‘In the service of peace’: The Kandahar Cenotaph

Article / August 15, 2019 / Project number: ncr-ar-19-0163

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By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario — While combat was a significant aspect of Canada’s decade-plus Afghanistan mission, our men and women in uniform made many other significant contributions.

They helped set the stage for a more stable, self-determined future for the people of Afghanistan as trainers and mentors to the Afghan National Security Forces. They provided security that enabled important development work led by other Canadian government agencies such as Public Safety Canada, the RCMP, and Trade and Development Canada.

They were working, and sacrificing, as one of the inscriptions on the Kandahar Cenotaph reads, “in the service of peace.”

Canada’s part in this time and place was wide-ranging, and so is the Cenotaph, which has grown into what it is today over many years.

Memorial plaques

In all, there are 189 memorial plaques. Of those, 149 are in remembrance of deceased Canadians: 157 soldiers, Foreign Affairs (now Global Affairs Canada) official Glyn Berry, journalist Michelle Lang, and civilian contractor Marc Cyr.

The remaining are in memory of the 42 American soldiers and one civilian who were under Canadian command at the time of their deaths.

Original cenotaph unveiled Remembrance Day 2003

The story of the Cenotaph begins in 2003 at Camp Julien, the Canadian Armed Forces’ encampment in Kabul, Afghanistan.

There, Combat Engineer Captain Sean McDowell conceived a memorial to the first six Canadians killed: Sergeant Marc Léger, Corporal Ainsworth Dyer, Private Richard Green, Private Nathan Smith, Sergeant Robert Short, and Corporal Robbie Beerenfenger.

Unveiled in 2003 as part of Remembrance Day ceremonies at the camp, the initial design had at its centre a two-tonne boulder taken from the site where Sgt Short and Cpl Beerenfenger were killed when their jeep struck a mine. Enemy insurgents had placed the boulder on a road in the Kabul area to divert Canadian vehicles.

Attached to the boulder were a pair of plaques engraved with the names and images of the Fallen provided by Calgary businessman Rod McLeod. Rounding out the initial design were two marble plinths with the engraved inscription: “Dedicated to those Canadians who gave their lives in the service of Peace while serving in Afghanistan”/“Dédié aux Canadiens qui ont donné leur vie au Service de la Paix alors qu’ils servaient en Afghanistan.”

Following the formal ceremonies, base personnel paid their own, personal tributes, with many laying poppies on the Cenotaph.

The Cenotaph was a profound reminder to leaders as the war continued

It would continue to be a focal point for Remembrance Day ceremonies, both at Camp Julien and the Kandahar Airfield, where it would later be re-located.

Military historians note, too, that the Cenotaph was placed so as to be visible to the various mission commanders as a reminder of the profound responsibility of leadership.

As Remembrance Day 2005 approached, the Cenotaph had grown to include an additional plaque with the names of Cpl Dyer, Pte Green, Sgt Léger, and Pte Smith - all killed in a friendly-fire incident on April 18, 2002.

Moved to Kandahar Airfield in 2005, another plaque added in 2006

Camp Julien was closed and handed over to the Afghan government on November 25, 2005 and the Cenotaph was re-located to Kandahar Airfield as its volatile namesake province became the main focus of Canada’s mission.

When personnel gathered to mark Remembrance Day 2006, the Cenotaph had grown to include a fourth plaque added to honour Private Braun Woodfield, a Royal Canadian Regiment member killed in late November 2005. Pte Woodfield also received a posthumous Sacrifice Medal.

The Cenotaph had also been re-designed slightly, with the original boulder sitting atop a platform and the addition of two wooden wings sitting perpendicular to the stone. The marble plinths were replaced with short marble walls bearing the same inscriptions.

Canadian artist provided moving tribute

Further additions were made in time for 2008 Remembrance Day events at the airfield. From Canadian artist Sylvia Pecota came a plaque depicting an angel caring for a wounded soldier. Ms. Pecota spent time embedded with troops in Afghanistan as part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program - an experience that inspired her to create more than 50 works in total.

Two more marble columns with additional plaques honouring fallen members were also added, along with the flags of Canada and Afghanistan.

In May of 2010, officials announced a “major expansion.” This took the form of two new sections added in tribute to American soldiers killed while serving under Canadian command. Local contractors provided some of the labour, and it was completed in late June 2010.

At the time, there had been 26 American casualties recorded. In a sobering reminder of the cost of war, Canadian Forces engineers working on the project ensured space was left for future casualties. By the mission’s end, 42 U.S. military members working under Canadian authority had lost their lives, in addition to one American civilian contractor, Paula Loyd.

The last Remembrance Day ceremony to be held at Kandahar Airfield took place in 2011 after which Armed Forces engineers began to carefully dismantle the Cenotaph in preparation for its eventual return to Canada.

They painstakingly prepared detailed illustrations and took photographs to ensure it would be reconstructed accurately. Each of the plaques was removed and carefully placed in wooden crates and the marble structure cut with circular saws so the pieces could be shipped.

The original boulder and Ms. Pecota’s angel plaque were sent back to Kabul for continued use as a memorial until the end of Canada’s mission in 2014.

May 9, 2014 was celebrated in Canada as a National Day of Honour, and the Cenotaph was put on public view in Ottawa on Parliament Hill. Additional viewings were held in other major Canadian cities and in the U.S. capital.

The Cenotaph has now found a permanent home here in the Afghanistan Memorial Hall, located within National Defence Headquarters (Carling). A small and respectful dedication ceremony was held on May 13, 2019 with a limited guest list of military and government officials and announced days later.

Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance later acknowledged that the Department of National Defence had erred in not planning a more public event. Following an apology from Gen Vance, the Hall was opened to the general public. For those unable to attend today’s re-dedication, escorted visits can be pre-arranged on an ongoing basis.

Additionally, special arrangements can be made for families of the fallen wishing to visit outside of regular, working hours or with other special needs.

National Afghanistan memorial to be built in Ottawa

The Kandahar Cenotaph is a poignant symbol of Canada’s contributions to peace and stability in Afghanistan, but it will not be the last word on the mission: The Government of Canada is committed to establishing a national Afghanistan memorial and a site has been selected.

 The approved location for the public memorial to the Afghanistan mission is in Ottawa across the street from the Canadian War Museum. Planning for the project, including a national design competition, is now in its early stages. Design work is expected to start in the coming months, with the memorial unveiling now scheduled for fall 2023.

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