‘These are not just names’: Remembrance Day holds personal meaning for Afghan war vet
Henry Coman worked as an RCMP officer to train, support local police, from 2007-08
It’s been more than 15 years since Henry Coman finished his service as a corporal with the RCMP helping train local police in war-torn Afghanistan, but the memories are vivid.
He served a year working with Afghan officers to learn what they needed to do their jobs. It was a long stretch away from his wife Alison and his family back in Nunavut, separated by 9,000 kilometres and an eight-hour time difference.
He remembers the sound of gunfire, which was a daily thing around Kandahar, where he was based.
Coman is retired from the RCMP after 25 years, and lives in Iqaluit working as an associate deputy minister with the Department of Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs.
In 2007 he applied to join the Canadian Civilian Police Contingent program to assist and train Afghan police around Kandahar and patrol with them, and stayed for a year from March 2007 until March 2008.
“I knew that I wanted to make a difference and there was competition to be part of that contingent,” said Coman, who was born in Pangnirtung but grew up in Iqaluit.
“Luckily, I was able to be selected to take part in an important activity such as helping to rebuild and to aid in another area of the world that desperately needed.”
By the time Coman arrived in Afghanistan, Canadian Armed Forces personnel had been there for more than five years.
The first members arrived in December 2001, joining soldiers from numerous other countries in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States.
Between 2003 and 2014, approximately 300 Canadian police officers also served there, training and mentoring the Afghan police.
In Afghanistan, Coman’s duties included travelling to speak with local chiefs of police to get a sense of what they needed to do their jobs.
In an interview this week, he said he always had to be aware of his surroundings, being in a conflict zone. There was gunfire every day, and several times a week “we’d hear blasts happening within the city” of Kandahar.
Despite the danger, he said he felt secure because the Canadian military was protecting the downtown camp, which he said was attacked a few times.
“It was mostly rocket-propelled grenades that went to our camp. No one was seriously injured during those attacks,” he said.
It has been a long time since he left Afghanstian and the world has changed. But Remembrance Day still holds special meaning for him.
“It’s a day to reflect on the sacrifices that Canadians have made in order to remember the things that Canadians did, I guess, to bring about change and peace to the world,” he said.
“Sacrificing their lives in order to make the world a better place.”
Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan ended in 2011 but service members stayed another three years to continue training Afghanistan’s army and police. Between 2001 and 2014, 158 Canadian Armed Forces personnel were killed in Afghanistan.
“I think back to whenever a soldier was killed in our area, we’d have a ceremony” to honour them, Coman said.
“So that brings me back to remembering the people that I physically saw [who were] later killed and had ceremonies for, and that really hit home.
“These are not just names and pictures that I didn’t know or see before. It’s actual people that I encountered. So that really brought it home to me that that was a dangerous area.”
The Taliban swept into power in Afghanistan in 2021 after the last international forces pulled out and continues to rule as an unelected religious theocracy.
Still, Coman said, “the assistance that we provided was long-lasting and meaningful to the people there.
“We had asked what they needed in response to their rebuilding their city, their society, their culture, so we were assisting them and fulfilling their needs as opposed to us imposing what we’d thought they would need.
“So in that way, we built connections with the people there, regardless of who’s in power now.”
Coman said he believes that for the Afghans to see an Inuk coming to help them, it allowed “people from a different area to know that there are different people in other parts of the world that do care about their lives.”
For Coman, “it was tough” to be away from his family for so long and to see them only occasionally when he could get away. But “it was a great opportunity to do something meaningful and that was something different.”
He said that on Remembrance Day, he reflects on his experiences during his mission to Afghanistan and those of other Canadians who served their country.
“I think it is important that we continue to remember the sacrifices that were made and to not to forget the conflicts that are currently happening today, as well as previous conflicts and learn from our mistakes as a species,” he said.