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Support for Our Troops

February 10, 2011 by  
Filed under Special Features


Don Cherry and TroopsSince 9-11, I went from your average news consumer to a raging news-oholic. I start my day with a little The Huffington Post and The Gazette. Before my night’s end, no one delivers the news better than The National’s Peter Mansbridge. The only cable network news channel that I stay away from is Fox News. I take a glimpse here and there but my forehead becomes exhausted from the eyebrow-raised eye-rolling. It seems to me that mainstream news media rarely allows a glimpse into the humanitarian endeavours of my country’s, or our neighbours to the south’s troops.

Gripping images of war and its residue put such a negative spin on the selfless acts our service men and women are doing overseas. I realize that the most important part of the Canadian mission was to contain and destabilize the Taliban. Even if it is the most important part, there’s more to the story. If we saw the other side, then maybe images of a fallen soldier’s face next to their name, a coffin draped with a Canadian flag, death tolls and the blazing bullets that made it all possible would actually have more value to someone like me who has no connection to the military. I want to see the other side of our mission in Afghanistan without having to go to the Department of National Defence’s website.

One thing that could brighten our night after a long day at work could be stories of good will. This should occur more often, especially when the setting for the story is Afghanistan.

Since 2001, Canadian troops have been helping the majority of the population in Afghanistan whose views run contrary to the minority (Taliban) who look to oppress them. The majority of the population yearns for peace, seeks stability and strives to be free from the ideas of a violent few. Their courage is commendable and their requests are simple. Our troops are there for the innocent children, for the men who deserve to be called men and for women who desire a better life.

Canadian troops have strengthened the Afghan Ministry of Education by developing curricula, training teachers and increasing access to education for students, not to mention training health workers, including doctors, nurses, midwives and community health workers. In 2009 alone, along with the World Food Program (WFP), Canada provided more than 275,000 tons of food to nine million Afghans in need. In the province of Kandahar, Canada has helped build, expand or repair 26 schools to date, with the goal of completing 50 by 2011.

Positive stories like these occupy a dark corner in my mind. From what I have seen, troop-friendly organizations are ignored by mainstream televised news. Their selective spotlight misses the people spreading peace and prosperity; maybe that’s why they call them “light bearers.” Possibly, we have a better chance of supporting troops and their families than discovering what lies in Rupert Murdoch’s closet.

To jump-start the awareness cycle between the masses and the mainstream media, we need to show our support by volunteering and creating new organizations, which will hopefully develop a new voice that echoes throughout the country and maybe even into the boardrooms of network news stations. What may start as a simple good deed has the potential to flourish like a single nourished seed. Unfortunately, the kind of people who actually plant seeds are as limited as the ones who actually volunteer. Hopefully that changes after hearing the story of Carolyn Blashek, Rick Hillier, Don Cherry and Wallace Burnett-Smith.

Few outside of the U.S. military have heard of Blashek. The day of the 9-11 attacks, the self-described “housewife,” a 46-year-old mother of two, decided to enlist. She was turned down but was determined to do something positive. As they say, when fate closes the door, try the window.

The turning point in Blashek’s story of benevolence occurred when a soldier approached her while she volunteered at a military lounge at Los Angeles International Airport. With a look of dismay, he spoke about his mother’s recent funeral, his wife leaving him and the death of his only infant child. Blashek recalls him saying, “I’m going to a war, and I know I won’t make it back, but it doesn’t matter this time because no one would even care.” That’s when Blashek said to herself, “I care!” She started asking folks in her neighbourhood if they knew anyone in the military. Once she accumulated a handful of names, she assembled care packages filled with American items (magazines, snacks, etc.) to remind them of the great country they are working to protect. The most important item in the package was a personal letter. Some soldiers keep the message folded under their helmet. I guess it offers them a certain raison d’être amidst the new world they were ordered to change.

Since 2003, Operation Gratitude (, with the persistent Blashek at the helm, has sent over 600,000 care packages to individual soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and military ships worldwide. And it all started with Blashek, who decided to care about the brave men and women who she had never seen and who had never seen her. Through her tireless efforts, she touched the lives of over 600,000 military personnel and earned the Minerva Award for outstanding humanitarian contribution – past winners include Oprah Winfrey.

When asked whether there needs to be more media exposure on the positive stories played out by troops in the U.S. and Canada, Blashek responded with enthusiasm, saying, “We never hear those stories. Any regular person in the public has no idea by watching the news or reading the newspaper that there really are incredible positive and humanitarian things that are being done.” When asked why the media doesn’t cover more positive stories, she respectfully decided not to answer. Blashek mentioned that she does not let her political views get in the way of her support. Regardless of the answer, there are troops out there who could use a smile, and that’s all Blashek really cares about when she writes her messages and ships off her care packages.

As for Canada, on the volunteering front we also have light bearers like Blashek illuminating the hearts of Canadian troops and their families. Project Hero ( is one example. This unique program offers a special four-year undergraduate scholarship program to children of fallen Canadian soldiers. General Rick Hillier is the chairman of Project Hero and former chief of Canada’s Defence Staff. Hillier calls for more support, on the Department of National Defence’s website his remarks include: “Without the benefit of being volunteers, our families serve, silently, in defence of Canada. Our wives, husbands, children, are the ones whose births and birthdays, first steps and first words are missed, who fear the evening news, or who start kindergarten in one province and grade one in another province—or in another country.” Hillier is inspired to give what he can to the families who truly desire and deserve support for their service.

As well, this past Christmas, along with Defence Minister Peter MacKay and other Canadian dignitaries, hockey commentator Don Cherry journeyed to Afghanistan to show his support and inspire hope for the brave men and women serving our country. Spreading some much-needed holiday cheer, posing for photographs and signing autographs, Cherry raised the spirits of the mostly French-Canadian soldiers stationed at outposts across southern Afghanistan. It is this kind of generosity that shows our thanks and lets our soldiers know they are still in our minds. We can disagree with Cherry’s unwavering and unapologetic stance on the war, but his support and love for our soldiers brings hope to the men and women who face a violent and grim landscape.

Wallace Burnet-Smith, 88, retired in 1973 after 33 years of service for the British Royal Air Force. He offered a fresh perspective on the matter of military service, heroics and a brief comment on Canada. “We always have [a] service to our country and to our preservation. The ones in Afghanistan and all over the world are trying to preserve what we consider as our right and our destiny; that’s what they are fighting for. I just consider liberty one of the prime goals in anybody’s life, whether they be rich or poor, or black or white, whatever. They keep calling us heroes, but it’s the comradeship that I have cherished all my life. If you have that comradeship you don’t want to let the side down, or your country down, the squadron or the people beside you. You wouldn’t do anything ghastly or cowardly. If you’re told to do something you do it without fear or favour. I’ve been a serviceman all of my life, I would still stand up and fight.” In regards to Canada, Wallace had nothing but praise. “If I was young again I think I would be over here and make a life for myself. You’re all very lucky to live here. I love Canada.”

Does it not seem fair to support the troops that place themselves in harm’s way so that we can enjoy liberty, which gives birth to the greatest gift of all – opportunity – a present we take for granted? If so, raise Canadian troops’ spirit and support them directly or their families.


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