It was a nationwide effort, an unprecedented attempt by the Legion to reach out to a new generation of Canadian veterans, and, in short, the Legion’s recent campaign to welcome home veterans of the war in Afghanistan was a definite success.
In late August and September, an estimated 6,000 Afghan veterans and more than 50,000 well-wishers attended appreciation day events at more than 200 Legion branches across Canada. The celebrations took all shapes and forms, from barbecues and dancing to yellow ribbon-tying and magic shows. And the good effects—on veterans, on their families, and on the Legion itself—are amply reflected in the more than 80 news stories written about the events.
“We have received a tremendous response to this initiative,” said Dominion President Pat Varga. “Our branches and members want to show their support for our Canadian troops abroad and here at home, and we want to share our pride and show our thanks. We hope other Canadians will do the same.”
Participating branches were provided with commemorative Afghanistan ball caps by Dominion Command and veterans could receive a complimentary one-year Legion membership in Dominion Ottawa Branch, entitling the veteran to six free issues of Legion Magazine.
In Kingston, Ont., at Limestone City Branch, the Welcome Home Day was not only attended by many Afghan veterans, it was organized by one. Warrant Officer Leo Lund is a signaller at Canadian Forces Base Kingston, but also performs the role of entertainment chairman at the branch.
“The whole focus of this is now that the combat mission is over, this is our way for the Legion to say thank you and show we support you,” Lund told the Kingston Whig-Standard.
Lund, who has served three tours in Afghanistan, has a particular interest in showing Afghan veterans that the Legion is definitely a place that welcomes them. “[This event] will put to rest the stereotype the Legion is only for world war vets and Korean vets. The Legion is for all military members.”
In Manitoba, Portage la Prairie Branch did their part by hosting a well-attended gathering to show their support. “It’s Just to let people know that there are still hardships out there in the world and that our troops are still out there fighting wars and, you know, protecting our country,” President Jo-Ann Barnes told the local newspaper. “We had seven veterans come out from Afghanistan, plus our usual veterans who come to our meat draw…it was actually very good. We must have had 50 to 60 people out. It was quite nice.
“This was just to welcome them home, to reward them for all their hard work and their dedication,” she added.
At South Carleton Branch in Manotick, Ont., food and magic and children’s activities were all a part of their successful celebration. “This was a day all about the Legion honouring all Afghanistan veterans,” South Carleton Branch member Jean Lanouette told EMC News. “When we heard The Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command was sponsoring an Afghanistan Veterans Appreciation Day through its local branches, we decided to set up a small committee to plan the event. We decided on an open house for the general public, not knowing if we would have any Afghan vets there during the day. Fortunately, we had seven vets and they were welcomed throughout the day by more than 100 local residents and their families.
“I think this was a very historic day for the Legion,” Lanouette added. “We had World War II vets in attendance with Afghanistan vets. It was very special.”
At Port Arthur Branch in Thunder Bay, Ont., Afghan veterans received custom hats as a token of appreciation as more than 100 people joined in the celebration. “I’ve recently been to Europe,” Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Thibert told Thunder Bay Newswatch, “and had the honour of visiting both Vimy Ridge and the cemetery in Groesbeek in the Netherlands and to see part of our history and heritage in that time and now, to have our veterans association embrace this part of our Canadian military heritage to those of us who have deployed to Afghanistan is another important chapter in our military heritage and history.”
But the celebration also spilled beyond the Legion’s branches and onto the Internet. As a part of the effort to reach out to younger, computer-savvy veterans, the decision was made to launch a Facebook page to help promote the welcome home events.
“Social media gives everyone a chance to show their support,” said Varga, “but more importantly, we want our troops to see that their commitment and dedication has not gone unnoticed no matter where they are in the world.”
The page, which can be viewed at www.facebook.com/pages/The-Royal-Canadian-Legion/147392072004980, features dozens and dozens of posts by well-wishers and organizers alike.
Just one example of the many posts is this one written by Kathy Slack on behalf of Port McNeill, B.C., Branch: “[The branch] will be hosting a dinner for our troops at home,” she wrote, “and on the following day, during Orca Fest, we will join the parade through our small town. Our colour party will march proudly along with our Afghanistan troops, now safe at home.”
Nova Scotia/Nunavut Command President Jean Marie Deveaux was also among the Legionnaires to embrace the new technology in order to reach out to new veterans. “The words ‘Thank You’ are inadequate to express our feelings of gratitude for all the troops have done for our freedom and that of others,” she wrote. “You are always in our hearts.”