatives can “feel the heat, smell the air, get covered in the dust” that their loved ones knew in their last days, said Rear Admiral Andy Smith.
“It is still very recent, so a visit like this really helps us go through the grieving process,” said Guy Scherrer, father of Corporal Yannick Scherrer, who was killed by a homemade bomb in late March, after a memorial service on the base.
“I had many questions inside ... what was this for? And now I have the answer. I see now exactly what his job was, he was here for the protection of men, women and children,” he said.
Canada is the only nation fighting in the NATO-led coalition to organize such trips, which are expensive and complicated — flying civilians into a war zone can be a security worry — but are powerful experiences for the bereaved.
A British family were invited on what is likely to be the last such trip, with Canadian combat troops due to return home by the end of July, because Captain Ben Babington-Browne died on a Canadian helicopter that crashed.
The effort is a reminder of public unease in Canada about the war, which helped push the government to end its combat mission after nearly 10 years.
After spells in other areas, they spent five years as the lead nation in one of the toughest battlegrounds of the war, Kandahar province, the Taliban’s spiritual homeland, where they lost the majority of 155 soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
About 950 Canadian soldiers will still be based in Kabul helping train the Afghan police and army, however. Polls show that most Canadians oppose the mission in Afghanistan.
There are more than 30,000 people living on Kandahar Air Field, and although a war rages outside the heavily fortified walls, inside there are few tangible reminders of the dangers.
“Ramp ceremonies” honor the dead of all nations before they are flown out, but grieving families are normally thousands of miles away.
During the trip, the families eat at the mess halls used by their loved ones, visit the boardwalk area where soldiers relax at TGI Friday’s restaurant or play volleyball in their downtime.
They see military aircraft, the base medical center, and the tactical operations center where the war is coordinated.
They have a chance to meet the commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan and ordinary soldiers, some of whom fought with the person they have lost.
There is also a ceremony at a marble war memorial that will be taken back to Canada for permanent installation when the combat troops leave.
“My primary reason was to walk in Kristal’s footsteps, to hear the helicopters and the jets ... I can now picture an environment for some of the moments we shared over the telephone, some of her pictures,” said Matthew Giesebrecht, husband of Master Corporal Kristal Giesebrecht.
“I’ve learnt what a big part of her life the military was. I am so proud of who she was, and I am discovering all of that over again.”
Editing by Paul Tait and Alex Richardson