Troops mark last Canada Day in Kandahar
Published Friday, July 1, 2011 10:11PM EDT
Many of the Canadian combat troops deployed in southern Afghanistan celebrated their final Canada Day in the war-torn country Friday, as they prepare to return home by the end of the month.
The festivities were held at Kandahar Airfield, which soldiers have been streaming into from forward operating bases as Canada begins to withdraw from combat nearly a decade after entering the war.
There were a number of events planned for the troops' last Canada Day in the southern province, where they've had a presence since 2005.
Many special guests entertained the soldiers at a concert Friday evening, including Quebec comedians Andre-Phillipe Gagnon and Rick Mercer.
The occasion was also one of the few in which troops were allowed two beers and barbequed hamburgers, adding to the festive mood.
But there was also a sense of pensiveness among soldiers eager to return home.
"It's been a long tour," said Cpl. Kevin Bernier-Drolet.
Miniature Canadian flags lined the windshields of vehicles as soldiers lined up at an on-base Tim Hortons where employees gave all troops -- including Americans -- red and white maple leaf ball caps.
Mike Smith, better known as "Bubbles" from the Trailer Park Boys, made an appearance at the military base. The bespectacled character was spotted handing out iced cappuccinos to soldiers.
He said he was happy to see Canadian troops "give'in her and gettin' things done," but that he felt more at home living in a trailer park.
"I won't forget the heat and the dust and the sheer scale of everything going on over here," Smith said.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and defenceman Luke Schenn were also spotted signing hockey gear.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay read a message from Prince William and his wife Kate before the concert got underway.
The royal couple, who were in Ottawa for the Canada Day festivities, said they wanted to thank Canadian troops from the bottom of their hearts.
"This has not come lightly," their message read. "Because the Canadian Forces are always to the fore, the sacrifices have been great. They have made a difference to the lives of the many thousands who most needed assistance through compassion and humanity."
Soldiers weren't shy about displaying their patriotism, and many gravitated to CTV's cameras to send their families Canada Day greetings.
"To everyone back home, thanks for supporting us, hope everything's good back there," said one young corporal.
Another officer, originally from Petawawa Ont., waved at the camera excitedly to assure her relatives that she'd be home soon.
"My family and everybody's in Kingston," she said. "I'll be home in two weeks."
While many Canadian troops will be coming home, hundreds of other military personnel will remain in Afghanistan after the end of the combat mission.
They will be helping to train the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, which will together take responsibility for the security of Afghanistan once NATO forces exit the country in the years ahead.
NATO countries hope to hand over responsibility to the Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
In an interview with The Canadian Press on Friday, MacKay acknowledged that many Canadian soldiers he had spoken to in Afghanistan wonder whether their hard work will outlast the combat mission.
"So much of the future of this country will rest with the Afghan government itself and its capacity to continue the good work of Canada and our ISAF partners," MacKay said.
"Will it hold, is the enduring question."
With a report from CTV's Lisa LaFlamme and files from The Canadian Press