KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A Canadian sailor who was deployed for the first time to Afghanistan only a couple of weeks ago has been killed by the blast from a makeshift bomb, the very type of device he was in the country to defuse.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Craig Blake, 37, is the first Canadian sailor to die in Afghanistan since the mission began in 2002, the military said.
Blake was killed Monday by an improvised explosive device while he and his team were walking back to camp after disarming another IED near Pay-e-Moluk, a village in the Panjwaii district about 25 kilometres southwest of Kandahar City.
Blake was known as a compassionate and approachable leader among his military brethren, whose pockets he picked at games of chance, the commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan said.
"Jokingly known as the 'Poker Pirate,' he enjoyed pillaging his army friends during friendly card games," Brig.-Gen. Dan Menard said Tuesday.
"He had a great smile and a genuine laugh and his friends considered themselves very lucky to have known him."
The Simcoe, Ont., native was a navy clearance diver based in Halifax but was sent to Afghanistan as an explosive ordnance disposal operator.
Menard said he adapted to the precarious hardships of land-based operations with ease.
"Incredibly fit with a backbone of steel, Craig put 100 per cent into everything he did."
Blake had 10 years of experience working as a clearance diver for the Canadian Forces, said Capt. Stuart Moors, the assistant chief of staff for personnel and training for Maritime Forces Atlantic.
Moors said clearance divers are responsible for defusing explosive devices that are underwater and can be called on to deactivate explosives that have washed up on shore and been found by civilians.
"He was like the rest of the gang - they're pretty steely-nerved sailors because of the type of work they do," Moors said in an interview from Halifax.
"They realize the work they do is risky ... they have to keep a calm composure despite the pressure of potentially dealing with live explosives.
"He loved it."
His father, Brent Blake, said in an interview from Sechelt, B.C., that he was proud of his son.
"Oh God yeah, very much so."
Blake's brother, Chris, said Tuesday that Blake was a sailor first and foremost and was apprehensive about serving in Afghanistan, but knew his bomb disposal expertise meant it was something he had to do.
"When it came to Afghanistan, I don't believe he was totally motivated to get out there and be the first one to volunteer - he was a sailor first," Chris Blake said in an interview from Ottawa.
"Being in the ordnance and bomb disposal and everything he was trained for, he also knew that this was part of his calling."
Moors said Blake was one of 52 Canadian navy clearance divers who have been deployed to Afghanistan since 2002 and underwent a year's worth of training before going to the war-torn country. He said there currently are seven such divers serving in Afghanistan.
A navy spokesman said on average, about 50 navy personnel deploy on each rotation to Afghanistan, and that this includes everyone from public affairs officers, clerks and cooks to military police and maritime surface and sub-surface officers
Blake, who coached pee-wee hockey and competed in triathlons, leaves behind his wife, Priscilla, and two sons, ages six and 14.
News of the sailor's death came as the Canadian navy marked its 100th birthday with events in several cities Tuesday, including parades in Halifax and Victoria.
During a ceremony in Ottawa to mark the centenary, Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid tribute to the sailor.
"Petty Officer Craig Blake was killed in active service, hundreds of miles from the sea, while in service to his country in Afghanistan," he said.
Gov.-Gen. Michaelle Jean offered her condolences.
"(Blake) offered the best of himself and we salute his tremendous courage, his generous spirit and his commitment to excellence in the line of duty," she said in a statement.
"Our thoughts are with his mourning parents, his fellow sailors and his friends. We can only imagine their great suffering and grief."
The entire Panjwaii district, the cradle of the Taliban, has been a bloody battleground for Canadian troops since they arrived in the province of Kandahar in strength four years ago. Villages and towns have been repeatedly cleared, only to see the Taliban reassert itself by stealth.
Blake's death brings to 143 the total number of Canadian Forces personnel who have died as part of the eight-year-old Afghan mission.
Two civilians - diplomat Glyn Berry and journalist Michelle Lang - have also died.
The Canadian military didn't say whether anyone was injured in the blast as it no longer releases information on those wounded on the battlefield.