Operation Keepsake
© 2011 FrontLine Defence (Vol 8, No 1)

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It can be as simple as a white bedsheet covered with the imprints of small children’s hands or as intricate as a lovingly crafted hand-made quilt, but every tribute sent to the Canadian military serving overseas has a story to tell. Canadian combat operations in Afghanistan are the longest in this nation’s history, eclipsing both the Great War and the Second World War. This mission in South-west Asia has also sparked a renewed interest in the Canadian Forces by the Canadian public, the likes of which has not been seen since the 1940s. This renewed interest in the military has prompted groups of Canadians to band together and send their many tokens of appreciation overseas to those serving there.

When seen in theatre, these tokens of appreciation come in many shapes and sizes reflecting the diversity of the senders. From metres-long banners containing hundreds of signatures to signed flags, there are also wooden plaques and ornate metalwork. Hand-drawn children’s posters are contrasted with autographed photographs from entertainment and sports stars, all have one thing in common; they were sent into theatre and have all been hung with pride to be viewed daily by the troops serving overseas. Each item represents strong emotional links and a little piece of home.

These items were the inspiration behind Operation keepsake – to repatriate this material back to Canada and preserve it for future generations to see; to show the Canadian public that the Canadian military appreciated these gifts, hung them with pride while in theatre and, like a treasured keepsake, brought them back to Canada to show others.

When the initial July 2010 reconnaissance into theatre was conducted, several hundred items were located and catalogued, but as well, other items of equal importance were also discovered. These items are also part of the Canadian military psyche and help mark the passing of time and are unique for the different units and contingents who rotated through and had served in theatre. Unit photographs, plaques and awards all documented the passage of time and captured, for a brief moment, some of many people who had served in theatre.

These tributes also reflect a wide diversity in presentation. Framed unit photographs with neat rows of troops that populate a Commanding Officer’s wall give way to large chunky wooden plaques containing a list of names with perhaps a painted crest or other memento which is usually found hanging on a canteen wall or in a workspace common area. These items too should be repatriated back to Canada and displayed by their respective parent units or museums.

There is also a third category of item now on the Op KEEPSAKE list, and these unique items are of national importance. These are the two cenotaphs, one in Camp Mirage and the other at Kandahar Airfield. Each cenotaph is unique in design, but what they have in common is that they contain the names of all of the fatal casualties. These cenotaphs reflect a new way of honouring the fallen for not only do they contain military casualties but also those Canadian civilians who were working in an official capacity in theatre.
The cenotaphs are a focal point of remembrance in both camps and have been visited by friends and family alike. Serving soldiers are encouraged to visit the memorials whether to contemplate the losses or to show their respect to the fallen. In keeping with the traditions set for memorials, they are maintained in immaculate condition and cleaned daily and, in the case of the larger Kandahar cenotaph, several small personal mementos have been placed by some of the individual name plaques.

Unlike past wars and UN missions where the cenotaphs have been left behind in the care of allies or local personnel, the intent is to repatriate the two cenotaphs back to Canada.
Op KEEPSAKE was proposed by WO Storey, CD, CEFCOM HQ War Diarist; Mrs. Irene Lythall, CEFCOM HQ Protocol Officer, and Mrs. Anne McMahon, CEFCOM HQ CDIO Editor, in October 2009 and was unanimously supported by the Commander and his staff.

CANOSCOM put the repatriation plan to the test during the closeout of Camp Mirage when the cenotaph was successfully dismantled, crated up and shipped back by sea to Canada in October 2010. In addition to the cenotaph, over 300 additional artifacts were identified and recovered from Camp Mirage for shipment back to Canada.

Once back in Canada, a decision will be made as to where the Camp Mirage cenotaph will be reassembled and placed. The intent is to install it at a fitting location that is accessible to the public. Taking charge of the smaller artifacts is Mr. Michel Litalien, DHH, Section Head, CF Museums & Historical Collections. He has contacted the Canadian War Museum and DND accredited museums nationwide to ensure a fair and equitable distribution.

This is the first time since the Second World War that a plan of this magnitude has been put in place to recover important artifacts from a theatre of operations, thus ensuring that all Canadians will be able to have access to keepsakes of their current military heritage.
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Colonel Terry Chester retired after 42 years of military service. He is currently Vice-President at the Air Force Association of Canada.
© Frontline Defence 2011