With Afghanistan now under Taliban rule, Canada’s involvement in the war-torn country is being remembered, celebrated and questioned.
Perhaps none more so than by the Silver Cross Mothers and fathers of fallen soldiers who served with honour.
When Canadian soldier and Barrie-area native Pte. Kevin McKay was killed in action in Afghanistan on May 13, 2010, he died knowing he had made a difference in a country that needed all the help it could get.
“The reason Kevin wanted to go to Afghanistan was so that the kids could go to school,” his father, Fred McKay, says in a phone interview from Perth in the Ottawa area. “He wanted them to have at least a glimpse of how life could be if they were able to go to school and reject the Taliban’s ideology.
“The Taliban are not afraid of guns and bombs; they’re afraid of school children with school books. That’s why he went."
Kevin McKay, who grew up in Oro-Medonte Township's Horseshoe Valley and attended W.R. Best Public School and Barrie's Eastview Secondary School, was 24 years old when he was killed by an improvised explosive device while on his last night patrol, just two days before the end of his tour of duty.
Fred McKay (pronounced ‘mac-eye’) says the village his son was assigned to at one point was a hot bed of Taliban activity.
“When our troops won the village and when they were able to tell the elders it was safe for the kids to go back to school, Kevin volunteered for the first patrol that started in the morning at (6 a.m.),” he says. “He wanted to do the early patrol because he wanted to see the smiles on the kids’ faces when they were going back to school after a long time away, or for the first time.
“That’s the key to the future in Afghanistan, is to give the kids some education. He got to have that personal little victory and got to see the smile on the kids’ faces, and that magic moment of a sense of accomplishment and mission accomplished.”
As distant as they seem now, there were some victories, and some not so small.
“The Canadian military built 55 schools and most of the Canadian public don’t know that,” McKay says. “They built some clinics and helped the farmers with pumps and generators and some know-how. That’s how they won the people over, but you can’t keep the soldiers there forever.”
So just what kind of legacy remains?
“It’s not just Kevin, but it’s the Canadian military and all the NATO troops,” McKay says. “They got that country 20 years of education for the kids. That’s a generation.
“To see it all diminish now when the troops pulled out...,” he says with a pause. “My question for the Canadian government, the Afghan government and NATO is: ‘What did you think was going to happen?’
“Donald Trump wanted to be the big-wheel, peacemaker so he made a deal with the devil (the Taliban, as opposed to the Afghan government) I think… and he muddied the waters.”
Prior to Trump, however, were years of NATO-led training of Afghan soldiers.
“Our military did the best they could to train the Afghan army. They had 300,000 soldiers trained and equipped, but they have walked away from engaging with the Taliban,” McKay says. “They are afraid of the Taliban because they’re ruthless.
“But if they’re not going to fight for their country then I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to fight for their country for them,” he adds. “We taught them how to do it and equipped them. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. They trained the Afghan army and I think it’s the Afghan government that dropped the ball. They didn’t take advantage of that training and the education the kids got.”
Acknowledging coalition forces couldn’t remain in the country forever, McKay says he — perhaps like many, many other Canadians— would’ve liked to have seen a different outcome.
“They should’ve stayed until the job was done,” he says of coalition forces. “These are soldiers. They wanted to be there. Kevin wanted to be there. They went there to help, not to hurt.
“They were hamstrung by the rules of engagement where they weren’t allowed to seek out and destroy the enemy,” McKay adds. “Instead, they did other things. Better things, actually.”
Does he think Kevin died in vain?
“Not for one second. We’re very proud of what Kevin and all the soldiers did. Him wanting to see the looks on those Afghan kids when they were returning to school is why he went,” McKay says. “As we know, there will be no day of victory in Afghanistan when the enemy has been vanquished and the good guys win. It’s just going to go on and on and on.
“But at least for a moment, then, there were a lot of kids going to school. So that was a victory.”