KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – For the third time in four days, soldiers gathered at Kandahar Airfield Tuesday for a sad farewell ceremony for two comrades killed in an as-yet unexplained helicopter crash.
Once again, hundreds of troops stood in solemn salute as military pallbearers carried the caskets of Master Cpl. Pat Audet and Cpl. Martin Joannette past them to an awaiting transport plane bound for Canada and home.
“It’s painful to realize how precious and fragile human life is,” Padre Martine Belanger told the early-evening ramp ceremony. “We are dismayed; we cry for our loss. With courage, we say goodbye.”
Audet, 38, and Joannette, 25, died Monday when the Griffon helicopter they were on crashed on takeoff from an American forward operating base in Zabul province northeast of Kandahar city.
The crash also killed a British soldier and injured three other Canadian troops. Two have returned to duty and one was in stable condition, the military said.
A Taliban spokesman said Tuesday that insurgents had shot down the aircraft – a claim contradicted by the Canadian military which has ruled out enemy action. But the military had yet to say what caused the tragedy. An investigation was underway.
Both Audet, a flight engineer, and Joannette, a gunner, were based at Valcartier, Que.
Officials at CFB Valcartier say Audet, from Montreal, first joined the Canadian Forces in November 1988 and served in the Middle East in 2002 before deploying to Kandahar in April.
Joannette, from St-Calixte, Que., joined the military in December 2001 and served three tours in Afghanistan, the officials said.
Their commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Marc Bigaouette, said Canadians should be proud of Audet and Joannette.
“It is with sadness today that we all get together and we bring them their last flight – that’s going to be their flight home,” Bigaouette said.
“They can leave Afghanistan with their head up.”
Audet, who served with the 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, is survived by his wife Katherine and his parents.
“Master Cpl. Audet – Pat to his friends and family – was a man with a contagious sense of humour, and had a great way with people,” Belanger said.
“A big man with an imposing stature, he wouldn’t have hurt a fly.”
Joannette was with the 3e Bataillon, Royal 22e Regiment. He leaves behind his wife Marie-Eve.
“Cpl. Joannette was a guy with a heart of gold,” Belanger said.
“He had an immense generosity and an exceptional team spirit; he had an ability to raise the morale of his comrades.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said “we are all deeply saddened … We honour the sacrifice of these brave Canadian Forces members by continuing our efforts in Afghanistan.”
Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean expressed sympathies to the family, friends and fellow soldiers of Audet and Joannette. “Their unwavering courage and invaluable contribution will never be forgotten,” she said, adding that she wishes a speedy recovery for the wounded soldiers.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the tragedy “demonstrates the great risks involved in this challenging mission.”
“These courageous servicemen gave their lives to secure a brighter future for Afghan families and protect the values of freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law,” MacKay said.
Afghanistan ambassador to Canada, Jawed Ludin, paid tribute to the soldiers. “I want the Canadian people to know that we in Afghanistan deeply value these sacrifices,” he said.
Last Saturday, a ramp ceremony was held for Cpl. Nick Bulger, who was killed a day earlier by an improvised explosive device.
On Monday, soldiers gathered at battlegroup headquarters to honour Master Cpl. Charles-Philippe (Chuck) Michaud, who had died in a Quebec City hospital on Saturday of injuries suffered last month from stepping on a mine.
Their deaths brought to 124 the number of Canadian soldiers who have died on the Afghan mission since 2002 – six in the past month.
The CH-146 Griffon helicopters and the CH-47D Chinooks serve as eyes in the sky for the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan while performing their main function of transporting troops and equipment.
The Chinook is a heavy-lift helicopter capable of carrying dozens of fully-equipped soldiers.
The smaller, more nimble Griffon is used at home and abroad for search-and-rescue missions, surveillance and reconnaissance, casualty evacuation and counter-drug operations. It can lift people and cargo from almost any terrain.
In Afghanistan, the Griffins are outfitted with machine-guns, armour-plating and extra sensors.
The Griffins started arriving in Afghanistan last December and began operations early this year. They are used to escort the Chinooks as well as search for insurgents, including those out to plant deadly roadside bombs.
There were some concerns that the Griffins’ engines may not be powerful enough to handle the Afghan heat and tough flying, although other allies in Kandahar have been using similar light helicopters.
The Griffins were sent apparently after allies indicated they did not have enough AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships to perform the escort and surveillance roles.
Acquiring battlefield helicopters to move troops and supplies around Afghanistan was one of the conditions set for the extension of Canada’s military mission in Kandahar to 2011.
It’s the first time since the Korean War that the Canadian military has deployed an air wing in a combat environment.