KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The body of a Canadian sailor killed in Afghanistan by the blast from a makeshift bomb, the very type of device he was in the country to defuse, has begun its long journey home.
More than 1,500 Canadian and ISAF personnel attended a ramp ceremony early Wednesday at Kandahar Airfield for Craig Blake, a petty officer second class who is Canada’s first sailor to die in Afghanistan since the mission began in 2002.
Blake’s casket was loaded by his military comrades onto a plane amid a thick cloud of dust that gave the atmosphere a sepia-like hue.
He was killed Monday by an improvised explosive device while he and his team were walking back to camp after disarming another IED near Pay-e-Moluk, a village in the Panjwaii district about 25 kilometres southwest of Kandahar City.
The 37-year-old was in the country for only a couple of weeks when he died.
He was known as a compassionate and approachable leader among his military brethren, whose pockets he picked at games of chance, the commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan said.
“Jokingly known as the ’Poker Pirate,’ he enjoyed pillaging his army friends during friendly card games,” Brig.-Gen. Dan Menard said Tuesday.
“He had a great smile and a genuine laugh and his friends considered themselves very lucky to have known him.”
The Simcoe, Ont., native was a navy clearance diver based in Halifax but was sent to Afghanistan as an explosive ordnance disposal operator.
Menard said he adapted to the precarious hardships of land-based operations with ease.
“Incredibly fit with a backbone of steel, Craig put 100 per cent into everything he did.”
Blake had 10 years of experience working as a clearance diver for the Canadian Forces, said Capt. Stuart Moors, the assistant chief of staff for personnel and training for Maritime Forces Atlantic.
Moors said clearance divers are responsible for defusing explosive devices that are underwater and can be called on to deactivate explosives that have washed up on shore and been found by civilians.
“He was like the rest of the gang — they’re pretty steely-nerved sailors because of the type of work they do,” Moors said in an interview from Halifax.
“They realize the work they do is risky … they have to keep a calm composure despite the pressure of potentially dealing with live explosives.
“He loved it.”
His father, Brent Blake, said in an interview from Sechelt, B.C., that he was proud of his son.
“Oh God yeah, very much so.”
Blake’s brother, Chris, said Tuesday that Blake was a sailor first and foremost and was apprehensive about serving in Afghanistan, but knew his bomb disposal expertise meant it was something he had to do.
“When it came to Afghanistan, I don’t believe he was totally motivated to get out there and be the first one to volunteer — he was a sailor first,” Chris Blake said in an interview from Ottawa.
“(But) being in the ordnance and bomb disposal and everything he was trained for, he also knew that this was part of his calling.”