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On war and remembrance
Remembrance Days from Cpl. Ryan Argente's youth were something he hasn't forgotten.
The Royal Westminster Regiment reservist's family lived beside CFB Griesbach in Edmonton. About 1,000
military personnel would gather on Nov. 11 to honour war veterans.
"The parades were somewhat spectacular," recalls Argente, a resident of the Edmonds area of Burnaby, as he relaxes in the NCO lounge at Westminster barracks.
A large majority of the Second World War vets that participated in those ceremonies have passed on. More and more, Remembrance Day is about honouring those who have served in more recent conflicts like Afghanistan, where Argente was sent in 2006-07.
Argente was 24 when he signed up for the infantry in 2003. He'd been an accountant, IT support, a pro cyclist, a bicycle mechanic and a bouncer. None gave him the career satisfaction he craved. "The military was always an option. In the back of my head I always knew, this is where I wanted to be. It just took me a while to come to that realization."
He says his mother wasn't too happy about his choice since she'd always pictured him as an officer in the air force.
Argente, on the other hand, felt it was the right decision from the day he was sworn in. Regrets didn't happen too often, only in situations like enduring minus-50 degree temperatures while stuck in a trench doing maneuvres at CFB Shilo outside of Brandon, Man. That's when he asked himself, "Why am I doing this again?"
Off to Afghanistan
Finally in his third year he was assigned to Afghanistan. At that point there was no apprehension. It was all excitement.
"You rarely get to use your training so when you actually go out and do what you're trained for it's exciting," he says.
They moved from town to town pushing the Taliban out.
"There was a lot of driving around getting shot at," says Argente. "I have to say things didn't change much. The training we went through was long, intensive and fairly realistic. Everybody did what they were supposed to do."
When Argente tells people he did a tour of duty in Afghanistan often the first question is, "Have you killed anybody."
His response is, "None of your damn business."
"I didn't go to Afghanistan to kill people, I went there to do my job," says Argente.
For most people doing their job doesn't involve risking getting blown up, which happened to him one day. He was riding in the back of an armoured vehicle as it did a standard patrol through a town. Argente was in the lead vehicle in the entry hatch for trouble. Everything seemed OK until, boom, the vehicle ran over two anti-tank land mines.
"I saw the blast go off and all I could think of was, 'oh crap,' ” recalls Argente. "It kicked a couple of wheels off and disabled the engine, and left the rest of us pretty shook up."
He woke up somewhere in the bottom of the vehicle and he couldn't see because the air was full of dust. It turned out nobody was seriously injured although Argente ended up with a "pretty good concussion."
Suicide bomber a kid on a bike
Some soldiers he knew weren't as fortunate. Argente was only 200 metres away when his group heard a blast. They went into a defensive position while he and a couple of others went to the scene to administer first aid.
"There were three very dead soldiers lying next to four others that had been injured."
Argente says the bodies were so mangled he didn't find out until later which soldiers had been killed. It turns out a kid, who was about 12 years old and had been seen riding his bicycle around town, rode right through the middle of the platoon before turning into a suicide bomber.
"It wasn't my favourite day," understates Argente. "Realistically it makes you a little stronger. You don't want it to happen again and you also don't want this sacrifice to be for nothing. Let's make sure those guys didn't die in vain."
While over there it bothered Argente when Members of Parliament would show up and do three or four day visits. They hung out at the base and talked to those stationed there, but not to the soldiers on the front lines.
"In front of the cameras they're telling everybody we're spending too much money and we don't need to spend money on tanks. I can tell you the tanks made a world of difference," says Argente.
Argente laments the fact a lot of soldiers died trying to get rid of the Taliban from Afghanistan only to pull out.
"We lose all those guys and then we give it up. If it were up to me I wouldn't leave until the Taliban left," he says. "If it was important enough to go there in the first place to remove the Taliban, it should be important enough to stay there until they're gone."
He points out Canada kept peacekeeping corps in Cyprus for 50 years mediating a fight between two individual countries whose battle was affecting anybody else in the world, yet can't spend the same amount of time dealing with a situation that affects international security.
Signs on with Westies
Argente joined the Westies in October 2007, shortly after getting back from Afghanistan. He was 30 years old and decided to go back to school to train as an aircraft mechanic and is now in the process of transferring to the air force.
"After being in infantry there's no such thing as a tough job. Everything beats sleeping on a desert floor and getting shot at," says Argente before shaking his head and admitting he'd still go back if he could. "I don't know why."
After some Remembrance Day ceremonies he's gone to the Legion with Second World War vets and they'll start talking about stuff they haven't spoken about in 10 or 20 years.
"You talk to the guys who lived through the Second World War, compared to what guys do now, it's a whole different world," says Argente. "It's important to remember the soldiers who are still living and those that fought that died. It's still important to remember wars like Korea and the Second World War and the First World War. That's a pretty serious part of our history."
Despite that importance, Remembrance Day is quite difficult for him. In Afghanistan, they had each others back. Because of their extensive training they knew where the other would be. That's why on this Remembrance Day, he'd rather be in Shilo doing a parade with his infantry mates. Make no mistake, the Westies is his unit now but "they're not the guys I went to war with."