CFB TRENTON, Ont. – Grieving family members of five Canadians killed in Afghanistan huddled close against the biting wind as the remains of their loved ones were unloaded from a military plane Sunday in a seemingly endless grim march of flag-draped caskets.
Michelle Lang, 34, the first Canadian journalist to be killed covering the war, was given full participation in the military repatriation ceremony. Soldiers and dignitaries saluted her coffin as it was carried to the line of waiting hearses.
Her loved ones stood alongside the grieving military families as Lang’s casket was taken off the plane first, and emerged from beneath a shelter arm-in-arm to bid the award-winning journalist a final farewell.
Michael Louie, the man Lang was to marry this summer, carried a single red rose and wept openly as he approached the vehicle, while others around him pulled each other close.
One by one, the ritual repeated for each of the men Lang died alongside – Sgt. George Miok, 28; Sgt. Kirk Taylor, 28; Cpl. Zachery McCormack, 21; and Pte. Garrett Chidley, 21 – during a bitterly cold and snowy repatriation ceremony at CFB Trenton, Ont., a two-hour drive east of Toronto.
The piper played his sorrowful song as each of the five coffins were carried to the hearses by stoic pallbearers, after being unloaded from the massive military plane carrying such a heartbreaking load.
Hundreds of people lined the fence outside the base, as they often do for the all-too-frequent ceremonies. Many of them said it was no different because Lang was being honoured also, as they hold her as high in their esteem as the soldiers because of the important work journalists do in Afghanistan.
“They’re all the same,” said Helga Haecker, 71, as she handed out coffee to others from a carafe she brought.
“They were all doing their job. She went out there to give us an insight what the soldiers are doing.”
Bruce Gelsthorpe was among the Canadian flag-waving crowd outside the fence and said this ceremony was no different than other ones he has attended. They are all tragic, he said.
“(Lang) was doing exactly what the soldiers were doing in this case,” he said. “She was riding along with the soldiers…she wasn’t doing anything different.”
Haecker, Gelsthorpe and many others are unfortunate regulars, attending as many repatriation ceremonies as they can.
“Each soldier we lose, no matter if it’s one, two, three or four, it’s sad,” Haecker said. “One is too many.”
The five were killed Wednesday when the armoured vehicle they were travelling in was struck by a massive roadside-bomb blast on the outskirts of Kandahar city – the third-bloodiest day for Canadian forces since the Afghan mission began in 2002.
Along with the contingent of family members, Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Gen. Walt Natynczyk, Canada’s chief of defence staff, were also on hand to pay their respects.
Lang, who was on assignment in Kandahar for Canwest News Service, was the first Canadian journalist to be killed while covering the mission. A National Newspaper Award winner, she had been in Afghanistan for little more than two weeks.
Only on two other occasions has the single-day toll been deadlier for Canada: in the spring and summer of 2007, two IED blasts just three months apart each claimed the lives of six Canadian troops.
The five hearses and vehicles carrying the families departed the eastern Ontario military base after the ceremony and the procession then made its way to Toronto – where the remains are taken for autopsies – along the route known as the Highway of Heroes.
Just before getting into a car one woman stopped, turned to look at the hearses, and gave them a final wave goodbye.
Despite the windy, freezing weather, people were lined up at least one overpass on the route waiting to pay their respects to the motorcade as it passed underneath.
Miok, an Edmonton-based reservist from Sherwood Park, Alta., and a junior high school teacher, often told his family of his overseas military missions, “I’m just off to save the world. Somebody has to.”
He hailed from the bedroom community of Sherwood Park, Alta., outside Edmonton, and was described as a long-time member of a Hungarian folk dance group and an avid athlete who loved soccer, baseball, hockey, football and rugby.
Taylor, a reservist from Yarmouth, N.S. who served with the 84 Independent Field Battery, so believed in the Afghan mission that he had prepared a public statement defending the cause to be released in the event of his death.
The “mission in Afghanistan is vital for us not only as Canadians but as human beings,” Taylor wrote, describing the mission as a chance for Canadians to help Afghans develop solutions to Afghan problems.
McCormack was also from Sherwood Park and a member of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. Family described him as a vibrant young man at the heart of a large, caring family who thought of him as a “gentle soul” who cared deeply about those he loved.
Chidley, 21, was born in Cambridge, Ont., but was raised in Langley, B.C. Known to his fellow soldiers as “Chiddels,” he was a member of 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, based at CFB Shilo, Man.
Chidley was also a member of the Kandahar provincial reconstruction team supporting development in Afghanistan and was on his first tour of duty overseas.
In all, 138 Canadian soldiers and two civilians have died as part of Canada’s eight-year mission in Afghanistan.