|Posted: Thu May 13, 2010 8:43 am Post subject: In Honour of Petty Officer 2nd Class Craig Blake
|This morning, the most sobering event in my life took place as we said goodbye to Petty Officer Blake on the tarmac of Kandahar Air Field.
I did not know him. He arrived here just about a week before I did, as part of the same rotation (roto 9). While we came here prepared to face tragedy, it does not subtract from the sheer sobering reality you face as you stand here holding your salute with a thousand brothers-in-arms as one of our fallen begins his final journey home.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach the other night as I realized first that the internet was not working, then my cell phone. I went to the trailer filled with small booths, each containing a phone, provided for us to call home. No dial tone. Comms lockdown! We lost someone I realized. (This, as you know, is done until the next-of-kin are notified). As I walked back to my tent I overheard a civilian contractor complaining to his friend that he couldn’t get online to book his vacation which he plans to take in September. They don’t know. In the morning, the maple leaf over Old Canada House flew at half mast.
Later in the day (being called upon to assist with the Viewing and Ramp Ceremony) I stood in the mortuary adjacent to the runway where the bodies of Canadian, American and British sons and daughters are lovingly prepared to begin their journey home. In a place where one can seemingly never escape the dust and putrid odour which hangs in the air, this room is cold and sterile. I never want to come here again. A small ante room off the side contains a large table where the flags to cover the transfer cases are meticulously pressed and prepared. Off to the side hang several flags which have been rejected due to small imperfections. “See here?” Sgt Mullen points to where a small portion of red dye has run over into the white part of the flag (only noticeable upon close inspection). “Would you want that for your child? No one would.” She answers herself. “You can take one if you like, we have to burn them and I don’t like to burn a Canadian flag if I don’t have to.” I decline.
The Military Police then arrived to break the seal on the refrigerator so we could move his body to the Afghan War Memorial for the Viewing. Nestled in the Task Force Kandahar compound, the memorial is a beautiful, peaceful place. Matching white marble walls rise from a base of black marble, which is also used to cap the walls. On these are mounted black marble plaques, each etched with the face of a fallen soldier along with his name and unit. The memorial is shaded by several large drooping trees which resemble willows and add to the serenity of the place. Workers finished polishing the memorial just moments before we placed the flag draped transfer case on it, next to a photograph of PO 2nd Class Blake and his General Campaign Star. I decided not to stay for the viewing – it is a time for those who knew him to grieve together.
I emerged from my tent at 0500 hrs this morning into a thick soup of what can best be described as viscous fog mixed with dust. It is something you may have difficulty imagining. There was a dust storm last night (as we frequently experience) which then mixed with a thick fog. It seemed that the moisture particles bound to the dust particles and kept them afloat. At the end of the ceremony our berets, eyebrows, eyelashes, hair etc. were “frosted” with dust. If one didn’t know better, they would think to see it that we all frozen in place.
This cloud insulated the ramp ceremony, making it almost surreal. No outside sound penetrated. From where I stood at the side of the LAV III from which PO Blake’s body was carried, only the open tail of the Hercules could be seen on the other side of the formed body of Canadian, American, British, Australian, and Slovakian troops – the body of the aircraft vanishing into the cloud. It was quite an insular ceremony. As the boots of a thousand soldiers marched on, I felt privileged to be a part of this national – and international – tribute to a fallen Canadian hero. Yes, there was a swell of emotion as we held the salute to our fallen brother as he made his way feet first onto the aircraft – departing the way he had arrived. I thought of the caution I had received from MCpl Lee before going out onto the tarmac: “whatever you start to feel out there, lock it away. We can’t afford to get emotional here; there will be plenty of time for that when we get home.”
As I type this now I can feel the cold steel of the transfer case, the weight of the handle pressing into my palm. We have more to carry now: the torch of PO Craig Blake. We cannot stop to feel the emotion fully yet because his work here needs to carry on through us who remain.
God rest his soul; and may we never forget.
P.S. Sgt. Mullen asked me to take over from her (as she is leaving) responsibility for the Memorial Books which are currently being built. These are large wooden books made from the same wood that holds the plaques on the memorial. When next of kin have come here to visit the memorial they leave behind mementoes. These of course cannot stay on the memorial as they quickly succumb to the elements. These will be put into a proper collection in these books and it will be my responsibility to do so. So far the covers for the books have been made and I will soon undertake to put together the contents. When the memorial is moved to Canada at the end of the war, these books will go into the National War Museum in Ottawa. What a privilege to be part of such a tribute.
Sailor Craig Blake's body back in Canada
Blake, 37, was killed Monday when a roadside bomb exploded west of Kandahar City.
He was the first sailor and 143rd member of the Canadian Forces to die since the Afghan mission started in 2002, and had only been in Afghanistan for a couple of weeks.
Blake fell victim to the very type of device he was in the country to defuse.
The Simcoe, Ont., native was a navy clearance diver based in Halifax but was sent to Afghanistan as an explosive ordnance disposal operator.
He was killed 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.
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 recalled.