Evan MacLean remembers the night he saw a rocket explode from a rooftop café in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Around him were six other officers, all safe.
The Taliban rocket landed about a kilometre away. It was fired, they later found out, from a wheelbarrow.
“I’ll never forget that,” says MacLean, who was then in charge of signals intelligence for the 35-nation International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
“Every one of us looked at our watches,” he said. “We were timing to see how long it would take for base operations to put us in shelters — for the sirens to go.”
Retired after a 39-year military career that saw him posted everywhere from Masset to Alert to Afghanistan, MacLean now volunteers as a service officer for the Masset Legion.
On Remembrance Day and every other day, service officers look to help any colleagues who need a hand. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a key concern.
“You don’t get a lot of calls, but you keep an eye out,” said MacLean.
“The big thing is that people often don’t realize there are services out there.”
Veterans Affairs is re-opening an office in Prince George, and a case officer has recently visited Haida Gwaii, which MacLean finds encouraging.
“Veterans are getting a lot better support, and the families,” he said. “Sometimes when you see the news, it doesn’t seem like it. But there is a lot more support than there ever was before.”
Born and raised in New Brunswick, the MacLeans now have four generations of military service to their name.
Evan MacLean’s great uncle fought and died at age 20 in the First World War.
MacLean’s father, born seven years to the day, was named after him. Working on a minesweeper in the Second World War, his dad learned a lot, including a thing or two about British Army cooking.
“He swore they deep-fried their eggs, and cooked the mutton with the hair still on it,” said MacLean, laughing.
“As kids, we never had lamb at all.”
Following his own footsteps as a radar technician turned electrical engineer and then signals officer, MacLean’s daughter joined the Canadian Armed Forces. She served for five years until a knee injury sent her into teaching computer engineering.
Looking back to his great uncle’s time, MacLean noted the huge gap in understanding how people respond to war.
“People were shot for running away from the enemy, for ‘cowardice’ because basically, they were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.
“That’s 100 years ago now, and it’s changed quite a bit.”
MacLean credits people like Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire for making sure post-traumatic stress disorder is reported more, and made a military priority.
While in Kabul in 2004, MacLean was responsible for collecting daily signals intelligence reports for General Rick Hillier, a former Chief of Defence Staff of the Canadian Forces who led the entire ISAF battle group for six months that year.
Most of the intelligence concerned threats to ISAF troops from outside Afghanistan’s borders, and was collected by the Five Eyes: Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
One morning, MacLean was up at 4 a.m. for a workout in the camp gym — any other time of day was too hot — and General Hillier came in with his personal security of a half-dozen Special Forces troops.
“They were looking pretty fresh, but he was frazzled,” said MacLean.
Asked why he looked so tired, it came out that Gen. Hillier, then in his 50s, had been on a running patrol with Nepalese Gurkhas the night before.
As far as MacLean knows, Hillier was the only ISAF general to patrol with the soldiers.
“He was a very popular leader, with everybody,” said MacLean.
“He was interested in the fighting man, the troops, and their health and welfare.”
MacLean enjoyed his military career, which saw him learn soccer from Dutch jet pilots in Cold Lake, Alberta, gave him a university education and a compelling career. It took him to places like Oslo, Istanbul, and Haida Gwaii.
But watching yet another war, the civil war in Syria, makes MacLean’s stomach churn.
In 1978 and 1979 he was posted to Syria and to Israel as a peacekeeper, and visited the now damaged city of Palmyra, built in the second millennium BCE.
“Parts of Syria reminded me of Canada,” said MacLean. “Up around Homs, I thought I was in Saskatchewan — the wheat fields and the whole bit.”
The Syrian people he met were phenomenal, he said, very friendly. The same was true in Afghanistan.
“They were like most people,” said MacLean.
“They want to raise a family, they want them safe, educated if they can. But mainly they want them healthy and safe.”