HALIFAX — Friends and family filled an aircraft hangar overlooking Halifax’s harbour Friday to remember a Canadian sailor known for his appetite for life and devotion to the two young sons he’s left behind.
More than 1,000 people gathered at 12 Wing Shearwater to pay tribute to Petty Officer 2nd Class Craig Blake, Canada’s first sailor to die in the Afghanistan conflict.
The 37-year-old clearance diver was killed May 3 by an improvised explosive device after he had defused another makeshift bomb, the insurgents’ weapon of choice in the country.
Chris Blake said his younger brother had boundless energy, whether he was rocketing down a bike trail or sitting on the bottom of the ocean tinkering with unexploded munitions.
“That was him — always pushing himself for both the thrills and the pure enjoyment,” he told the hushed crowd as light streamed in through the hangar’s tall doors.
“When he decided to join the navy, Craig was very certain and excited about his decision. He explained he didn’t want to be bored in a regular job — he wanted more out of life.”
The native of Simcoe, Ont., had been in the military for almost 19 years and had been a member of the Maritime Forces Atlantic Fleet Diving Unit for the last 10.
Colleagues said he loved the work and formed a strong fraternity with the unit’s 50-odd clearance divers who specialized in defusing underwater explosives.
One of his dive unit buddies said Blake’s calm demeanour and presence of mind equipped him well for the rigours of bomb disposal.
“Normal to us … is sitting in the middle of an unknown sea doing a two-minute drill in our rebreathers waiting to deliver 20 pounds of explosives to blow up a mine,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Paul (Knobby) Walsh.
“One day I hope to see him on the bottom again.”
A gleaming silver-coloured dive helmet sat at the front of the hangar, along with an urn containing Blake’s remains, his service medals and a picture of the sailor smiling in a dusty Afghan field.
Blake’s widow Priscilla and his two sons, six-year-old Tie and Cain, 14, sat in the front row as hundreds of military personnel in dress uniform lined the perimeter of the sprawling building.
Cmdr. Garrett Reddy spoke of how Blake’s love of sports led him to compete in marathons and triathlons, and become a coach for his son’s hockey and baseball teams.
“He instilled in his players and their parents what it meant to be part of a greater family,” he said.
“Certainly it was about the play, the skill and the discipline. But for Craig and his team, it was more about the fun, the experience and the pizza …
“(He) was a true hero who brought great joy and love to everyone he met.”
A handful of players from the peewee team Blake coached held white roses they planned on placing in the water near the dive unit where the sailor trained. Blake was to be buried at sea in a private ceremony Friday.
The service took place as the country mourned another soldier killed in Afghanistan.
Pte. Kevin McKay, 24, of Richmond Hill, Ont., died Thursday night after hitting an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol near Kandahar City.
Since 2002, 144 members of Canadian Forces and two civilians have died during the mission to Afghanistan.