Kandahar Journal: Sombre process of notifying next-of-kin
Anna Miok weeps at the monument for her son, Sgt. George Miok, during a next-of kin memorial service at Kandahar Airfield as her other son, Laszlo, consoles her, Sunday, March 20, 2011. (Tara Brautigam / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Wednesday, June 29, 2011 11:55AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 5:12AM EDT
KANDAHAR - The stretcher is thrust into the cabin beneath the din of thumping rotor blades offering a soldier who is torn and leaking. With their teeth, flight medics tear packages of bandages and fill holes as the medevac helicopter climbs in altitude and speeds toward the hospital.
Below, the parched battlefield of southern Afghanistan slides past, where for the average infantry grunt the war's main arbiters are the tire tread and the boot print. If either of them meets disturbed earth, or encounters a bullet, inches can mean the difference between burger night at the dining hall or a flight out.
It's the latter for the young soldier bleeding in the chopper. As the medics work on him I wonder about his parents. They are on the other side of the world unaware of what is happening to their son, the one they raised to love the country he is serving on the stretcher.
There is a hollow guilt that comes with the prescience of being the total stranger who knows a government sedan might soon pull up to their driveway.
The revelation of a soldier's death is sadly methodical. There may be early warning signs like the chopper bearing the Red Cross, a sort of hell's ambulance, arcing over the runway and litter-bearers later hosing down stretchers.
In the field, quiet discussion moves through units about what happened. Then it becomes a matter of trying to shake the hush that descends so troops can keep their wits and stay alert when they are, as they say, "still in the shit."
"It's tough for the young guys," a longtime Warrant Officer once told me, "They just don't have much life experience with death."
When it happens, neither a name nor a nation is attached to "the incident." The process unfolds of collecting personal information and alerting offices in other time zones to decide a dignified hour for the understated duty known as "notification of next-of-kin."
Is there such a thing as a right time to tell somebody they are "next-of-kin"?
In Canada, the acceptable time for a military padre and his entourage to visit is 8 o'clock in the morning. There are teams in every province designated to this task of taking a bad day in one country and making it considerably worse in another.
The military then releases a photograph that is similar in composition and meaning to all of the others before: A flag on a post is behind Canadian soldier X in uniform Y and cap Z. The faces are usually serious but others glow with smiles that contradict why we will ever see them.
"They all know," a military photographer said when I asked him about the mood on these pre-deployment picture days, "They all know it is the picture people will see if they die."
In their circles it is known as "the hero shot."
There are anomalies that are obviously snapped in a hurry beside an armoured vehicle or in some dusty Afghan field, less to capture a moment to post on Facebook than to satisfy a hole in the database at headquarters.
These are not portraits to be reproduced in different sizes and doled out to relatives to keep on mantels. Instead, they are tucked away in an invisible military vault until something goes wrong.
When it does, the photo becomes everybody's property to download and distribute as news. Hometown papers write profiles and interview neighbours and teachers about their grief. News channels repeat the notice every hour and remind viewers the soldier liked fishing or running or spending time with family.
Within a day or so at an appointed time Canadian soldiers march to the flight line at Kandahar Airfield. A casket -- or two or three or tragically more -- is carried to the ramp of the waiting plane that will cue a new cycle of grief at home.
"I was ready for the weight of the casket," a pallbearer at one of these ceremonies told me, "But when I touched the metal it was cold and it hit me that (the person) was inside."
The Department of National Defence posts death announcements to its website in both official languages under the headline "Fallen-Disparus." There are so many photos in that gallery now it appears like its own roll call. As numbers go, Canada has lost a full company plus a platoon to Afghanistan.
Hundreds more have been maimed or had their lives abruptly altered but nobody really talks about them. The military does not even allude to the number of wounded let alone reveal their names or faces but maybe you see them on crutches or prosthetic limbs at the mall.
Emotional wounds are trickier to spot but they lurk in many of the soldiers who have served here. War can mess with the mind. It steals friends, tests faith and wrecks relationships. Some troops wrestle with the stresses that come with combat; others struggle to adjust to a life back home without the camaraderie of a unit that understands.
For all of them, there is a photograph. And a country's gratitude.