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Helping a fallen soldier return home

Gloria Galloway, Globe & Mail, 30 Mar 06


OTTAWA -- When the commotion and anxiety of treating the injured subsides, silence settles over a Canadian military camp that has lost one of its own.


It is "a profound, respectful silence," said Major David McLeod, the Roman Catholic chaplain who leads a team of four Canadian clergy -- three Christian and one Muslim -- working in Afghanistan, where a Canadian soldier was killed and three others were wounded yesterday in a prolonged firefight with the Taliban.


Soldiers mourn, Major McLeod said in a telephone interview from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. "But they do it in their own way."


Few Canadian troops have died in war zones in recent years. But as the mission in Afghanistan moves into more dangerous territory, and as more combat duties are added to peacekeeping tasks, the number of young people arriving home in coffins is

expected to mount.


The return of a dead soldier is a complex operation, one that the military hopes will bring some peace to the family and to its own grieving members.


Immediately after someone is killed, all telephone lines in and out of the theatre of action are closed except for those needed to let Canadian Forces officials in Canada know about the situation. Soldiers who worked alongside the deceased, some of whom may have watched him or her die, or may have been wounded themselves, may not call home.


Military families tend to live near other military families, and the grapevine must not start spreading before those most affected

have been informed.


"There is nothing worse than the family finding out from somebody phoning home," said Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Peverley, senior staff officer responsible for personnel matters at the Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command, which handles international military operations.


"So communications are locked down and there are no notifications that go out until we can be assured that the family has been properly advised that they have lost somebody."


Every effort is made to notify the family in person, said Colonel Alex Patch, the director of army personnel. But people are not

always waiting for a knock at the door. And there is a race to deliver the news before it is broadcast on the radio or television.


So a chaplain will call and try to arrange a meeting.


"Sometimes what happens is families will ask for the news before we can actually meet with them," Col. Patch said. "We sometimes get drawn into answering questions that we'd rather not answer and that we'd rather discuss face to face."


In Dan Woodfield's case, the news came via cellphone. The father of Private Braun Woodfield, 24, killed in a vehicle accident in

Afghanistan in November, was travelling in Moncton in a van with six other people when his phone rang. It was the chaplain from his son's base on the line.


"He was saying, 'As of such and such a time, such and such a date, in Afghanistan, there was an accident . . .,' " Mr. Woodfield said. "And I just said to him, 'Lookit, cut to the chase, what's with my son?' "


When the notification can be done in person, the job falls to a member of the soldier's unit and a local padre, a chaplain assigned to a military unit.


"There is probably nothing more difficult imaginable that you would have to do than to show up at the door of a family member and share with them the tragic news that their loved one has been wounded or killed in action," said Army Chaplain Lieutenant-Colonel John Fletcher.


The goal, he said, is "just to remain calm and caring and supportive as the family begins to take on board the news that's been shared with them" -- and then to remain with them as they process the ways their lives have changed.


In the meantime, a similar process is taking place overseas.


When word of a fatality reaches Major McLeod or one of the other padres in Afghanistan, they immediately go to the field hospital where they say prayers and anoint the dead. Then they turn to the job of comforting the living.


The toughest thing is knowing that "there is a family in Canada whose life has changed and they don't know about it yet," he said.


There is often "some child that will never know a father."


For Captain Larry Wright, a United Church padre in Afghanistan, his biggest challenge is talking to young soldiers, "for whom

this may be the first experience of death they have ever known and trying to help them work through it, not so it makes sense,

but so they can at least live with it."


The body of the deceased is kept in a morgue at the base until it can be flown back to Canada. Working out those logistics is the job of the people at CEFCOM who are called into their Ottawa office the moment word is received.


The CEFCOM staff notifies all those who must be told, prepares to inform the news media and arranges for an aircraft to take the body from Afghanistan to a staging area in Europe. That plane could belong to Canada or any of its allies -- but care is taken

to ensure the coffin is not put in the back of a large cargo plane loaded with troops.


Before the plane leaves the base in Afghanistan, the military holds a ramp ceremony -- a memorial service attended by members of all of the allied forces stationed in the country.


A Bison -- an older, heavily armoured troop carrier -- carries the casket onto the airfield where chaplains and friends of the

deceased offer words of solace. A piper plays -- there is always someone with a set of bagpipes handy in the Canadian forces,

Lt.-Col. Peverley said.


One of the dead service member's closest friends is nominated to escort the body until it is handed over to the family.


"That's so everybody in the unit knows their comrade is being taken care of by somebody who cares about them," he said. "It's

not unheard of that the escort would insist on attending the autopsy . . . to be sure that his buddy was being treated properly, that there was no disrespect."


The body and its escort are flown to Europe, often Germany, where they are met by an undertaker from MacKinnon and Bowes Ltd. of Toronto, who preserves the remains. The coffin is then flown to CFB Trenton in Ontario, where it is greeted by another small military ceremony that always includes a general and may draw political guests, such as the Prime Minister, the Governor-General and the Defence Minister. Canadian news media are also on hand.


The families whose sons and husbands have been killed in Afghanistan have so far not demanded privacy, Lt.-Col. Peverley

said. "They are very proud of what their family member has done. They want to be seen as supporting the comrades of their loved ones."


The Americans bring their dead home in a far more secret fashion. But "Canadians should know when Canadians are dying because they are doing the work they have been asked to do," he said.


A military motorcade then takes the body to Toronto where Ontario's chief coroner, Barry McLellan, conducts an autopsy.


"We want to make sure that six months from now no one can say, well, of course he got shot while he was out on patrol, he was

drunk," Lt.-Col. Peverley said.


And if the killers are eventually caught "and they are brought to an international court of some kind, the results of the autopsy can be essential to proving a criminal case."


The procession to Toronto has sometimes become a public testament of respect for the deceased. Flags have been draped from overpasses, vehicles on the highway have given way, and the police have closed major throughways in the city to give the hearse wide berth.


Mr. Woodside, who accompanied his son's body on that journey, said it seemed that Braun was being treated like royalty.


After the autopsy, there is a memorial service at the deceased's military base so those who were not on the mission can also mourn. Then the body is turned over to the family for burial.


The family is given access to a wide range of support, Col. Patch said, including the services of a member of the forces assigned to assist them.


Mr. Woodside has nothing but praise for the military personnel who returned his son to him.


The support and compassion was so heartfelt, he said. "And the dignity and respect from everybody, still to this day, that's provided both to myself and the rest of Braun's family is second to none."

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