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The Real Team Canada

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
by Tom Anselmi

Bringing Stanley to the Troops

(AFGHANISTAN) -- Sometimes something really surprises you. It rears up like an Afghan dust storm in the oppressive heat of the afternoon and grabs you by the throat because it's so diametrically opposed to your perception because it's so real, or because it's so important.

Perception is a funny thing. It's shaped by what we read, what we hear and what we see. It's shaped by what we identify with, our background, or simply how we feel on a given day.

Going into Kandahar, Team Canada's perception was defined by the unknown and the uninformed. It included some obvious misconceptions about our military in general; and it was coloured, of course, by the general apprehension that comes with flying into a war-torn country. But almost as soon as we landed, our apprehension went away and there was a feeling of calm amidst the danger and chaos of war.
Part of the Team Canada visit is a simple story to tell.  A convoy of talented ex-hockey players, media personalities and entertainers travel to Kandahar to help lift the spirits of the Canadian troops stationed here. 

The Leafs being here is a no-brainer. It feels right to "go global" with the most well-known hockey team in the world, and Leafs Nation is well represented in Kandahar. The Leafs Alumni are joined by other NHL greats and the Stanley Cup, all with wonderful, yet predictable results. The media is all over this visit, Don Cherry is talking about it on Hockey Night in Canada, and Canada's top military man, General Rick Hillier, is here.

Needless to say, there are lots of smiling faces on the brave young men and women serving at KAF (Kandahar Air Field). So it's an easy story to tell.

But the real story is about these brave Canadians. Each and every one of them.

What professional hockey does is create a diversion from the every day world. What the men and women of our armed forces do is fix the every day world. What we found at Operation Enduring Freedom in Kandahar was very inspiring, very real, and very, very important. Of course there were the smiles you'd expect to see on any Canadian who is living 14,000 KM from home and seeing the Stanley Cup during the playoffs (especially when they have to get up at 4 a.m. just to watch the games, which they do in numbers). And there were the smiles that came from meeting and having lunch with the ex-NHLers whose sharpies were on overdrive.

But the funny thing is, those smiles were there long before we arrived. Those smiles, plastered to the faces of the 2,000 Canadian troops working alongside more than 10,000 service personnel from other coalition nations, are there because our men and women want to be in Afghanistan. They want to fix this country. They believe in what they are doing. These committed and skilled Canadians have a relentless spirit and a passion for the mission. To them, it's not about killing the bad guys, it's about helping the good guys. "Team Canada" has met Canadians of every profession from technical liaison to lawyer, from payroll clerk to platoon sergeant, from surgeons to sous chefs. All of the them want to help the Afghans take control of their future.

So many things jumped out as examples of the real story; the reality and importance of what our troops are doing in Afghanistan.  And the real story is told by each individual. During our tour of the medical facilities here on base, we saw a Canadian led team with 150 medical professionals working out of a makeshift hospital built from plywood and tents. This hospital boasts the latest technology -- technology that we take for granted in Canada, but does not exist anywhere else in Afghanistan. We discovered that nine out of every 10 patients suffers some of the most severe trauma you can imagine. The majority of these patients are the Afghan people and the coalition forces.

In the hospital we met Zrsanga, a seven-year-old, local girl who had to have her right leg amputated after she stumbled upon an IED (improvised explosive device) while playing outside, chasing the family donkey. Two of her brothers were killed in the same accident. The shrapnel left wounds all over Zrsanga's arms, chest and face and she may never regain her vision. Zrsanga's father sits by her bedside, talking to doctors through an interpreter. After leaving his daughter in the care of the hospital, he travelled 25 km back to the family village to bury his two sons. The Canadian doctors paid for his cab fare but he had to walk back in 45 degree heat to return to her side. His wife, Zrsanga's mother, had to stay at home to look after the remaining two children. A few days earlier, the same Canadian doctors and nurses who saved Zsranga also saved the life of the Taliban insurgent who was suspected of making the device that almost killed her.

They did this because the ethics of their profession and their Canadian values told them it was the right thing to do. The commitment of the medical team, in these the craziest of conditions, was all about that little Afghan girl's welfare -- helping her survive, helping make her better while others were working tirelessly to make her country better.

In other areas of Operation Enduring Freedom, we found Canadian soldiers working alongside the Afghan National Army, and the RCMP helping to train the Afghan Police. We talked to specially trained soldiers who've been out at the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases)  working with the Afghan National Army, fighting side-by-side but at the same time training them in more sophisticated forms of combat strategy. Some of these soldiers are now back on base after living in makeshift camps, eating nothing but rations and working in 50 degree heat in extremely dangerous conditions for the last 40 days.

They delight in telling you about the progress they are making, and why they want to keep doing it. It's very real and very important and despite all the opportunities for self-importance or self-pity, there is none. And before you can comprehend their bravery, or react to the sheer absurdity of their nonchalance, the topic changes and discussing the Toronto Maple Leafs prospects for the coming season is of much greater importance to them. I guess even the bravest need heroes and diversions. But after meeting Canadians of every gender, shape and colour, and admiring  their sense of unity, it is us who are inspired.  We marvel at how happy they are to be here, loving what they are doing, passionate about the cause, and pissed off because they can't watch all the playoff games. And all of it was very real, very important and very different from our naive perception going in.

To the men and women serving our country, the Toronto Maple Leafs are proud of you all. We are humbled by what you are doing and in awe of your bravery.

We are overwhelmed by your hospitality and if our presence for the week helped widen your smiles even one small bit, it was well worth the trip. And that's the real story. The men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces are the real "Team Canada".

Thank you, get the job done and get home safely.

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