The fetid smell of urine and feces filled the humid early-morning air, serving as an introduction to Afghanistan for Canadian soldiers stepping off their plane.
It’s Cpl. Kelly Wolfe’s first memory from his lone tour of duty — thousands of miles away from his present life as chief of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation.
Talking about his tour can be therapeutic at times. He made lifelong friends, learned lessons that will stay with him forever, and followed a path of service honourably.
There are also memories from his 10-month tour that remain too difficult to discuss, especially around Remembrance Day. Everywhere he goes, every TV channel he watches, has something — memories, smells, songs — that take him back.
Those moments with the Canadian military — the good and bad, the monotonous and the treacherous, the ones he’d love to forget and others he’ll always cherish — set the stage for his current leadership position.
“No matter what the task was, even if there was something he wasn’t familiar with, or something that was out of his scope of knowledge, you could leave him with it and you’d know he’d get it done properly,” said Master Cpl. John Prior, Wolfe’s direct supervisor in Afghanistan, in a phone interview.
“He would find a way, always, to get the job done, no matter what.”
Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, located in Marcelin, one hour north of Saskatoon near Blaine Lake, has a legacy of military service. About 360 people live there, including several families with multiple members who have been on the front lines with Canada’s armed forces.
“We’re a very small in population, but a lot of our men and women served,” Wolfe said.
That service includes major conflicts and peace time work, from the First World War to the present day. Muskeg Lake members have joined the Canadian and American military. During the Second World War, nine brothers from the community enlisted, including one young man who lied about his birthday because he wanted to be with his brothers in the Canadian Forces. They all returned home together.
Being included among those names was an honour, Wolfe said.
“That’s what I wanted to do, follow in their footsteps, and hopefully encourage the youth to possibly do the same thing.”
Before joining the military at 28, Wolfe worked in the Okanagan, tying steel on a construction site. The days were dirty and long. It wasn’t how he envisioned spending the rest of his life. During a visit home for Thanksgiving in October 2007, he realized he wanted to challenge himself physically and mentally. He wanted to make a difference.
He signed up for the army and by February 2008 was in Quebec for basic training. In 2011, Wolfe was sent to Afghanistan with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry 3rd Battalion, deployed to Camp Blackhorse outside of Kabul, where he was part of the Canadian convoys that went through the local streets every other day.
He recalls the sense of vulnerability that came with being in the crowded roadways of the country’s largest city. Every moment brought a sense of danger. A man crossing the street could be a civilian going to work or someone carrying an explosive. Wolfe was aware that during traffic jams someone could get out of a Toyota Corolla — one of the most common cars in the area — or step off a bicycle and fire a rocket-propelled grenade. Members of the Taliban wore the same type of clothing as a local merchant.
“There was always that feeling that we don’t know who’s who,” Wolfe said.
Nothing could prepare him for the things he saw in combat, or for the way people, especially women and children, live in a developing nation without easy access to food or fresh drinking water.
There wasn’t much time to reflect on those realities in the middle of missions or meeting military objectives, but “they’re there when you lay down at night and try to go to bed and you start thinking about things, about what you saw, what you’ve encountered throughout the day,” he said.
When he returned home in February 2012, he truly began to appreciate what innocent civilians were living through in war zones like Afghanistan. He gained a deep and increased appreciation for things that are often taken for granted in first-world countries: basic freedom, clean water, full bellies.
He also came to another realization: Wolfe felt he had served his duty and that it was time to leave active service. After six more months, he was a civilian again. But leaving military life isn’t as easy as receiving a discharge and moving on. The mind doesn’t work that way.
When Wolfe and his partner would go to restaurants, he would sit with his back to a wall and scan the area, taking note of the exits. In crowded rooms, he’d notice bags and backpacks, and count the number of men. At times he’d see someone in certain attire and feel his body go into fight-or-flight mode.
Even years later, simple actions take him back to specific memories. The smell of sulfur from a match being struck reminds him of the night mortar shells fell near the sleeping quarters of the Canadian soldiers’ camp the night after the 2011 Canada Day celebration. It was also the day Canada officially transitioned from its combat role to focus on a training mission.
“It was hard to turn it off. It was,” he said.
“But not only having my friends and family and my partner, but having my culture, going back to my heritage, to my grandfather’s teachings, and I did sweats and I did ceremonies and I did a lot of praying in our way, pray to the Creator, smudging, things like that … They helped bring my mind back, because a lot of times, my mind was still over there.”
Though he survived life-threatening situations while overseas and experienced struggles after returning home, he has no regrets about joining the military. It was one of the best decisions he ever made, Wolfe said. The friendships he formed in infantry school have lasted through the years. His buddies live across Canada, from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, and come from different backgrounds, religions, social standing and age groups.
“I’ve always said this about the Canadian Forces: it didn’t matter where you came from, it didn’t matter what your race was, which religion you followed — we all considered each other brothers, sisters,” Wolfe said. “We were all there for the same purpose: to serve our country and to make sure we stay a free country.”
Prior said it was impossible to dislike Wolfe, a soft-spoken man who would speak up when it mattered. More than anything, he was dependable, Prior said.
“He had the attention and respect of other people of that rank.”
Even though he outranked Wolfe, he would listen to him because he brought life experience to the table, Prior added.
As he turned the page on his military life, he started looking for a new challenge. It came in his home community.
In early 2014, soon after Wolfe returned to Muskeg Lake, he was elected as a band council member. He served in that position for another four years until the band elections this spring, when he was elected chief.
The skills he developed in the military — self-discipline, self-respect, punctuality and a strong work ethic — came into play as a council member, and now as chief, he said, adding that he tries to instil those attributes in others, and to push people to reach their best.
“Those are kind of pillars that you can grow off of. Once you teach our youth to have that self-respect, as well as respect for other people, then you start working on your work ethic and you push them mentally and you push them physically to see what they’re capable of.
“Once they realize what they’re capable of, then they want to go to that next step and find out, ‘What else can I do?’ “
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