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Sgt. Patrick Tower at CFB Edmonton, Alberta December 14, 2006. Tower become the first ever Canadian to receive the Star of Military Valour. The courageous soldier saved at least four comrades in a brutal Afghanistan firefight.

JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Sergeant Patrick Tower was on his way to a training course at the military base in Wainwright, Alta. He stopped for an early coffee at the base café, and there learned of the horrific terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

At about the same time, a slumbering Maher Arar awoke to the insistent jangle of the phone in his San Diego hotel room. It was a company colleague, travelling with him on a business trip, calling to tell him to turn on the TV.

In Wainwright, Sgt. Tower felt a chill go up his spine. For the rest of the day, their agenda scrapped, he and his military mates talked of nothing else. The steely, soft-spoken sergeant quickly concluded that their lives would never be the same.

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Once he realized it was no joke, Mr. Arar was equally stunned. No one in San Diego was in the mood to do business, either. He, a Canadian Muslim, and his friend, an American Jew, sat together for the rest of the day and watched the terrible tragedy unfold. Sickened by the deaths of so many innocent people, he, too, thought nothing would ever be the same.

But neither Mr. Arar nor Sgt. Tower had any idea just how dramatic the changes would be. Although different in so many ways, both are products of 9/11, their destinies forever altered by what happened on that clear morning.

Within five years, Sgt. Tower, now 34, would face a High Noon gunfight down a dusty alley in wild, remote Afghanistan.

He would display such courage under fire that he would receive the Star of Military Valour, the highest decoration awarded to a Canadian soldier since the Second World War. But the award came with a heavy price: That day, four Canadian soldiers died. One of them was his best friend.

Barely more than a year after 9/1l, Mr. Arar, 36, would be physically and emotionally traumatized by a Kafkaesque nightmare that included months of torture in a hellish Syrian military prison as an alleged al-Qaeda terrorist -- all the result of erroneous information passed on by the RCMP.

Since his return to Canada in October, 2003, the case of the software engineer has rarely been out of the news, as he struggles to recover from his ordeal and seek justice.

His long campaign culminated this year with the release of two extensive reports by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor of the Ontario Court of Appeal that cleared Mr. Arar, called for him to be compensated and made far-reaching recommendations to safeguard against further egregious mistakes by Canadian security personnel.

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For Sgt. Tower's bravery, chosen to represent the heroism of all the soldiers involved in Canada's first military combat mission in more than 50 years, and for Maher Arar's own brand of courage and quiet dignity in his quest for redress, the disparate duo of the soldier and the Muslim Canadian are the twin honorees of The Globe and Mail's Nation Builder Award for 2006.

Both men are modest heroes, insistent on deflecting attention from themselves to others they consider more worthy. Both are proud to be Canadian and proud of what they have achieved. And neither is ready to abandon what they have been fighting for.

Sgt. Tower is determined to go back to Afghanistan. He has already signed up for another mission there in 2008. "I've seen the al-Qaeda training camps. There's nothing that says someone training there isn't going to target Canada," he says. "There's a lot of Canadian blood, people's souls, over there. You can't just up and leave. That term, 'withdrawal with honour.' It's not in my vocabulary."

Mr. Arar's mission also has taken a toll. In addition to its impact on his family and his inability to work, there are lingering shadows from his captivity. He admits there are times when the stress is too much, when he feels like he's 60 years old and yearning "to be on a different planet."

"Does all this mean I am going to stop the fight for justice?" he says. "No. The government should understand that.

"You know what? I am paying a price. But if they think I am going to be quiet, they are wrong. I will never give up. I will go to the end."

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Sgt. Tower earned the Star of Military Valour for leading a courageous three-man dash through a hail of enemy fire over 150 metres of open ground to aid a pinned-down group of soldiers that had suffered heavy casualties. The citation said: "Sergeant Tower's courage and selfless devotion to duty contributed directly to the survival of the remaining platoon members."

And yet, during a conversation at his snug Edmonton condominium, decorated with John Wayne posters and cowboy memorabilia, he rejects any suggestion that he has done anything special. "Honestly, for me, I was just doing my job, just doing what had to be done. I mean, you see bravery in Afghanistan all the time . . . in all my soldiers.

"I've said this before: The real heroes are the ones who didn't come back. They gave up an awful lot more than I did that day."

Sgt. Tower's story is all the more remarkable because when he joined the military in 1989, no one seriously thought that one day they would be fighting a war. That was for those who had been at Vimy Ridge, on the beaches of Normandy or in the bloody hellholes of Korea. For 50 years, Canadians had worn the blue berets of United Nations peacekeepers. Now, Sgt. Tower's name is writ large with the likes of Victoria Cross winners Billy Bishop, Smokey Smith and Andy Mynarksi, whose exploits were once so familiar to Canadian school kids.

The deadly conflict that earned Sgt. Tower his decoration took place on Aug. 3, mere weeks before his unit, the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, was due to end its mission in Afghanistan's dangerous south.

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The Princess Pats were sent out to capture an abandoned schoolhouse known to be a Taliban stronghold, 30 kilometres west of Kandahar. A procession of light armoured vehicles, or LAVs, led the way, only to be stopped in their tracks by a lethal roadside bomb that struck the third vehicle in line and took the life of Corporal Christopher Reid.

When another bomb went off farther up the road, a number of soldiers left their vehicles and advanced on the school by foot. One group, led by Sgt. Tower's best friend, Sgt. Vaughn Ingram, raced forward as far as some of the school's outbuildings.

It was a Taliban ambush. Heavy fire, including a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades, zeroed in on the trapped Canadian soldiers. One grenade scored a direct hit, killing Sgt. Ingram, Cpl. Bryce Jeffrey Keller and Private Kevin Dallaire.

A group headed by Sgt. Tower had remained behind to care for a growing number of victims downed by the heat. He and a medic were with heat victim Lance Cpl. Thomas Cole, when word of the casualties up ahead came through over his radio.

Sgt. Tower described what happened next. "I heard there were wounded. I just turned . . . and I said: 'There's wounded up there. We gotta go.' And I started running, and they went with me. By then, the fire had really picked up. The enemy knew they'd done some damage so they were pressing their advantage.

"We ran about 150 metres. In the heat. I was more worried about the shooting. There was lots of it going on. Lance Cpl. Cole had a bullet go right through his magazine pouch."

When Sgt. Tower finally reached his target, a beleaguered sergeant was stunned, then overjoyed, to see him. He thought a LAV-led rescue mission had arrived. "I had to tell him, no, it was just me and the medic and Tom Cole. . . Afterwards, he told me he was never so happy and then bummed out within five seconds.

"I said to him: 'Where's Vaughn at?' And he's like: 'Vaughn's dead.' And that's when I looked outside and saw Vaughn lying there. So . . .

For the first time in the telling, the no-nonsense sergeant pauses to collect himself, fighting off tears.

But at the scene, he quickly overcame his emotions and took charge. Machine-gun fire from the Canadians poured back at the Taliban. Two LAVs were ordered forward, regardless of the bomb threat, to come to their aid.

"We were still taking quite a bit of fire, but we started loading up the wounded in the LAVs. They left. They came back. We loaded up the dead in one, and in the last one, we got in and we pulled back. The whole time we were under pretty incredible fire."

Back at the base, Sgt. Tower addressed his remaining troops. "I told them: 'Today's been a very bad day. A lot of bad things happened, but a lot of good things happened as well.' And they were done by guys who were young, 20-, 21-, 22-year-old privates. They did amazing things and they should be proud of the way they performed."

He also offered to return to the fray. Right away. "We reorganized our platoon so we could fight again with whoever we had left. Then, I was ready to go back."

His request was denied.

On a blustery winter day in Kamloops, B.C., Maher Arar takes time out from his new existence in a new community to offer a guest some instant coffee. He sits at the kitchen table of his family's cozy, single-storey home, ready to talk about his life.

The transformation from a workaholic engineer who spent most of his spare hours reading technical journals, rarely giving politics a thought, to the seemingly tireless seeker of justice and accountability has been difficult.

Every time he leaves the house, his shy five-year-old son, Houd, feels anxious. His daughter, Basaa, 10, still misses the friends she had in Ottawa, where the family lived until Mr. Arar's wife, Dr. Monia Mazigh, secured a "dream job" teaching here at the Thompson Rivers University.

There have also been a couple of unsettling hate letters, although he is quick to add that their sentiments pale beside the showering of good wishes from thousands of supportive Canadians.

And Mr. Arar has also had too many weeks like the one he just went through. Within a matter of days, he had to travel back to Ottawa for the release of Judge O'Connor's second report; attend long, intense legal-mediation sessions aimed at settling his multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the government; and then, in the midst of everything, an uncle died unexpectedly in Montreal.

The constant strain wears him out. "To be a public figure, a public personality, is something I never wanted. I have to live a stressful life every single minute. I'm tired," he says with a loud sigh.

"Every day, the cloud is still over me. I'm not like a normal family father any more. It's very hard for people to understand what I've been going through, unless they come and live with me, and see it all."

The main elements of Mr. Arar's devastating story are well known. Returning through New York on his way back to Ottawa from a trip to Tunisia, he was taken into custody by U.S. authorities on Sept. 26, 2002.

Held incommunicado without explanation for 12 days, shackled and terrified, he was eventually told that he was a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist and would be deported to the country of his birth, the brutal police state of Syria.

There, he was beaten, tortured and held for months in a tiny, filthy cell, signing everything his military interrogators put in front of him. There were times when he broke down completely, screaming and bashing his head against the stone walls.

As the public clamour over his continued imprisonment began to trump diplomatic and political inertia, Mr. Arar was moved to a better prison, then freed and returned to Canada. He had been gone for more than a year.

Three years later, after a lengthy, costly public inquiry, Judge O'Connor concluded "categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offence or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada." He was a victim of RCMP intelligence reports, given to the United States, that were wrong.

Noting Mr. Arar's patience and co-operation throughout, the judge added: "I take my hat off to him."

Initially, Mr. Arar held off going public. "I had lived in Syria for 17 years. It was still alive in my mind that, if you speak out, there are going to repercussions. There's going to be retaliation."

A month later, however, someone in government leaked to the media a confession extracted from him under torture that he had trained as a terrorist in Afghanistan. "I realized then that I better put a stop to this because, if they are not caught and held accountable, there are people in the Canadian government who are going to destroy other people's lives.

"I also wanted to clear my own name. The only way to do all this was to go public, be transparent and be accountable. But I knew it was going to be a big sacrifice. I was going to pay a price."

Subsequently, Mr. Arar learned of many other alleged terrorists shipped from Western countries, including Canada, to countries where they could be tortured. After his own searing experience, these other injustices further compelled him.

"We live in a democracy. We pride ourselves in our justice system. How can we send people, innocent or not, to be tortured? That's why I could not stay silent. I don't want others to be tortured like me."

Mr. Arar was raised in Damascus, where his father was a broker in the fabric business. "So I grew up with this passion about business, and my dream was to become a computer engineer."

He realized early on, however, that there was no hope for him in Syria. Politically and economically, the deck was stacked against those who did not belong to the ruling party. And there was a compulsory four-year stint in the army.

With the support of his parents and financial aid from brothers already here, Mr. Arar left for Canada. He studied successfully at university, and was making a good income by the time he made that fateful landing in New York City.

He stresses that his changed life is not all burdensome and bleak. There are positive aspects that fuel his determination to press on. "I believe this has been a victory for civil liberties, and in my opinion, it has been the Canadian people who made it happen."

Otherwise, he says, there would have been no O'Connor inquiry, he would not have secured his unqualified exoneration and there would be no heightened scrutiny of the role played by the RCMP and CSIS in combatting terrorism.

"I am proud of what has happened so far. I feel proud of being Canadian. If I felt that the Canadian public did not support me, I would have abandoned all this long ago.

"It would have been a different story in the United States. Canadians value the fight for justice," he says, a trace of passion creeping into his voice. "Canadians are very clear about it. They do not want to give up their civil liberties for the illusion of national security."

They, he declares, are the true heroes.

As the conversation continues, Mr. Arar reveals something startling about his ordeal. While a captive in New York, just when he was at the height of his terror after learning he was suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda, an unexpected calmness overtook him.

"I have not talked about this before," he says. "I was in that cell and when I received those allegations, I was so down. You cannot imagine how devastated I was. Then, all of a sudden, I felt peace. I felt like: 'Don't worry, God is using me for something bigger.' I felt it very strongly, and it brought me peace. It brought me hope.

"Frankly, it's my faith, and my wife, that kept me alive. Now, when I look back, I understand that God used me for something bigger than I could ever have imagined.

"I'll tell you something. If God is on my side, I will not be afraid of anyone. Because I am a believer."

He hastens to distance himself from adherents who consider Islam the only true religion. "You don't have to be a Muslim to be a believer. I spoke to my neighbour the other day. She's a believer too. You can be a Christian, a Jew. A believer is a believer. It's the same God."

Mr. Arar says he is a changed man. "I used to be a 9-to-9 workaholic. I never thought about life, about issues like human rights. Now, through my experience, I have learned that there are more important things in the world. If I could save one person's life by speaking out, that's worth more than anything. More than money, more than work, more than life itself. That's the way I'm looking at things now."

Dry and scenic, Kamloops is ringed by mountains that remind Mr. Arar of Damascus. It's an unlikely refuge for someone who has spent nearly 20 years in Montreal and Ottawa. But the family is adapting: Residents are friendly (a local newspaper hailed him as "a goodwill ambassador" for the city), and their home already has a comfortable, lived-in feel, with children's DVDs scattered about, a washer and dryer in the hallway and heaps of shovelled snow bordering the driveway.

Mr. Arar is excited about a sojourn his family hopes to make next summer through the Rockies to Jasper, and back to B.C. along the Yellowhead Highway. But he knows it will be only a respite from the challenges he has taken on for the past three years and the commitment to human rights that he swears to continue long into the future. Whatever the cost.

"There are human-rights abuses happening around the world. It is our responsibility as civilized people to try to put a stop to them. It may cost us our jobs. It may cost us our lives. It may cost us our reputation, sometimes. But it has to be done."

Mr. Arar's intense devotion to a cause is shared by his co-winner. The son of a soldier, Sgt. Tower barely gave a thought to doing anything else with his life.

He joined the reserves on his 17th birthday, served with Canadian peacekeeping units in the former Yugoslavia and signed up for a 20-year hitch as a full-time soldier in 1996.

"The honour, the camaraderie, the whole professional-army thing. I liked it right from the beginning. There's something special about the army. You really see the best in people.

"Your best friends are there, and the bonds you forge last forever."

But his early years were hardly the best of times for Canada's armed forces. Derided by some as a refuge for lunkheads and losers, the army was faced with base closures, low pay and the lingering stain of the appalling conduct of some Canadian paratroopers in Somalia.

The last thing anyone expected was a real war. Yet the military never lost sight of why soldiers carry guns.

"You didn't think you'd actually get to do it, but combat was always something in the background that could happen. They don't downplay it," Sgt. Tower says.

"We don't learn how to peace keep. We learn how to fight wars."

And when word came that the Princess Pats were being shipped out, he was pleased. "If you're a Canadian soldier, Afghanistan is the place to be."

Despite 10 years as a full-time soldier, however, he had yet to fire a shot in anger. "We were all kind of anxious," he confesses. "You train and you train, but you don't really know."

He knows now. His first taste came during an April sweep in the Panjwai district outside Kandahar. After a six-hour slog in the sapping desert heat, he was leading the way through a village, when he turned into a narrow alley with high mud walls. "And there's this guy, about 50 metres away. He starts backing up, so I know something's fishy. That's the thing about Afghanistan. They know who we are. We just don't know who they are.

"I'm looking for a weapon, and just like that, he's got an AK-47. He puts it to his hip and just starts shooting at me. And I started shooting at him."

In the dust and confusion, both missed, and the Taliban fighter melted away. Today, Sgt. Tower can joke about it.

"We were the two luckiest guys in Afghanistan that day," he says, with the hint of a smile.

A soldier who has experienced combat, he says, no longer goes looking for it. "You think: 'Okay, now I've been in contact. I've been in a firefight. I know what it's like.' . . . And for most of us, it was like, 'If I have to do it again, I'll do it, but I'm not wishing for it the way I was before.' "

Dealing with conditions "outside the wire" (the one that surrounds the base in Kandahar) is difficult enough. "You're outside all the time. You sleep beside your LAV. There's always security, so you're not getting a full night's sleep," he says. "Then, since we operate around the clock, you might have a night operation, and they expect you to sleep during the day. But you're lying in the sun. It's 60 degrees. There's no shade anywhere. And you have to eat this shitty food out of a bag.

"You have to drink water all the time because you're dehydrated, but the water's 50 degrees as well. . . . Even before you add combat to the mix, it's a miserable existence."

But it's still an existence Sgt. Tower doesn't regret. He could feel the difference last month on Remembrance Day. "This year, people paid attention to us. I remember some old vet in the Legion telling me that we are doing for them what they did for us in World War II. I will never forget that."

Nor, of course, will he forget the friend he commemorates with a framed photo on his mantel showing both Sgt. Ingram in uniform and his flag-draped coffin.

"My friend Vaughn was a soldier's soldier. He was something else, and I can see the honour of him dying in combat. He died fighting, and I'm sure that's the way he would have wanted to . . ." Sgt. Tower says, groping for the right words.

"That's how I deal with things. . . . I don't see it as a tragedy, or that he is a victim, or anything like that. He knew what he was doing. He believed in a cause and he died fighting for that cause."

Rod Mickleburgh is a member of The Globe and Mail's Vancouver bureau.

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