KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A soldier’s soldier whose toughness, courage and quick wit shone through adversity began his journey home Friday after he was killed by an improvised explosive device, just days before he was scheduled to finish his first tour in Afghanistan and return to Canada.
Pte. Kevin McKay of the Edmonton-based 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, was on an evening foot patrol Thursday night when he was killed by an IED in Nakhonay, a village of about 2,000 people in the heart of the Panjwaii district, some 15 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city.
Some of his comrades struggled to contain their tears as they hoisted his casket into the back of a Hercules plane at a nighttime ramp ceremony. The constant roar of jet engines at the Kandahar Airfield largely drowned out the padre’s prayer and lone bagpiper’s lament.
The 24-year-old McKay — originally from Richmond Hill, Ont., a suburban community north of Toronto — embodied the gritty spirit of the typical Canadian soldier, said Col. Simon Hetherington, the deputy commander of Task Force Kandahar.
“He was the type of soldier that Canadians must think of when they think of their army in Afghanistan — the tough, courageous infantryman, living in austere conditions and doing incredibly difficult work,” Hetherington said.
“His platoon brothers and friends will remember Kevin, better known as ’Mickey’ to his buddies, as a generous man, dependable, with a quick wit and a great sense of humour that was exemplified by his awesome moustache.”
Hetherington, who spoke on behalf of Brig.-Gen. Dan Menard, described McKay as short in stature, but known for dishing it out to his bigger military comrades.
“While not a tall man, he had no difficulty in poking fun and taunting those less vertically challenged platoon mates,” Hetherington said.
His platoon commander remembered him as someone who lifted morale when it was needed most.
“He always could put a smile on your face, no matter how tough things got,” said Capt. Michael Hughes.
“He was one of the most generous guys in the platoon … The boys in the platoon really loved Mickey.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean both paid tribute to McKay in statements Friday.
“Canadians are forever proud and grateful for his service and for the contributions of all our men and women in uniform to this UN-mandated, NATO-led mission,” Harper said.
“There are risks to our mission, but the brave men and women of the Canadian Forces are showing leadership, alongside our international partners, in standing up for something that is just: helping the Afghan people achieve peace and stability and rebuild their country and its institutions.”
In her statement, Jean urged Canadians to remember the sacrifices of men and women like McKay.
“Let us pay tribute to this soldier who sacrificed his own life in the name of this ideal of justice and freedom,” she said. “We will never forget him.”
McKay’s father is a captain with the Toronto Fire Service, and the city said it would honour the soldier by lowering flags at city hall and all civic centres to half-mast.
The vice-principal at Eastview Secondary School in Barrie, Ont., where McKay graduated from in 2004, said one of his teachers remembers McKay as a funny kid who loved sports and hanging out with friends.
The school and the Barrie fire department also lowered their flags to half-mast to honour McKay.
McKay is the sixth member of the Canadian military to die in Afghanistan this year, and the 144th to die as part of the Afghan mission since it began in 2002.
Two civilians — diplomat Glyn Berry and journalist Michelle Lang — have also been killed.
The Canadian military, which no longer releases information on those wounded on the battlefield, didn’t say whether anyone was injured in Thursday’s blast.
McKay’s death came as more than 1,000 people gathered in Halifax to remember the first Canadian sailor to be killed in the Afghan conflict.
A memorial service was held for 37-year-old Petty Officer 2nd Class Craig Blake, who was killed by an IED on May 3, also in the Panjwaii district.
The entire 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 themselves by stealth.