Written by Ally McConnell

One Canadian soldier’s reasons for doing a tour of duty in Afghanistan

photo courtesy of Canadian Military

After a going-away party with guests of family members, and friends who had known army reservist Duncan Campbell since grade school, he left in February of 2008. Even with all of that self motivation, there was bound to be some doubt, and while he didn’t let on at the time, his inner monologue was asking him several times over: “what am I doing?” but this was a thought that he was able to shake out of his head just by reminding himself that if he didn’t go, he didn’t get to prove to himself that he could go.

No amount of begging or reasoning out of worry could have ever changed his decision. But, he was appreciative of his family’s support, and understood their reservations at the time.

“I feel two ways about it. One, it’s like I’m really proud of him, and it’s a good thing that he’s doing, and I know he’s worked towards it for a couple of years, and it’s everything that he’s wanted to do since he got in the army. I’m really happy for him, kind of, in that way. But, on the other hand it’s not any sister’s dream to have their brother in that kind of situation,” Mackenzie Campbell said to me, mere weeks before her brother was deployed to Afghanistan.

Duncan joined the reserves when he was going to Lord Beaverbrook High School five years ago, and I can remember the days when he would show up at our school cafeteria in uniform to do some recruiting. The army became a very important part of his life, and anyone around him at the time could tell, because he spoke of it so highly; so much so that his best friend Noel Morris—my boyfriend—decided to join just a few years later. A perk to being in the reserves is that you’d still have time to work at a civilian job and have a social life. You could even go to school, a perk that ended up not appealing to Duncan. He went to Mount Royal College for a short time, but decided that school wasn’t really for him. Instead, he worked for his dad’s company and for the reserves.

When Duncan decided two years ago that he wanted to go on a tour of duty to Afghanistan his sister Mackenzie was apprehensive, and rightly so. For Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan at the time, the death toll had reached 51. By the  time he was scheduled to come home in October of 2008,  the death toll had climbed to a devastating 97. It was much, much lower contrasted to the number of lives lost during the Second World War, for instance, but for anyone who cares deeply about their brother, 97 is far too high a number.  There are approximately 2,500 Canadian soldiers deployed to Afghanistan at any given time. Every six months or so, in February or August, a new group is sent out to replace the soldiers returning home.

I spoke to Duncan just before his deployment. We were in his living room, and the sun shone pretty brightly through the windows despite the fact that spring hadn’t arrived yet at that point. Then 21-years-old, his brown hair was cut in the usual army-style fashion, which suited him. He was very tall, probably over six feet, with a muscular build. I remember the determination in his voice as I asked him about his decision; it was as if he had almost rehearsed it, but I knew that he hadn’t.

He had always been a very self assured, very confident person. I could see his eyes light up when he started talking about what he expected. “It’ll definitely be life changing. That’s why I want to go, though. It’ll be an experience unparallel to anything else I could possible do,” Duncan said, adding that he wasn’t worried because he had faith in the army that they would take care of him, and that he knows people who have returned successfully.

“This is what I've been training for. It's like taking dance lessons all of your life, and not going to the big dance."

When he broke the news to one of his best friends, Kim Gray, he had come to her house with a six-pack of Kokanee, and when she answered the door, he told her that they needed to celebrate. She asked why, and he told her. She broke down into tears immediately.

“Duncs gave me a huge hug, looked me in the eye and said ‘Kim, I have to do this. This is what I've been training for. It's like taking dance lessons all of your life, and not going to the big dance.’ With that, I realized it wasn't about me. Duncan needed to do this for himself as a right of passage, and it wasn't my job to cry or be upset about it, I had to support him no matter what,” Kim told me, also mentioning that good friends of the opposite sex are hard to find, but that he’s one of the few people who loves her unconditionally.

It seemed that Duncan always had a way of explaining his decision to his friends and family so that they’d understand. He heard their concerns, but not once did he show that they had any ability to sway his choice. He just did the best he could to help them come to terms with it. While dating his best friend Noel Morris for the past five years or so, I’ve gotten to know Duncan pretty well, and can safely say that his concern for the well being of other people astonishes, in comparison to other 22-year-old men.  I think his sister best described it.

“He has this incredible ability for being outgoing. He has always been capable of talking to anyone and making them love him. Duncan's extroverted personality has had so much of an influence on how I live my life. One of his friends also told me recently that Duncan is ‘one of those truly, genuinely nice guys."

Duncan was sorely missed during his seven-month tour. He stayed in touch mostly through online communication, but would call when he could. I remember several instances of chatting with him online, where he didn’t complain once. Now and then he would mention that it was really hot, but that was about it. I found out after he came home that it wasn’t rare for temperatures in Afghanistan to reach numbers too high to register on a thermometer.

Duncan and Noel are essentially like brothers, having been friends since their early teen years. I remember watching first hand as Noel fell in and out of this weird sort of depressive funk that rendered him a sad bore at times.

“I practically lived at his house. When he left, I was okay at first. But then there was definitely something missing. It’s just not the same without Dunky,” Noel said, adding that things got better when Duncan would call now and then.

Kim was getting calls too. “It was always strange talking to him on the phone when he's over there. Firstly, he can't talk about much. He's not allowed to tell me where he is or what he's been up to for obvious reasons. So mostly we talked about what I was up to. It was just comforting to hear his voice, even when he called at 3 am,” she said.

“Those of us who know Duncan would often feel sick every time one of those [killed in action] announcements was made. We would hold our breath until the name came out, and feel a sense of guilty relief that it wasn’t him.”

Kim also said that she often made trips to the Calgary Military Family Resource Centre with Duncan’s family, and attended other army events to let Duncan know that she supported him. Those meetings are also known to be a form of support for people like Kim.

Duncan actually volunteered to go on his tour. He didn’t have to do it, by any means. But he pushed for it. This is a move that many people would refuse to take. It’s a selfless deed for one to risk his life for the sake of others. But, Duncan said that he did it for himself.

“For all those people that say ‘man, I would never do that,’ I did that. I stepped up,” he said. “It was self motivation. I had been in the army for five years at that point, and I wanted to look back and be able to call myself a soldier. You can’t fully do that and say you’re in the army until you’ve done not just training, but doing it for real.”

Every time another death in Afghanistan was announced on the news, usually the names weren’t released until later. Those of us who know Duncan would often feel sick every time one of those announcements was made. We would hold our breath until the name came out, and feel a sense of guilty relief that it wasn’t him. One should never be relieved when someone is killed in the line of duty, but it’s this uncontrollable feeling that just happens when you find out it’s not the person you feared it would be.

Duncan came home on the evening of October 7, 2008. Earlier that day, Kim ran into one of my classrooms with a smile unlike any I’ve ever seen on her before. She was positively giddy, and that was great to see. Duncan’s family left the front door unlocked for him; he was still pinching himself as he drove onto his street and saw his house for the first time in seven months. He walked in, and saw the family who had been missing him for what felt like much longer than seven months.
“The first thing I said was, creatively enough, ‘Duncan...you're home.’ Sounds fairly anti-climactic, I know, but there just isn't any other way for me to express my complete excitement of him finally being home,” said Mackenzie, 20.

Duncan’s emotions upon his homecoming were more disbelief than anything else. He told me that for the first few days, he couldn’t stop pinching himself; he felt like if he fell asleep he would just wake up in Afghanistan and his homecoming would have been just a dream. Since then, Duncan has just been soaking it all in. He doesn’t have to get a job just yet, so he’s able to just relax and enjoy being home and spending time with all of the people he cares about.

But, he can already say that he wants to go back to Afghanistan, someday. Although, he says is glad that to be home now.