KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A Canadian medic killed in a vicious Taliban ambush was celebrated Wednesday as a man who had dedicated his “life to protecting and rescuing” those in need.
Cpl. Michael Starker, the 83rd Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan, began his final journey home with a ramp ceremony at Kandahar Airfield that no matter how many times it has been performed never loses its poignancy.
The last whisps of a sandstorm blew across the tarmac in the gathering dusk, as a Bison armoured vehicle carried Starker’s flag-wrapped coffin to edge of a silent phalanx of fellow soldiers.
Starker, 36, of Calgary, was killed Tuesday.
He was gunned down in an ambush by insurgents in the Pashmul region of Zhari district, about 25 kilometres outside the city but died later in hospital.
Starker didn’t have to be there, Maj. Pierre Bergeron reflected.
“Cpl. Starker was a good man,” he said.
“He was also a reservist who could have stayed in Canada and continued working as a paramedic, rather he made a choice. He chose to come to Afghanistan and serve and do something to make this world a better place.”
Another soldier wounded with Starker, sat quietly in a wheelchair as eight fellow medics shouldered the coffin into the belly of a Hercules transport for the flight back to Canada.
A man of humble nature, with charisma, a gift for humour and the “ability to hang in there until he had made you smile or laugh,” was how the deputy Canadian padre Maj. Jim Short described Starker.
He says the 36-year-old’s “potent skills” as a paramedic instilled confidence in those who knew him and served with him.
Bergeron invoked passages from the poem In Flanders Fields, written over 90 years ago during the First World War by an army surgeon, Lt.-Col. John McCrae.
“We are the dead; short days ago we lived, felt dawn and watched the sunset glow,” Bergeron said, his voice cascading from a loudspeaker across the silent desert as the last light of this day flickered away.
The Canadian army is investigating the circumstances surrounding the ambush, which took place in a sector that has been repeatedly clearled of insurgents over the last two years.
Few details have been provided.
Although ambushes happen routinely, it’s nearly 20 months since a Canadian soldier died as the result of direct gun battle with insurgents. The Taliban have preferred to use improvised explosives or roadside bombs to kill and maim, not only soldiers, but civilians as well.
Starker was part of a Civil-Military Co-operation team that goes village to village talking with local Afghans and bringing their concerns back to Canadian commanders.
It was that spirit Bergeron summoned as thousands of NATO troops – Canadian, British, American, Romanian Dutch – saluted the coffin as it was marched slowly down the tarmac to a piper’s lament.
“As Michael passes before us one last time, it is with respect and dignity that we honour his life and his dedication to protecting and rescuing those in need,” said the senior padre.
Starker was married but had no children.