Defence Minister Peter MacKay joined Canadian troops at a solemn ramp ceremony at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan Saturday, as the casket of Pte. Michael Bruce Freeman was loaded onto a military aircraft to begin the journey home.

Freeman, of Peterborough, Ont., died Friday afternoon when the armoured vehicle he was riding in struck an improvised explosive device during a routine security patrol in the Zhari District of Kandahar Province.

Three other soldiers were injured in the explosion. They are in good condition at the hospital at Kandahar Airfield.

It is believed that MacKay's attendance at the ramp ceremony was the first time a sitting defence minister has attended such an event at Kandahar Airfield. One of Freeman's wounded colleagues also attended the ramp ceremony on a military gurney.

Before the ceremony, MacKay expressed his condolences to Freeman's family.

"We regret that loss in the extreme as we do each and every one, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends and loved ones in Canada," MacKay said.

Freeman, 28, was serving with N Company, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment from CFB Petawawa in Ontario.

"He was a wonderful young man, a fine soldier and a great Canadian," said Lt.-Col. Roger Barrett, commanding officer of 3 RCR Battle Group. "I assure you we will not forget him."

Freeman, who was on his first tour of duty, had arrived in Afghanistan only two weeks before he died.

Known to his buddies as "Chewie," the well-liked soldier was an avid golfer who set up a driving range in the desert near Zhari district, where he was posted.

"I am positive that November Company will keep that driving range, and all his mates will use it in his memory," Barrett added.

Freeman's death brings Canada's troop death toll in Afghanistan to 104. In December alone, seven Canadian soldiers were killed by roadside bomb attacks, making it the deadliest month of 2008.

Saturday's ramp ceremony marked the conclusion of a three-day visit by MacKay, along with Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk, with Canadian troops stationed in southern Afghanistan.

During the trip, MacKay visited soldiers at several forwarding operating bases, travelling by helicopter throughout the volatile region. The trip was designed to showcase some of the new military equipment being used by the Canadians, including aerial surveillance drones and Chinook helicopters.

Canada now has two Chinook helicopters and four more are on the way. The heavy-lift choppers will allow troops to move around the country and avoid the dangerous roadways.

At each stop, MacKay asked troops about their combat experiences and offered them words of support and encouragement.

"You're here doing incredibly important work on behalf of all of us and for that we are eternally grateful," MacKay said to one group.

During a speech to soldiers, Natynczyk added that the fallen soldier and his platoon have been inspirational in their resolve and dedication.

"This is a tough one. At the same time, talking to his comrades, they're picking themselves up. We've got to soldier on," he said.

"You can only be inspired by the spirit."

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff also offered his condolences to Freeman's friends and family in a statement issued on Saturday.

"We will remember him for his courage and sacrifice in service to Canada and to the people of Afghanistan," the statement said.

Ignatieff also said he wished the three injured soldiers "a full recovery."

With files from The Canadian Press