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Family and friends of Afghan fallen share intimate moment before big event

OTTAWA - The ones left behind gathered Friday morning in the Senate chamber, a strangely intimate commemoration held before the big public ceremony outside on the parliamentary grounds.

A young boy, perhaps eight, in a green hoodie and black jeans, knelt on the red-carpeted floor and closely examined the brass, poppy-shaped medallions — each representing a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan.

He was surrounded by others, young and old, doing the same, many snapping photos as they noisily circled the Afghanistan memorial conceived at Kandahar Airfield, built from Afghan military scrap warehoused in Montreal, and transported to Ottawa's chamber of sober second thought.

Apparently having found what he was looking for, the boy returned to his young mother seated with her back to the wall, a sister half the boy's age nestled in mom's lap.

It was time for the official program to begin.

Canada's 12-year military mission in Afghanistan was officially put to bed Friday with a splashy show on Parliament Hill, complete with military hardware on the grounds and booming flypasts overhead.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a rousing speech, speaking on behalf of the 40,000 veterans of the Afghan conflict whom he praised for both helping the Afghan people and protecting Canada from a terrorist safe haven.

"Now to the families of the fallen, so many of whom are here today, I can say all of these things and one thing more: the names of your loved ones are engraved on our hearts — on the hearts of all Canadians who cherish freedom, justice and human dignity," the prime minister said to thousands on the lawn under the Peace Tower.

"These are the things they died protecting. Canadians are safer and Canada is stronger because of their sacrifice."

An hour or so earlier inside the Senate chamber, there had been no speechifying.

Brig.-Gen. John Fletcher, a military chaplain, led a moving prayer to "those who laid down their lives in the service of justice and hope in this distant and often-difficult land."

"We pray for all who support and uphold those whose work is to walk in harm's way for the betterment of others," Fletcher intoned, "for the families who wait in hope and faith, and for those who have suffered unimaginable loss, we ask your precious care."

Despite the presence of Harper and his immediate predecessor as prime minister, Paul Martin, Gov. Gen. David Johnston and his predecessor Michaelle Jean and a half dozen past and present defence ministers, it was a curiously anonymous affair.

There was no detailed media program nor any public list of invitees.

There were more hugs, kisses and smiles among the families than tears as they first gathered around the Afghan memorial, built from battle-damaged military vehicles, to find their loved ones' names.

It was only when a piper played a moving lament that the hankies began appearing in a packed Senate chamber that ran from infants in arms to the elderly.

Two minutes of silence proved almost too much for the youngest. The stoic young mom with her back to the wall tried to quiet her suddenly restive daughter while the bemused boy in the green hoodie enjoyed the diversion — until the sudden bugle call of the Reveille snapped his attention back to the task at hand.

Twelve red carnations were placed in a white wreath, six by the assembled dignitaries and six by representatives of slain soldiers — who asked to remain nameless.

A grandmother, a mother, a wife — who kissed her upright young boy on the top of his head before stepping back from the wreath — a shattered teenaged son, a sibling and a friend; six anonymous representatives of six unnamed soldiers lost in the dust of Afghanistan.

By the time the commemoration wound down with a choir singing a haunting rendition of Amazing Grace, the boy in green had removed a sneaker and was peering curiously inside.

Their lives go on. Lest we forget.

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