Comment: Soldiers went to war because they wanted to make a difference

Why do soldiers go to war? I have always believed that soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen join and deploy with higher causes in mind.

Once they are in harm’s way, they fight for their comrades. Call it primary-group cohesion, an emotional bond or Shakespeare’s “band of brothers.” Members of the forces take on unnatural risks for the benefit of others.

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The three local heroes whose names appear on the B.C. Afghanistan Memorial are evidence of that. Bombardier Myles Mansell, Cpl. Andrew Eykelenboom and Lt. Andrew Nuttall were very different individuals, but they shared a purpose and vision for the world.

Mansell graduated from Belmont High School and paraded at the Bay Street Armouries as a reservist with the 5th (British Columbia) Field Artillery Regiment. He fought forest fires in the summer of 2003 and was a carpenter.

He was 25 when he was killed, along with Lt. Bill Turner, Cpl. Randy Payne and Cpl. Matthew Dinning, in a lightly armoured vehicle that was struck by an improvised explosive device on April 22, 2006.

Eykelenboom was a 23-year-old medic from Comox with a huge smile and a reputation for being quietly competent, laid back and easy to get along with. He had saved numerous lives during his six-month tour.

On Aug. 11, 2006, he had completed his work “outside the wire,” turned in his medical bag and was due to spend the next two weeks in Cyprus. He was packing his bags to leave but was asked if he would accompany a resupply run. He wasn’t scheduled to go, but volunteered to head out one last time, when a suicide bomber crashed into his vehicle at Spin Boldak on the border with Pakistan.

Nuttall was a 30-year-old commander of about 36 soldiers in Nakhonay, Panjwaii District, southwest of Kandahar. He lived in Saanich, volunteered at the University of Victoria radio station, loved to snowboard and taught CrossFit before joining the army.

He blogged regularly about his tour, until he was killed on Dec. 23, 2009, while on a joint foot patrol with Afghan National Army troops. He later received a rare, posthumous award of the Meritorious Service Medal for his work in the district.

While these three local heroes were different, they all shared something in common. They were good Canadians, the kind we can all be proud of, and what’s more, they were all well-liked by their peers and carried endearing nicknames such as Smiley Myley, Boomer and Nutts (in recognition of the insanity of his CrossFit workouts).

More important, they all shared a desire to serve others. After caring for a young Afghan girl and her infant sister, Boomer, the medic, gave the girl a doll that had been made by a friend of his mother.

He wrote home in July 2006: “A special thanks goes from her older sister to your friend for such a wonderful gift; and a thanks from me for being the one to accept her gratitude. Making the children happy is the most rewarding thing about this tour.”

When asked what he was going to do in Afghanistan just before he deployed in 2009, Nuttall simply replied: “I am going to help the Afghan people.”

In his blog, a few weeks before he died, Nuttall described the local villagers as people who “are frightened, impoverished and seek nothing but safety and prosperity for their families.”

Like Myles and Boomer, he gave his life to help and protect others who couldn’t protect themselves.

A few years ago, Nuttall’s father, Rick, and a small group of volunteers met to design and create the B.C. Afghanistan monument. An initial design was selected that involved maple leaves falling to the ground, but something was missing. As we discussed options, we realized that the monument should not only recognize the fallen and those who served with them, but it should also recognize the purpose of their service.

The image selected was that of a Canadian soldier reaching out his hand to an Afghan child, which had appeared on the front page of the British paper The Telegraph. Our local heroes didn’t serve to help warlords or the current government. They served to give the next generation a hand up.

Although Afghanistan still has a long way to go, there is, at least, a new generation of young Afghan women and men who have been given the tools for a better future through 12 years of uninterrupted school.

They can, in part, thank Myles, Boomer and Nutts for that, local heroes who went global.

Col. (Retired) Jamie Hammond, OMM, CD, served around the world for 28 years in Canada’s infantry and special forces, including several tours to Afghanistan and Bosnia. This is the third in a series leading up to Remembrance Day.

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