- Nov 22, 2003
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Not to have died in vain...The sad smile of a dying soldier
After watching Pte. Josh Klukie die, the members of 4 Platoon, Bravo Company, vow to finish their ugly little war
From Monday's Globe and Mail
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN On the evening they said goodbye to Private Josh Klukie, there was clarity in the eyes of the men who fought beside him.
They watched his casket hoisted into a cargo plane in the warm afternoon light, snapped to attention and marched off the tarmac to prepare for another mission.
Two days earlier, the soldiers of 4 Platoon, part of Bravo Company, a unit of the First Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, had seen their friend thrown across a field by a huge explosion. They heard the 23-year-old draw his last breath, and saw his sad smile before he died.
After saying farewell yesterday, the soldiers knew what they wanted. They felt a need to get back into those fields and keep fighting. And when they finish with this ugly war on the other side of the world, they intend to visit Pte. Klukie's grave in Northern Ontario to talk with his mother about the day he died.
"It will be very healing for his family to meet the soldiers he served with and hear about the conditions of his last day," said Captain Piers Pappin, the platoon commander.
In the hours before Private Klukie's death last Friday, the platoon had been marching southwest of Kandahar, through the fields of grapes, wheat and marijuana where soldiers have hunted insurgents for weeks.
"No patrol is routine, but we were just doing a foot patrol," said Corporal Mike Blois, 24, of Exeter, Ont. He said one of the patrol's purposes was to search for improvised explosive devices in an area heavily mined by the retreating Taliban. They hadn't found any explosives that morning, but they did recover a unmanned aerial vehicle that had crashed on the battlefield.
"We got into a couple buildings, found a downed UAV, a bunch of intelligence papers, so we were having a really successful patrol," Cpl. Blois said. "We stayed off the roads as much as we could, going through the grape fields and the vineyards and all that."
They knew the roads were dangerous, but they couldn't find any other route as they trudged through a cluster of villages known as Pashmul. About 1 p.m., they found themselves walking north, toward a Canadian patrol base, on a makeshift track plowed by bulldozers about two weeks ago to give them a safe route around the booby traps on the main roads.
But the Taliban haven't abandoned Pashmul -- only disappeared from sight. Soldiers say the insurgents appear to have dug into the road's thick dust, which resembles brown talcum, and set up several explosives -- perhaps an anti-tank mine combined with smaller bombs -- and rigged them to detonate under slight pressure.
"When we went through, the first two guys didn't hit it," said Cpl. Blois, who was walking at the patrol's tail end.
"The explosion went off, and my immediate thought was it was the section commander who hit it, because he was the very first guy in the patrol," he said.
In fact, the commander was unhurt, but in the haze of dust and lingering shock of the blast it was difficult for the survivors to tell who had been injured.
"I didn't get hit with anything," Cpl. Blois said. "So I just started yelling people's names, and guys started to respond."
One of those who didn't answer right away was Cpl. James Miller, of Hamilton, Ont., who was partly deafened by the blast.
"Miller didn't respond but he came out of the smoke and dust, and he was really disoriented. You could tell he was pretty messed up."
Cpl. Blois paused. "Klukie's name? There was no response."
Trailing behind the Canadian patrol, about 200 metres south, was a team of U.S. soldiers who specialize in clearing mines. Cpl. Blois threw off his heavy backpack and ran toward them for help.
"They saw me coming, and they just started running," he said. A U.S. medic joined the Canadian corporal and they started sweeping the dense foliage of grape trellises, searching for the missing soldier.
"The blast threw Klukie about 50 metres off the road," Cpl. Blois said. "He landed in the vineyard. I think he must have hit one of the walls. He was laying on his back when the American medic and I found him.
He continued: "We immediately started working, without saying anything to each other. He put a tourniquet on his right leg, which was almost completely gone. I put tourniquets on his arm and his other leg.
"You could tell he couldn't hear anything, but he could recognize me, you know. I was looking right at him. He couldn't say anything. I was just telling him to keep fighting, you know, keep fighting, keep fighting."
Pte. Klukie's friends say he was a big, well-built soldier in peak physical shape, who dreamed of joining the elite JTF2 special forces. But the blast that went off under his feet was probably enough to destroy a vehicle, never mind a man.
"He was breathing," Cpl. Blois said. "He had a pulse. His eyes were moving. . . . He looked right at me. It was just weird. He couldn't talk."
This quiet, desperate scene lasted maybe three minutes, Cpl. Blois said. "I had that last tourniquet on him, I grabbed him by the shoulder, I'm like, 'This is nothing Josh, this is nothing.' He just looked at me, smiled, and that was it. He died right there."
He was the 10th soldier to die in September and the 37th since Canadian troops went to Afghanistan in 2002 -- most of them this year.
Friends say Pte. Klukie was a sensitive soul who was always the first to recognize when someone was troubled.
"He was a paramedic before he joined the army," said Pte. Wes Whitfield of Markham, Ont.
Pte. Klukie grew up in Thunder Bay, the youngest of three brothers, an athlete who played basketball and football. He always took good care of his widowed mother and was helpful and kind.
"He was a selfless person," said a relative who didn't want to be identified. "He had lots of close friends from public school and kept in touch with them all."
Before the Afghan mission, he'd had doubts about his military career, and was uncertain how he would handle deaths and injuries to his friends. September's Operation Medusa, where Canadians scored a conclusive victory over the Taliban, changed that. Four soldiers were killed and more than 40 injured, but Pte. Klukie decided he could handle the suffering around him.
"A week ago, he came to me and started the paperwork for re-enlistment and he told me this is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life," Capt. Pappin said. "It was good for me to hear, because he was one of those soldiers who was going places, for sure."
Cpl. Blois helped clean up the scene and transport the body bag back to Kandahar airfield. He didn't sleep at all that first night.
He felt numb, he said, and initially he thought about quitting. But he changed his mind, and now the death of Pte. Klukie drives him to continue. Despite the gravity of what he had witnessed, the young soldier told the entire story with calmness and precision, and he showed no hint of hesitation about returning to the battlefield.
"I want to get back out there," he said. "He deserves it. He fought hard, and so he deserves everybody else who's here after him continuing to fight hard."