Civilian solidarity a comfort to families of fallen
The soldier’s place in a country’s life, not exclusively but perhaps especially this one, is always tenuous.
He is seen through the prism of the mission — its perceived moral correctness or lack of it — and the mission is viewed through the government of the day, and how it is seen by the people.
So there are all these ways in to the man in uniform and all these questions: Is the government popular? Is it near the end of its mandate or at the start? Is the mission or war deemed good?
So the soldier, whose job is fundamentally so simple — to go where his government sends him and do what he’s asked and, if often full of profane cynicism, he usually does it without complaint — is interpreted through these complicated, overlapping lenses.
That’s what Sgt. Andrew Joseph Doiron, who hailed from Moncton, in perhaps the loveliest and certainly the most underrated province in Canada, was doing when he was killed last Friday: his job.
Friends say Drew, as he was called, had only ever wanted to be in the Canadian Forces, that he was just that sort of guy, with a big love for his country and a palpable desire to help: It’s practically the definition of a good soldier. All the guys I know from Afghanistan and adore are like that: Even if you’re not looking for it, you feel safer with them around. You also laugh more.
A member of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, the newest arm of the nation’s special forces, and always a proud member of the 3rd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Regiment, Doiron died when a Kurdish fighter shot him by mistake — quite whose mistake isn’t yet clear — near a front line in northern Iraq.
He was one of about 70 Canadian advisers, training local troops in their battle against Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, the professional beheaders.
He was 31, with a great, red beard, and he had to be tough, just to get into the special operations regiment.
Three of his comrades were wounded in the same incident, one seriously, saved by the sterling cool head and grit of another.
On Tuesday, on a day that was supposed to be sunny and warm but was instead grey and chilly, Doiron came home to the tarmac at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ont.
His parents and family, as well as a host of dignitaries and soldiers, were there to greet his flag-draped casket in a ceremony that, over the long years of the war in Afghanistan, Canadians came to know well.
Though troops often died in twos or fours in Kandahar, blown up as their armoured vehicles travelled over IED-laden roads and even, yes, sometimes killed in friendly-fire incidents, and though that meant there were lots of group repatriation ceremonies at Trenton, 158 Canadians were killed in the line of duty in almost a decade of the combat mission in that unlucky country. So there was still plenty of opportunity for citizens to become familiar with the ritual, and though almost four years have passed since the last soldier came back from Kandahar, they remembered.
At CFB Trenton, at the overpasses along the 401 to Toronto on the section called the Highway of Heroes, and at the new coroner’s office in the north end of the city, people gathered to stand at silent attention in honour of Doiron.
They have no idea, I suspect, the comfort they bring the families of the fallen. I wrote a book years ago about the soldiers I met in Afghanistan, and one of the young widows told me how she didn’t want to look out the window of the car she was in, because it would make it all real, her gorgeous husband dead in the hearse in front of her.
But her assisting officer — these are soldiers assigned to a grieving family — told her she should look, that she had to, and when she did, and saw the stricken faces of her fellow Canadians, she was glad.
This is what Doiron came back to, thank God.
No other country in the world welcomes home its dead in this way, and though in the worst of the Kandahar days, it sometimes felt cloying or cultish, it is a well-meant, completely genuine, expression of Canadian solidarity.
Given the often chronic, craven and near-criminal ineptitude of the defence establishment in this country, it’s also one of the few bonds that exist between military and civilian. It’s lovely, no matter how many times I see it.
But in other times, and not so long ago, Doiron could have returned to an indifferent, even hostile, reception. In the darkest of recent days, the 1990s, Canadian soldiers were told not to wear their uniforms in public, lest they be harassed or even spit upon.
As the soldier rarely determines how he is used by government, so does he have little role in how he is seen at home.
Doiron was the first Canadian soldier killed in Iraq.
I know a young man who recently joined the Patricias and will soon be reporting to CFB Edmonton.
His parents are probably terrified, but I cannot imagine a more worthy or honourable thing to do with your life than to put yourself in service, in harm’s way, for the causes that your democratically elected government deems important.
His folks will fear for him, of course, but what he’ll learn the most about is how to love.
No one ever tells a baby soldier that’s what it’s about, but it is.