Afghan war memorial to be rededicated — this time with soldiers' families present

A battlefield cenotaph that became a focus of hurt and outrage for families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan will be rededicated in a public ceremony this summer, CBC News has learned.

The rebuilt memorial, which stood outside the Canadian headquarters in Kandahar throughout the war, was unveiled initially in a private service west of downtown Ottawa — one that was attended only by federal officials and senior brass.

Families of the slain soldiers whose faces are immortalized on the monument's black granite plaques were not invited to the May 13 unveiling. The event was kept a secret for three days, until social media posts appeared later in the week.

Several families, interviewed by CBC News at the time, described their treatment as insulting — something for which the country's top military commander apologized in a public statement.

Email messages inviting families to attend the re-dedication on Aug. 17 started going out Monday night. The federal government says it will cover expenses — transportation and one night's accommodation — for family members who live more than 100 kilometres outside of Ottawa.

"Together we will pay respects to the accomplishments and sacrifices of the Fallen, wounded, veterans, and families who contributed to the Afghanistan War 2001-2014," says the invitation, sent on behalf of Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and obtained by CBC News.

Vance himself was the driving force behind the new event, according to several confidential sources who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

'I am truly sorry'

In his statement of apology to the families on May 24, Vance said it was wrong to exclude them from such an important event. "I am truly sorry for our insensitivity and the pain, anger and frustration that this decision caused you," he said.

Vance promised family members that they could visit the special building housing the memorial — constructed behind the security cordon at the new Department of National Defence headquarters in Kanata — whenever they want.

Anne Synder, whose son Capt. Jon Synder died in 2008, said she was pleased to be invited this time.

"I would really like to go," she said. "I think this is their way of making up. I know Gen. Vance took all of the blame for not telling us about the earlier one."

While they say they're also happy about the rededication ceremony, other family members still question why DND put the cenotaph in a location not accessible to the general public.

"Sure, I'm going to go. I never miss one of those [events] and I'm going to ask them why they did that," said Raynald Bouthillier, whose son Trooper Jack Bouthillier was killed by a roadside bomb in 2009.

The memorial, which started as a few plaques hanging on a large rock, eventually grew to 191 plaques honouring Canadian soldiers and civilians, as well as American troops who served under Canadian command.

In Kandahar, the memorial was a gathering point for soldiers grieving lost comrades, and for family members brought over to the war zone on military-escorted trips.

Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press

After it was disassembled and brought back to Canada in 2011, federal officials struggled for years to find a permanent home for the memorial, eventually choosing to place it at the defence headquarters.

Part of the reason veterans and military families were hurt and angry by the military's handling of the monument's return was its decision to place it within the security zone surrounding DND headquarters, cutting off public access.

Right now, there is no national war monument in Canada specifically dedicated to the Afghan conflict and open to the public.

The former Conservative government announced plans in 2015 to build a separate, larger, permanent national Afghan War memorial in downtown Ottawa, but it was mired in disagreements over location.

The National Capital Commission's board of directors quietly announced through a news release, in conjunction with Veterans Affairs Canada, that a site had been chosen at Lebreton Flats, near the Canadian War Museum.

"The site location will give all visitors an opportunity to recognize the commitment and sacrifice of Canadians who served in Afghanistan, and the support provided to them by Canadians at home," said NCC CEO Tobi Nussbaum in a statement last week.

Veterans Minister Lawrence MacAulay described the site selection for the permanent national monument as a crucial step forward.

The monument will not be built until the early to mid-2020s, at the earliest.