Courtney Dickson, Roving Editor Ω
Rarely does one think of a war veteran as someone as young as 24 years old. Rarely is a war veteran thought of as a student walking the halls of TRU.
Max Birkner is an intelligent, well-spoken young man studying journalism. He doesn’t argue with his professors or draw attention to himself. He meets up with his friends for a drink every Thursday afternoon.
Kieran Van Wagoner is spending his university days studying history and enjoying time with his girlfriend. His smile is contagious. Nothing about him seems out of the ordinary, except for the camouflage patch on the back of his Team Canada hockey baseball cap.
These two men walk the halls of Thompson Rivers University without disclosing their histories or identities. You could be sitting next to one of them and you might never know.
It is only in speaking with them privately that one can begin to try to understand the impact the war in Afghanistan has had on Birkner and Van Wagoner.
Nicholas Gammer, assistant professor of political science at TRU, said, “the vast majority of soldiers being deployed are in their early 20s.” He also points out that soldiers have more education today than they did during World Wars I and II. “I’m actually surprised by the number of reservists I’ve taught.”
Cpl. Max Birkner enlisted when he was only 17 years old. Now 24, he looks back on the experience with a positive attitude. “There was a constant fear that you lived with over there. But Afghanistan was not a negative experience. It was the most impactful and important time in my life.”
Birkner spent seven months, October 2009 to May 2010, looking for Taliban in Kandahar province.
From June 2011 to March 2012, Lt. Kieran Van Wagoner, 25, spent more than nine months in Kabul teaching Afghans how to look for Taliban. He joined the military when he was 21 after working as a pilot for two years.
Both student soldiers lost friends and colleagues while serving in Afghanistan.
Van Wagoner keeps a photo of a fellow soldier carrying the body of a fallen soldier and friend. The image serves as a poignant reminder of the harsh realities of war.
“I have vivid memories of waking up the day or night of an operation thinking today is the day, today I will die,” Birkner said, “and imagining the shock of being in an explosion and waking up in a chopper, flying over the fields with bone splinters and dirt and blood surrounding my knee with a black nylon tourniquet keeping me from bleeding out.”
Makes you wonder what you thought about this morning.
“I’m just afraid that the Afghanistan war efforts are going to be forgotten. We’ve done great things and Canadians should be proud of what we did,” Van Wagoner said.
On Remembrance Day, these men will be remembering those who have died for our country, but also for those who are left behind. “I won’t think about myself, or one person — parents, families — I respect what they’ve been through,” Van Wagoner said. “I remember those lost, injured and affected all the time.”
“I will think about those who were injured and the people who have given up loved ones, those were left behind,” Birkner said.
During the Afghanistan war, 158 Canadian soldiers and four civilians have been killed overseas, according to CBC. “This does not even come close to the number of people wounded mentally and physically forever,” Birkner said.
This number obviously does not account for the people directly affected by the deaths of their loved ones. If each of those 162 casualties had 50 friends and family members that had to deal with the struggle of losing a loved one to war, that is 8,100 people affected by the war in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan war is the longest war Canada has been involved in to date — 11 years.
Gammer believes the Afghanistan war is not recognized as making a strong impact on Canadians because, “this is not a traditional war. It would be better defined as a stabilization mission. The nature of war has changed.”
On the contrary, Gammer said, “This war has raised the profile of Canada’s military for Canadians.” Canada has spent more than $20 billion on this war and that number continues to rise according to Gammer.
The last Canadian soldier fatality happened just more than a year ago and the soldier was a member of Van Wagoner’s task force. “I called everyone to see how they were. I spent a good part of the day on the phone.”
The camouflage patch on the back of his Team Canada baseball cap was made to commemorate the soldier lost that day.
Though a Canadian has not been killed since that time, Van Wagoner has worked with soldiers from all over the world that have been killed since then.
“Just because Canadian soldiers haven’t been killed [lately] doesn’t mean we aren’t losing friends,” Van Wagoner said.
Birkner and Van Wagoner are both interested in deploying again, someday. Birkner would like to combine his military experience and education in journalism and become a war reporter.
“We are mentally prepared so well that by the time we are deployed, we want to go out and do the job,” Birkner said.
Both Birkner and Van Wagoner are both actively involved in the Rocky Mountain Rangers, a primary reserve infantry regiment, in Kamloops. They train and develop skills necessary for soldiers to survive work overseas or in Canada.
Birkner and Van Wagoner will be attending both the TRU Remembrance Day ceremony on Nov. 9 and the City of Kamloops ceremony on Nov. 11.