Feb 092014
 

I guess that was it.  My first military deployment has come and gone, and now I’m back on Canadian soil (permafrost) wondering where it all went.

The coin that represents the last Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistanas indicated by the phrase"Last Out"

The coin that represents the last Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistanas indicated by the phrase”Last Out”

It was almost a year and a half ago when I first heard that I might be selected for this final Canadian Forces mission to Afghanistan.  Then came the anticipation, months of uncertainty, then months of training, and then the day I left.  The whole lead up to it was stressful and felt like it took forever, but I can now barely remember that and it all just feels like a small blip on the calendar.

“What was it like?”

By far the most common question I get, and I still don’t even have a generic answer to give people what they’re looking for when they ask.  I raise my eyebrows and as thousands of moments, memories, human interactions, emotional moments of all kinds, smells, tastes, and thoughts stir in my head for a split second, I don’t know how to answer that.  I really don’t, although I would really like to.  If I could really explain the experience in such a way where people can actually feel what it’s like, I would.  I think it’s so important that Canadians remember what we did there, even if controversy still surrounds this mission well over a decade later.

It was like being in a place where people are so similar to you, and so different at the same time.  Life is so different from Canada, but so similar in other ways.  People are lazy in the same way, people are motivated by the same things, people are scared and startled by the same things.  The similarities are so close and yet the differences are so large.  Perhaps I’ll get into it more another time.  But I still struggle with that question of what it was like.

Right now, it’s wonderful being back.  Through the outstanding level of support that family and friends across Canada poured out to Kim and I, we got through this hurdle and are incredibly excited to move on with life and the wonderful things it continues to bring.

I would like to say thanks to everyone for the support, encouragement, care packages, and just the fact that we knew you were thinking of us through this deployment.  It was definitely worth the experience, and worth being part of something so positive to so many people who are less fortunate.  In the next number of weeks I hope to publish more articles about this mission and how it has a lasting impact not only on Afghanistan, but on our family and community here at home.

 Posted by at 6:25 pm
Nov 112013
 

From Flanders County in World War 1 to the fields of raw opium in Southern Afghanistan, I find the red poppy to be especially meaningful to us this Remembrance Day.  It has been a very memorable one this year for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I’m here, on an operational mission in Afghanistan where too many of my brothers and sisters in arms have died or been injured.  This final Canadian Remembrance Day in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Camp Eggers, has been an inspirational and heavily moving day.

This is the patch we wore on our left shoulder leading up to 11 Nov.

Right from 6:30 am, I had been a part of a small group tasked to set up parts of the Remembrance Day ceremony on our camp.  We started with moving jugs of coffee and food to a reception area, then to moving chairs in place for the guests.  But, these were no ordinary guests.  After placing the chairs in tight order, row on row, our small team went about placing name tags on each of the chairs that had been carefully planned by the commanding general’s assistant.  There were dozens upon dozens of ambassadors, coalition generals, Afghan generals, diplomats, and other senior leaders in attendance.  After this was done, we were going to be the ones to bring each VIP’s wreath that they were placing on the cenotaph to them to make sure things ran smoothly.  They came in all sizes including beautiful and enormous wreaths as tall as I am made of real flowers held together by a steel frame.  They were impressive, and my friend Pat and I had to make sure not to drop them in front of hundreds of guests and media… No pressure.

 

This video came on as I stood near the front but to the side.  Screens were set up all around so people could watch the video and listen to the song Highway of Heroes by The Trews.  An emotionally intense moment, I squinted against the bright sun to see the faint TV screen and could hardly make out the dark images.  Most of all, I listened to these lyrics as chills moved up my back slowly causing my eyes to well up.  As tears built up thinking of these devastated families and just how easy it is to lose your life here, the emotions were comforting and all of a sudden I no longer cared much about the wreaths, the cameras, or the VIPs.  This was a real honest moment within myself and something I shared with those around me who were breathing more deeply and getting the same goosebumps I was.

 

As I tried to tilt my head back a little to keep the tears in my eyes, hoping they might dry up, I realized it just didn’t matter.  Two warm droplets moved down my cheeks and I no longer cared about that either.  I had no need to act tough while commemorating so many of our dead who can no longer cry for themselves.  So, I’ll do it for them.

A few of the wreaths are shown here including the large one from the ambassador for France.

And, so will others, as I came to realize.  More than a couple Afghan generals who sat in the front rows showed their true feelings.  One held a handkerchief to his face as he cried, watching the slideshow of photos of Canadians, no doubt thinking of countless of his own people who have also been killed.  Sniffling could be heard all around.  What started off as a high stress day making sure to plan the little details became as simple as making this personal and silent connection.  The rest of the ceremony went off perfectly as one by one, I passed wreaths to these VIPs and shared in their moments of reflection.

I salute the cenotaph after the ambassador for Belgium laid flowers and stands beside me.

I will never forget this ceremony and will always look back at this one as I attend Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada after today.  I promise to remember those who have given their lives, limbs, sweat, blood, and tears to this dirty job of making peace and I hope others can share in this feeling as well.  Today is another beautiful day to be Canadian, and for having a stable and prosperous country to call home, I thank God and I thank all of my fellow soldiers, past and present.

 

Lest we forget.

 Posted by at 6:18 pm
Nov 042013
 

With only around a month left in Afghanistan, the feelings of settling in and finding some kind of normal way to get through the day are different.  I’m no longer adjusting to the air, I no longer care about the gritty environment, and I find my self much less paranoid than I was when I first arrived.

As dangerous as it is, driving is one of the best experiences I could havehad in Kabul.  What better way is there to see the city?

Guys carrying AK-47s with scarves wrapped around their faces wearing any variety of clothing are just police, people giving you intense, analytic stares without blinking are just curious, and suspicious vehicles… well that’s pretty much every vehicle.

I’ve come to accept that a lot of this is just every day life.  It is a part of the normal state of things in Kabul that people will do what they can with what they have available to get by.  And, if that means you’re going to use planks of wood to repair your car, then so be it.  If that means that you need to burn tires and garbage you collect from the river to heat your home, well that’s better than your family freezing through the cold fall/winter.  I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’m at the point where this country means a lot more to me than it did before.

Having read and watched the news on the war in Afghanistan like most Canadians, I felt pretty good about what we were doing.  I hated seeing Canadian and other coalition casualties and it broke my heart to see what these families were going through.  I knew that there was a greater good and I still believe that.  But, now it’s different.  I have a real personal connection to this place and I will always feel it in a different way.  Afghanistan is no longer a place I hear about in the news.  It’s a place that I’ve lived.

Afghanistan has handfuls of people that I know personally.  There are people who live here that I will worry about any time I read about an attack, and I will probably be able to say “Hey, I drove past there” any time I hear of something happening in Kabul.

I guess that’s all I’ve been thinking about recently.  I want to be able to leave here and feel like things are secure and safe for people.  But, it would be pretty naive of me to think that.  I suppose it is comforting to know that most of the people I have met have been dealing with insecurity for a long time and that they are tough enough to handle it.  If they’ve been able to do OK this far, I can only pray for them when I get back home and hope things at least find some kind of stable way of allowing people to just live normal lives, whatever normal might be in Afghanistan.

 Posted by at 11:03 am
Oct 232013
 

I suppose it is about time that I actually explain what the title of this blog refers to.  I did have a bit of a struggle to figure out what the overall message, tone, and feeling I want to project.  But, if this is supposed to be a place where I can post things about every day life for the long term, I needed a term that would stick.

At this stage in life, it is hard to predict what roles I might take on in the future.  I know already that some of the most important roles I’ve held or currently hold include the following:

-husband

-homeowner

-landlord

-soldier

-Canadian

-Christian

But, there are so many other roles that I either hope to fulfill or that I really need to fulfill during my stint on this planet.  A Renaissance Man (or polymath), during The Renaissance was a person who was an expert at a number of different things.  Notable people like Leonardo Da Vinci for example, were sculptors, painters, mathematicians, inventors, engineers, etc.  Now, I see a true family man as someone who needs to be multi-talented at so many things.  I see myself as having to be or become an expert at all sorts of endless things so that I can really call myself a family man… A Renaissance Family Man.

So rather than learn to sculpt colossal statues, paint frescoes, or find ways to calculate the acceleration of the earth’s gravity, as a Renaissance Family Man, I vow to become an expert at other things.

Here are some examples:

Chef - OK, so everyone’s skills in this area are different, but everyone who finds themselves preparing food for other people, notably their family, needs to have some knowledge of how to go beyond the fridge, and learn how to use the other matching stainless steel appliances such as the stove/oven. After eating food that has either been flown in from Uzbekistan, or vaccum sealed in a plastic pouch for the past three months, I can’t wait to get into my own kitchen again and make some real food.

Furnace Repair Man - Instead of calling another guy to come do this, see if you can do it yourself first.  After researching for less than an hour on Google and YouTube about furnaces that constantly go on and off, I went out and bought a $30 flame sensor, pulled out the old one, put in the new one, and finished what could have been a $300 job.  What’s more awesome about this is that I can still brag about it two years later!

Landscaper - I don’t know too many people who enjoy this, but it’s still important and a Renaissance Family Man must be good at it.  The lawn needs cutting, the bushes need trimming, and the rest of the yard needs to look like a pro did it, without hiring someone.  I have to admit I haven’t moved much past using a lawnmower, weed wacker, and those little scisor things that could easily cut your finger.

Roofer - Actually, forget that!  I’ll hire a roofer…

IT Guy - Everyone has had to rescue their mom when she didn’t realize that the TV didn’t turn on at the same time as the cable box, or the cable box came on and the TV didn’t get the signal, and now they’re all out of sync and the whole things is screwed up and all she knows is “the damn TV doesn’t work.”  And, everyone’s had to fix this situation on a daily basis, right?  Or is that just me?  C’mon mom, I had to go there.  Now we have Wi-Fi everything, online banking, cell phones, email, and everything else that can easily create mass confusion at home.  A Renaissance Family Man needs to step in when someone has messed up the router, or if they can’t figure out how to get something from their cell phone to their laptop.  Applying for a mortgage using only a cell phone?  Yeah, that was me.

Vehicle Mechanic - OK, so I am NOT one to talk here because my knowledge of car repairs goes as far as parking my car at Canadian Tire, filling out the little piece of paper explaining what the problem is including descriptive noises (“the belt just keeps going EEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!”), and dropping the keys in the little slot.  But, as time goes on I think these are things I can figure out.

Tutor - Now, by the time our kid or kids are in school, I don’t know what they might be teaching at that point.  Math class might be as simple as learning how to ask Siri a math problem.  And, if during that period when we were learning typing, they’ve replaced it with web development or something I’m not as familiar with… well then maybe I will just Google that as well and do my best to help out.

Plumber - Because paying someone to fish Hot Wheels out of your toilet just seems wrong.  When that time comes, I’ll be buying myself a drain snake, getting my hands dirty, and then rubbing my whole body with hand sanitizer.

Electrician - I really like my fingers, but not enough to pay someone else to do the electrical work at home.  My entire childhood consisted of finding old VCRs, TVs, toys, and other electronics, re-wiring them and hooking them up all together, and then plugging them in to see what happens.  I’m really happy that I lived to tell about it.  But, I learned at a very early age how to re-set the electrical breaker.

As you can see, I’m having a lot of fun with this.  There are still so many other things that I want to talk about.  With a baby on the way I’m sure I will learn a lot of new skills like how to calm a screaming baby in the middle of the night, or how to change a diaper with my eyes closed while holding my breath (if anybody has figured this out yet let me know).  There are so many skills that a Renaissance Family Man needs to learn.  I think I could go on for another ten pages.

You tell me!  What are other skills that every family man needs in order to become a Renaissance Family Man?  How does a guy make himself as useful as possible to his family?  I would love to hear your comments.

Bye for now.

Ted

 Posted by at 11:01 am
Sep 242013
 

Danny Boy! Dan the Man! Lieutenant Daaaan(with a Forest Gump accent)! These  were some of the names that my newest Quebecois buddy Dan went by while we worked together in Afghanistan. When Dan’s grandfather died, it would only be a few short days (long and anxious for him) before he was on a plane back to Canada. All together, we had only worked together for less than two and a half months, but that’s all it took to build a close friendship and level of trust that will surely last a lifetime.  This is what army friends are all about.

Not a day went by when Dan didn't talk about needing more protein to build muscle.  Keep eating like this, Dan, and your protein intake will not be a problem.

Not a day went by when Dan didn’t talk about needing more protein to build muscle. Keep eating like this, Dan, and your protein intake will not be a problem.

This is definitely not the first time a short lived necessity to work or live together has turned into an important friendship. Many of you reading this are people with whom I’ve become friends with under similar circumstances. We share memories of things we did either in our military training, inside and outside of work and in a short amount of time were able to discover things about our personalities that many in our own family don’t even get to see. This can go back to basic training where a bunch of people are thrown together and have to exercise, work, study, clean, eat, and do everything else together. Or it can be as short as having spent two weeks on a tasking somewhere. That’s all it takes sometimes to find just enough common ground with someone where you feel just as close and familiar many years later.

Any person in the military will know what I mean and I’m sure there are similar situations in regular life that cause this too. When a small group of people are put into a situation together that is outside of their control, they fall back on their natural instinct to find things that they have in common and how each other’s strengths can work together. In less pseudo-scientific terms, this is the bond two people build when they discover they have similar values and interests.

In about two and a half months, Dan has become one of those close army friends.  I know what things he does and doesn’t like to do at work, I understand his sense of humour, I have a good sense of how dedicated he is to his family and friends, and I know he will have similar views on friendship, as awkward as it is for men to talk about it.

It’s quite profound to be able to build a friendship like that in such a short amount of time. For a guy who I didn’t even know the last time I hugged my wife before I left Canada, I’d say sometimes people just click.  That’s what happened here and as good a friendship as it was on this camp for the time being, it was just as much a healthy mental balance to the work that we were both deeply involved with.

My sincerest sympathies to you and your family, Dan as the funeral approaches.  Stay safe and I look forward to visiting in the future.

Sep 162013
 

Well, I think I can officially say that the awkward lull is now over… kind of.  I’ve finally heard gunshots characteristically snapping loudly overhead, but in a good way, I guess.  I may not have thought so at the time when I was hurrying to prepare for an attack on the base, as we all were, but we were all relieved when we later found out the good news.  I wanted to share a short post today about the enormous victory that Afghans celebrated on September 12th, 2013.  I emphasize that this is not just a win for Afghan sport, or the entertainment side of seeing a soccer team do well.  I truly believe that this championship, where the Afghan National football team beat the regional powerhouse India for the South Asian Football Federation championship is a socio-political blip on the radar that shows continuing positive change in this country.

Let’s compare it to the Greek soccer victory at the UEFA European Championship Final against the host, Portugal.  Since 2004, Greek national pride has been strengthened by this event all over the world and were it not for an already strong national identity, this single success in sports would have done more to unite millions of Greeks around a positive belief in their nationality.  Afghans, who are very much in need to continuing to build their national identity, have marked this generation with a spike in national pride and personal ownership of their country.  I believe this pride will last a long time and whether or not they can repeat this success again as the underdogs they are, people here will have high hopes for this team that bears their national flag.

I’ll leave you with this short video clip of how Kabulis celebrate a big win in soccer.  In my experience, this now takes the cake for soccer celebrations.  That is, vehicle mounted 50 caliber machine guns and AK-47 gunfire are not things I’ve seen at soccer games in Europe or anywhere else.

CONGRATULATIONS AFGHANISTAN!  2013 South Asian Football Federation Champions!

Sep 092013
 

As I said in my first blog post what feels like a decade ago, one must start somewhere.  Now, whether or not I have writer’s block and I don’t know where to start, I have to start here.  Have you ever had so many different thoughts, not sure which ones anybody will care about, or which one you should prioritize over another in order to just write something?  Well, I’ve had a 2 week blogging drought for that reason.

tolylotisweddingphoto

The newlyweds! Tony and Lotis walking out of the church on their big day, September 7th, 2013.

The newest Mr. and Mrs. Vailas have been on my mind for a long time now.  That is my little brother Tony and Lotis who were married two nights ago on Saturday, September 7th, 2013.  I’ve said before that this is such a historic day for many people, especially them.  This is the only time Lotis’s parents will marry a child off for the FIRST time, this is the only wedding they as a couple will ever have, and among still other things, it’s the last time I will ever have been the best man for my little brother.  So many things surrounding this beautiful event have been set in history and are now a recent part of the permanent legacy they will leave behind for future generations.  I hope it’s not too daunting a way to put it, but that’s what I’ve been thinking about.  A recurring thought in my head has been a simple statement I made yesterday to my good friend Dan.  Dissapointed, I said,

“As of right now, I will have forever missed my brother’s wedding and there’s nothing I can ever do to change that.”

That statement is a bit hurtful if I think of it in a negative way.  But, I think I’m starting to see the reality of what we’ve all been dealt here.  At the same time, I had to come on this mission and that is also a permanent part of our history.  Kimberly has been a strong army wife, my parents have become true army parents(especially by sending insane care packages loaded with junk food), and I have been changed in a myriad of positive ways that will be a part of who I am in the future, forever.

tonylotisweddingspeechcaption

A still shot from my best man speech played at the reception on the wedding night. Even at 2 am and after a dozen takes, I still manage to crack a half-smile and toast the couple with my water bottle.

I will always love Tony and Lotis and me being there to watch their wedding in person, be in the pictures, or dance with them later at the reception would not change that.  The video I gave their videographer to be played at the reception as my best man speech was short and simple, but it felt like it took an eternity to write, re-write, record, and re-record a dozen times.  It never could have been good enough in my mind and I only hoped it would make people smile and maybe laugh a bit.  The rest of our lives as family will give me the real opportunities to show my love for you guys and that’s what I will make count as being your true best man.

Again, I praise and congratulate my baby brother Tony and wife Lotis on their wedding.  I can’t wait for the photos and video.  You are wonderful people that I love and Kimberly and I are lucky and blessed to call you guys family.

Aug 292013
 
Cutest Kitty In Afghanistan

This is by far the cutest kitty that I’ve seen to date in Afghanistan. He lives on our camp in Kabul and is kept here by the staff. He wanders around and you see him in all sorts of places. His job is to keep rodents away. Often hanging around during meal times at the DFAC (place we eat), most people call him Hitlerkitty.  By the way, I can’t believe that website exists. LOL!

Aug 262013
 

Just over 365 days ago, Kimberly and I were getting ready. I woke up very early in the morning from a mostly sleepless night and left my wife-to-be to jump in the whirlwind of hair, makeup, photography, and all the other excitement that comes with the big day. We were married on August 24th, 2012, as many of you reading this may remember.

Contrary to popular belief, Fr. Ted Paraskevopoulos is not the twin brother of George Stroumboulopoulos

What a special day that was! Forget the glitches of the bride’s limo breaking down or whatever else didn’t seem to go according to plan. I remember it being exactly everything I could have asked for. Today, I can’t believe that was so long ago; a full year. I know most people would say a year is nothing, but still.

We haven’t even finalized the album yet. We put off finalizing the design and picture layout of the wedding album for so long, and already we’re at our first anniversary without it. Another place where perfectionism took hold of us, we kept putting it off because it had to be perfect. An impossible thing because looking at photos, to me, is like an attempt to re-live that moment. I wish I could look at photos of our wedding night and BE there again. Wouldn’t that be perfect?

As for the anniversary, we are spending it apart. Duty called, and I am here in Kabul wishing my wife a happy first anniversary over a choppy phone connection. We both agreed that it doesn’t even feel like it’s our anniversary, and that we might just postpone it. I don’t see a problem with that. I’ll take any excuse to spend time with her and probably eat ice cream. As we say often, it could be worse.

This first wedding anniversary has reminded me of all the great things that I’ve been blessed with. A year ago I married my best friend in the company of the most wonderful family anybody could be so lucky to have. Looking back at photos does make me wish I could re-live the moments we shared at the altar or dancing or seeing family. But it only reminded me that there will be many more special moments including anniversaries, birthdays, and other things. For now, I’m counting the days and making as much of an impact on this mission as I can before coming home. The job is important, but my family is more so.