Soldiers bid farewell to companion

A young Canadian soldier who “wouldn’t hurt a spider” was given an emotional sendoff during a ramp ceremony at Kandahar Airfield late Friday.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A young Canadian soldier who “wouldn’t hurt a spider” was given an emotional sendoff during a ramp ceremony at Kandahar Airfield late Friday.

The late-afternoon sun briefly turned the sky a brilliant orange but moments later — as nearly 3,000 Canadian, Dutch, American and British troops marched smartly onto the tarmac — night fell quickly.

The flag-draped coffin of Pte. Jonathan Couturier was carried to a waiting military transport aircraft by eight of his companions.

The 23-year-old Quebec soldier died Thursday morning when his armoured vehicle hit an improvised explosive device 25 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city near the tiny village of Salavat. Eleven others were injured in the explosion but none seriously. All were able to return to active duty almost immediately.

“Sometimes there are things that are difficult to understand and in some instances somebody can lose his life and the man or woman right next to him walks away from the incident,” said an emotional Lieut.-Col. Joe Paul, the battlegroup commander for Task Force Kandahar.

“Sometimes that makes you wonder about things such as destiny but in their case obviously, all of them have broken hearts.”

Paul met privately with soldiers under his command after the service to discuss what had happened.

“You always question yourself: Was there something that could have been avoided, that we could have done better? I can reassure you in this specific case the platoon did all its drills. It did exactly what it had to do,” said Paul, who has attended three ramp ceremonies this month.

“I told them to do their grief together as a platoon tonight. I strongly encouraged them to share the pain, their rage that some of them do have in their heart, and reminded everybody that tomorrow, once again, we do have to go out again outside the wire and do our mission here,” he added quietly.

Couturier, 23, of the 2nd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment based in Valcartier, Que., is the 131st Canadian soldier to be killed in Afghanistan since the mission began in 2002. Paul remembered the young soldier as someone so gentle that he “wouldn’t hurt a spider.”

His platoon was supporting an operation near Salavat, looking for caches of weapons and IEDs. It’s a remote area where the Taliban have been operating freely for the past few years.

The Canadian strategy now involves moving into an area and forcing the Taliban out. Canadian soldiers move into the village on a permanent basis.

“Right after the incident,” Paul said, “I have having a shura (community meeting) … reminding the village leaders that the main purpose was to give them security on a permanent basis — not a patrol done once a week or once a month.”

In previous years, Canadian forces launched several operations in the Panjwaii district and forced the insurgents out, but as soon as the Canadians left the Taliban would return.

The region has continued to be a safe refuge for the Taliban. Its mud-walled compounds, grape orchards and vast fields of marijuana and poppies provide abundant hiding places and have been home to a network of IED factories.

Couturier is the fourth Canadian soldier to die this month.

On Sept. 6, Maj. Yannick Pepin, 36, of Victoriaville, Que., and Cpl. Jean-Francois Drouin, 31, born in Quebec City, were killed in roadside bomb blast southwest of Kandahar city. They were also based in Valcartier, Que.

Last Sunday, Pte. Patrick Lormand, 21, also of the Royal 22nd was killed and four others were wounded by an IED in the same area.

Couturier is the 13th soldier to be killed during the current troop rotation.