Aunt traces nephew's path from PhD to war zone
For Your Tomorrow
Published Sunday, May 22, 2011 8:10AM EDT
When Jeff Francis was 30 years old he undertook a stunning about-face in his career path. Abandoning the PhD he was working on, Francis decided to enlist in the Canadian Forces and follow the path of the warrior, rather than the academic.
The decision at first shocked his family, but they soon accepted it as another necessary step in the young man's journey to maturity.
It was also a decision that eventually led to Francis's deployment to Afghanistan, and ultimately to his death, when he was killed by a roadside bomb that claimed the lives of six Canadian soldiers in June 2007.
Capt. Jefferson Clifford Francis left behind a wife and young son, as well as his close-knit extended family.
In her new book "For Your Tomorrow: The Way of an Unlikely Soldier" Francis's aunt Melanie Murray retraces her nephew's life and the journey that shaped him into the kind of man who eventually decided to serve in Afghanistan.
"I think I would describe him as a searcher and a seeker, someone who was trying to figure out his path," Murray told CTV.ca in a recent interview.
She said the death of Francis's grandmother, the realization that his academic work was no longer his passion, and his study of martial arts and samurai philosophy all helped him come to the realization he was destined to travel a different path.
"He was coming into a more mature awareness of life and death and its brevity, and a great awareness of 'what am I called to serve?' And he really felt he needed to make a greater contribution to the world," Murray said.
"For Your Tomorrow" is an intimate portrait not just of Francis's life, but of his family and loved ones in the years leading up to his deployment and in the aftermath of his death.
In fact, Francis's time in Afghanistan occupies just one chapter in the book.
While many writers have expounded on Canada's role in Afghanistan, and losses experienced there, most have done it from a journalistic perspective, as observers rather than participants.
Murray said she wanted to take her readers inside her nephew's heart and mind, to understand how he could make the decisions he did. But she also wanted to explore what it meant for a family -- even one with a storied military history -- to lose a son at war.
Murray accomplishes her goal by exploring Francis's personal library and studying his notes in the philosophy, military and spiritualist texts he loved.
She also pored over letters Francis wrote to his grandmother that serve as signposts on the highway of his life, and asked family members, including his wife and sister, to recall key conversations that helped him determine his future.
"It's a meditation on his life, a lot of really deep delving, seeing his life as a story, seeing his point of view, and looking at those stories from childhood that remain in our family and seeing where they fit into his becoming the man that he did," she said.
The process brought Murray even closer to her nephew than she had been during his life. It also helped shift her personal viewpoint on Canada's combat role in Afghanistan.
During his time overseas, Murray said, she considered herself a "non-supporter" of the war, believing few successes could be achieved.
But that changed as she immersed herself in Francis's life and became aware of the deep commitment that drew him to Afghanistan.
He believed, she said, that for humanitarian relief to be delivered, for stable government to be achieved and for the construction of infrastructure that would improve the living conditions of Afghans, security was required.
"I started seeing things though his eyes and realized that yes, a military presence was necessary there and I developed a lot of respect for the soldiers that were willing to risk their lives to achieve that," she said.
Born on Remembrance Day, 1970, to the sounds of a piper from the Second Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment playing at the nearby cenotaph, Murray said she felt as though her nephew came into the world destined to follow a hero's path.
The fact he would later join that same regiment, and remain loyal to it until his death, confirmed her belief.
Francis's story, his willingness to give up a comfortable life to pursue something he believed in, even to the point of death, has given Murray inspiration to overcome hardships in her own life -- including her nephew's death.
By sharing it through her book, she said, she hopes others will have the same experience.
"If Jeff could face down his fears and go to Afghanistan, I can (face any challenge). I can give it my best shot. That's his gift to me and the legacy he's left for a lot of people," she said.