We’ll see you at Christmas.
It was October 2011 and Candy Greff was standing outside a restaurant in Morinville, Alta.,saying goodbye to her son Byron Greff. Little did she know that it would be the last time she would see him alive.
A 28-year-old master corporal with the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry based out of Edmonton, Byron was heading back to Afghanistan following a brief visit home to see the birth of his daughter, Brielle.
“It was difficult to say goodbye to him,” Candy remembers. “But then at the same time: ‘Goodbye, love you. See you at Christmas.’”
Days later, Byron and 20 other people were killed when a suicide bomber ran his explosive-laden car into an armoured bus carrying troops through Kabul. He was the last of 158 Canadian soldiers killed in the war in Afghanistan.
Eleven years later, Candy has been named this year’s Silver Cross Mother by the Royal Canadian Legion. She will lay a wreath at the National War Memorial on Remembrance Day on behalf of all mothers who have lost children in service to Canada.
Speaking about her son from her home in Lacombe, Alta., Candy recalled Byron as “a little mischievous,” but someone who gave his whole heart to whatever he was doing. That included playing hockey and golfing with his wife, Lindsay.
Byron didn’t grow up with military friends or family, so it was a bit of a surprise when he told his parents in Grade 9 that he wanted to join cadets in Red Deer. Three years later, he announced he wanted to join the Canadian Army.
“I don’t know where he got the idea from, that this would be something interesting to do,” Candy said, adding: “It scared me half to death. … We weren’t very closely associated with anyone in the military at that time, and it was frightening.”
Candy and her husband Greg nonetheless supported their son’s decision.
“He was a very determined young man, and this is what he wanted. And this is what he was doing. And we said: ‘We’re proud of you. Go for it.’”
Byron was 17 years old when he left for basic training shortly after high school graduation. He had just turned 18 when terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, launching more than a decade of war in Afghanistan.
The first Canadian troops deployed to Afghanistan in early 2002 as part of a U.S.-led mission to destroy al-Qaida. Candy remembers the moment that she and her husband realized their son might be joining them.
“One of the commanding officers at his graduation ceremony came up to Greg and I and said: ‘Are you the parents of a Byron Greff?’” she recalls. “He said: ‘You do know there is a chance that he may have to go to Afghanistan?’”
Byron would eventually deploy to Afghanistan twice. The first time was in 2007, at which point Canadian soldiers were involved in heavy fighting with Taliban insurgents in the southern province of Kandahar.
Candy remembers the nervousness of those months as news reports came back of other Canadian soldiers having been killed and wounded. But Byron managed to make it home to his family, including Lindsay and their young son Kellar.
Four years later, Byron was deployed on his second tour to Afghanistan. This time, Canadian soldiers weren’t fighting the Taliban. Instead, Byron and others were training Afghan soldiers in what was supposed to be a relatively safe mission.
While Byron was the last Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan before Canada’s military mission there officially ended in 2014, Candy says that distinction doesn’t carry any special meaning or importance to her.
“Because each and every one killed there (is) equally as important as the first or the last, or any of them in between,” she said. “All of the conflicts that the Armed Forces have been in, and anyone who has lost their lives, they’re all very important.”
Nearly a decade after Byron was killed, Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban. While she said she is sad for Afghans there who had hoped for freedom, Candy believes her son and his colleagues nonetheless did some good for the country.
“He worked hard,” she said. “He did what he needed to do there and made a difference, I believe in my heart.”
Candy said she will be thinking of her son as well as all those other Canadians who have laid down their lives in service to their country when she lays a wreath on Remembrance Day.
And while she continues to feel the pain and sadness of his loss in her heart, “I need to hold my head up high. That’s what Byron would want of all of us.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press