Springhill native brings home the troops

Christopher Gooding, The Amherst News
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Lees crewmember of last flight from Afghanistan

SPRINGHILL – It was the most precious cargo imaginable. The last of it kind, hopefully.

Upon arrival in Ottawa earlier in March, news media from around the world had come to watch the plane unload. Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the crowd and thanked the last of the Canadian soldiers, as they exited the C-17, officially ending the nation’s role in Afghanistan which began in October 2001.

Inside the plane, Springhill native and Royal Canadian Air Force loadmaster Rich Lees with the 429 Transport Squadron watched as the soldiers exited, marking his last flight to or from Afghanistan – one of many he’s made in the past 12 years, but certainly the most memorable.

“We were the last flight in to Afghanistan, and the last flight out,” Lees said last week. “We were to go in for Chief Defense staff and go to Pakistan, but in typical fashion, Kabul had a snowstorm and we couldn’t land. So we went back to Kuwait.”

It was then they learned their assignment changed to pick up the last of the Canadian troops and begin their journey home. Lees and his crewmates, part of the original rotation of bringing troops and supplies to Afghanistan, were bestowed with being the last Canadian military presence in the country.

“It was resonating with me a little bit. People talk about those moments, like Korea and that last helicopter leaving Saigon. And then there we are, going in for the last 80 guys and closing the door.”

The mood on the plane, Lees said, was relief and fatigue.

“For me, there was relief. The weight came right off my shoulders. No fear of going back,” lees said. “The 80 soldiers, they had been up all night.”

Canadian troops had already broke camp when the snowstorm blew through Kabul, cancelling the original flight home. With no proper place to rest, the troops stayed up ten-hours waiting to catch a ride. But even through all that, Lees said, they were happy to be going home.

“The mood was elated. Not high-spirited, but more ‘thank goodness’… It was like a bad vacation coming to an end. Happy to just be done with it.”

There were familiar faces in the crowd that boarded, and Lees said he was happy to see each and every one of them.

For Lees, it’s become a memory amongst many his military career has provided.

“It’s up there,” Lees said. “I think, because I was in one of the first groups to go [to Afghanistan], to be the last is one of the high points of my career.”

And if a movie is ever made including the historic military moment, Lees offers little advice for casting his role.

“They better be handsome.”

Organizations: Canadian Air Force

Geographic location: Afghanistan, Ottawa, Kabul Pakistan Kuwait Korea Saigon

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Recent comments

  • Marjorie Harrison
    April 02, 2014 - 15:06

    Need to find a younger George Clooney to play your part.

  • HEATHER BLACK
    April 02, 2014 - 12:43

    Thank God our troops are home safe and sound. I've know Richard since he was a teen, and he is one super guy.