I was standing with eight women in a steel military sea container that had been converted into a common shower. As the water poured over me, I tried not to let the others see the milk leaking from my engorged breasts or the tears streaming down my face. I could deal with the physical pain, but my wildly fluctuating emotions were another story. I was anxious about the possibility of being sent to Afghanistan as a member of the Canadian Forces and leaving my two small children behind. It was all I could do to suppress the urge to scream, "What was I thinking?!"
I am a family physician with the Forces and I was on a five-week-long training session in Wainwright, Alta., to prepare for work in Afghanistan. My husband, Randy (who is also a doctor with the Forces), and I were proud to serve our country, and we were both working at the base outside of Fredericton. It was September 2006. A group of soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Valcartier in Quebec would be going on short notice to Afghanistan in late November and early December. They needed a physician, and my name was selected. The next step was to prepare physically and mentally for the training in Wainwright, which would focus on simulating the war in Afghanistan.
Training in Wainwright, Alta.
When I was called to Wainwright, I had no plans to wean my 14-month-old daughter, Olivia, and had never even spent one night away from my children. My son, Zachary, was three and a half years old. I was dreading the thought of leaving them both. On the morning that my flight left, I tiptoed into Olivia’s room. It was 5:30 a.m. and she was not awake yet. I gazed down at her sweet face, my heart heavy, knowing that I would not see my baby for five weeks. And though the training turned out to be just four weeks, it felt like an eternity.
As the only physician in the camp out west, I was on call around the clock. Whether patients had the flu or had been the victim of a simulated roadside bomb attack, I had to see them all. One night after I fell asleep, exhausted, in my tent, there was a simulated bomb attack on the camp hospital. People were shouting, "Bunker! Bunker!" while the "enemy" forces shouted at us: "Allahu akbar!" – "Allah is the greatest!"
Page 1 of 4 The medics all had intense looks on their faces as we listened to the radio, learned of other simulated attacks on the camp and prepared to receive the "wounded" soldiers. I wondered, How many sleepless nights will there be in Afghanistan in the months ahead? How will I react to real casualties and deaths?
Four weeks later, I arrived back home in Fredericton for a two-week holiday. It was late, but I couldn’t wait until the morning to see Zachary and Olivia. I tiptoed into Zachary’s room and gave him a hug and a kiss. Then I opened the door to Olivia’s room and heard her soft breathing. She was sprawled on her back in her crib with her curly, light brown hair covering her forehead, her feet tangled in the blanket my mother had made for her. I tried to resist the urge to pick her up and hug her but it was no use. I quickly gathered Olivia in my arms, gently kissing her face.
My daughter woke up, let out a huge wail and began sobbing uncontrollably. I tried to comfort her, humming and rocking her. "It’s OK, Mommy’s here," I cooed. I tried singing her favourite bedtime song but she was inconsolable. In between sobs, she called out for my mother, "Nanny! Nanny! Na-nee-weewee." My heart broke and I started to cry with her. I didn’t know what was worse, thinking that she didn’t remember me, or knowing she knew who I was but was now scared of me because I was so unfamiliar.
Enjoying family time before deployment
Over the next two weeks, I spent as much time at home with the kids as I could. I drank up every moment and relished bath- and bedtime rituals, the kisses and snuggles. Soon I would be back in Wainwright, which meant five more weeks away from home; every minute between now and then had to count.
Three hours before I was set to board the plane and go back to training in Alberta, my whole world was turned upside down with a single phone call. It was my boss from the Forces, telling me that I was being sent to the staging base for the Afghanistan mission in the Middle East. It was implied that from there I might be sent on to Afghanistan. I had many questions that he could not answer: How long would I be gone? Would I be back before Christmas? Would I spend Christmas in Afghanistan? The most my boss could tell me was to be prepared not to make it home for the holidays.
Page 2 of 4I knew that there were thousands of Canadian soldiers who would not be spending Christmas with their families; it was part of the job and I had to accept it. Still, the thought of missing the decorating of our tree, seeing my dad dress up as Santa and the look on my children’s faces when they opened their presents was hard to take. I would also miss going to church and singing all of our favourite hymns.
At the airport on my way to the Middle East, I watched scenes that I had seen before, played out on the evening news. Countless families were gathered in a large waiting area, saying goodbye to their loved ones – soldiers headed for Afghanistan. I knew that terrifying, unspoken questions weighed heavily on their minds. Would they be home for Christmas? Would they make it back? Would this be their last embrace?
Touching down in Afghanistan
I arrived at Camp Mirage (at a location in the Middle East that is never disclosed) and stepped into blistering 40 C heat. My new coworkers helped me learn the base layout and the operations in the small medical clinic where I worked. Many people were ending their term, looking forward to being back home, away from the shadow of death that cast a pall over the camp.
The thought that I would be sent to Afghanistan was never far from my mind. When I spoke with some soldiers on their way to that mission, I wondered if they felt the same fears that I felt. My anxiety was heightened whenever a fallen soldier was flown to the base and there was a ramp ceremony. Soldiers stood at attention while the Canadian flag was draped over the coffin as it was unloaded from an aircraft. It was a particularly sad occasion for me when one ceremony was for a soldier from my hometown of Bathurst, N.B.
The highlight of my day at Camp Mirage was my daily 4 p.m. phone call to my family. I would talk to Olivia and Zachary just as they were finishing their breakfast. Zachary would tell me about how much fun he had with his friends, and Olivia would say, "Wuv you," and give me little kisses through the receiver. I also looked forward to e-mails that my mom would send from Zachary, asking me when I was coming home. I still didn’t have a flight booked, nor did I know when I could leave.
Page 3 of 4At last my departure date was set and my flight booked. I would be home for the holidays after all, arriving back in Fredericton just a week before Christmas. My parents, Randy and the kids were elated.
We began the big countdown at Camp Mirage. With our spirits buoyed, our discussions revolved around the dates people were going home, what would be the first thing they would do or what meal they would enjoy. I was looking forward to going to the stores and picking up my children’s favourite toys. We would be spending Christmas in Bathurst. Randy, Zachary and my dad would go out shopping for a tree and then we would all decorate it together.
I strained my neck to look out the window of the plane at the wintery landscape as I landed in Fredericton. Inside the terminal, Zachary ran to me and gave me a big hug. Then I looked for Olivia, who was in Randy’s arms. I held my breath, worried that she would be upset. For a split second I thought I saw her lower lip quiver, but then her face broke into a great big grin and she held her arms out to me and said, "Mommy!" I took her into my arms and she nuzzled her face into my neck. I was home.
"A magical Christmas in Bathurst"
We had a magical Christmas in Bathurst. My parents celebrated with us and we all delighted in watching Zachery and Olivia play with their new toys. We also enjoyed long days relaxing over a big breakfast, before heading out to a pond for some skating. One crisp day, we went on a spectacular sleigh ride, complete with sleigh bells. Bundled in old fur coats, we wound our way slowly toward a tiny log cabin, where we warmed up next to a woodstove.
While I was grateful to be with my family that Christmas, I felt somewhat guilty knowing that so many soldiers were not with their families. I thought of the soldiers from Valcartier, with whom I had worked in Wainwright. They were spending Christmas in Afghanistan. I remembered the photos they had shown me of their children and spouses and thought of the void in their lives without their loved ones. I also thought of the soldiers who had died that year and the sadness and grief that must be colouring their families’ Christmas celebrations.
A photo taken on the day we went on that magical holiday sleigh ride is still prominently displayed on our fridge, and it reminds me of that Christmas. It will always have a special meaning to my family, because we know that had circumstances been different, I would have been missing from the picture.
Jennifer Russell currently works as a civilian physician at Canadian Forces Base, Gagetown. She no longer wears a uniform and there is no chance that she will be sent to Afghanistan.
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