KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Maj. Yannick Pepin, the highest ranking Canadian killed in combat in Afghanistan, had lamented the death of two soldiers under his command just five weeks ago.
On Monday, the bodies of Pepin, 36, and Cpl. Jean-Francois Drouin, 31, were being flown back to Canada after an emotional ramp ceremony at Kandahar Airfield.
They died Sunday in a powerful roadside bomb blast that hit their armoured vehicle on a road southwest of Kandahar, bringing to 129 the total number of Canadian soldiers who have died as part of the Afghan mission since 2002.
Both men were members of the 5 Combat Engineer Regiment based in Valcartier, Que. A military official at the base said Pepin was a native of Victoriaville, Que., and Drouin was born in Quebec City.
Pepin was the commander of the last two Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
“The loss of these two is very difficult,” Pepin had told reporters Aug. 3, two days after the deaths of Sapper Matthieu Allard, 21, and Cpl. Christian Bobbitt, 23 – also in a roadside explosion.
“But the work will continue,” Pepin had said.
Allard and Bobbitt, both combat engineers, were in Afghanistan with the 2e Battalion of the Royal 22e Regiment, based in Valcartier, Que. They had dismounted from their vehicle to secure the area after an initial blast near the town of Senjaray, in the Zhari district, when they were killed by a second explosion.
Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are the deadliest weapon facing NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. They have been the cause of death in the large majority of Canada’s battlefield casualties. IEDs are cheap, easy to make and allow the Taliban to exact a high price on NATO troops without having to show their faces. Five others were wounded in Sunday’s IED attack; their conditions were described as not serious. “I want to say part of the population of Canada views negatively the work that we do here,” Sapper Alexandre Beaudin-D’Anjou, one of the survivors of the latest blast, told reporters.
“I think the majority of the Afghan population benefit from what we do here. Sadly there are dangers in this from what you saw yesterday. All the soldiers here feel that we will finish our work for one another.”
Beaudin-D’Anjou joined more than 1,000 Canadian, U.S., Dutch and British soldiers who turned out in the bright Afghanistan sunshine on Monday for the ramp ceremony to pay tribute to Pepin and Drouin.
The soldiers stood quietly as the flag-draped coffins carrying the two were loaded aboard a C-130 for the long flight home.
“Today the entire task force is mourning our fallen comrades,” an emotional Col. Roch Lacroix, deputy commander for Task Force Kandahar said late Sunday night when announcing the deaths.
“Saying goodbye to Yannick and Jean-Francois so prematurely is hard for me, it is hard for their friends, and it’s hard for their families,” Lacroix said, standing in front of a cenotaph marking each of Canada’s fallen soldiers.
Battle Group Commander Lt.-Col. Joe Paul told reporters he was proud of both Pepin and Drouin.
“Maj. Pepin and Cpl. Drouin were basically a fine example of what the Canadian soldier can be, somebody who is extremely courageous. We should be extremely glad of everything they did,” said Paul.
“Combat engineers are doing an outstanding job here,” he said. “It’s one of the most difficult jobs that any soldier can do.”
He said Pepin was in his element serving in Afghanistan.
“Maj. Pepin was what I like to refer to as a real field officer. He was at his best – not in a cubicle in Ottawa. It was really out in the field, leading his men that he was really at his best.”
Lacroix also spoke fondly of the two fallen soldiers.
“Nothing comes easy here and it takes patience and determination – two qualities that both men embodied. Today is the time to grieve but tomorrow we will continue our work to better the lives of Afghans.”
Pepin had been in the Canadian Forces for a decade. He leaves behind his partner Annie and two children, Alexandra and Charles.
Drouin was showing great promise with his military career. He was known as ‘Big Drou’ to his friends and remembered as someone who liked to make others laugh.
“Jean-Francois was a very generous man with a big heart,” Lacroix said. “As big a heart as the three pieces of steel he liked to lift in the gymnasium.”
Drouin was an exemplary soldier, said Lacroix. “He received an accelerated promotion to corporal just before coming out on what was sadly his last mission.”
Drouin is survived by his partner Audrey.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his condolences Monday to Pepin and Drouin’s family and friends.
“Be reassured that an entire country stands behind you at this difficult time,” the prime minister said in a written statement.
Harper said the tragedy of the soldiers’ deaths will not deter Canada from continuing to help Afghans rebuild their country.
“It is only through the hard work, dedication and sacrifice of remarkable Canadians like Corporal Jean-Francois Drouin and Major Yannick Pepin that Afghanistan will once again flourish and stand on its own,” Harper said.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the two deaths were a “tragic loss” for the Canadian Forces and all of Canada.
“Major Pepin and Corporal Drouin were helping to bring back hope to a population that has seen much hardship and turmoil,” he said in a written statement.
Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean also extended her condolences, saying she was deeply saddened by the deaths.