Springfield State Journal Register

April 26, 2002

A hell of a jolt’ 
Pride, grief mark Canada after fatal bomb accident 

By JERRY KAMMER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

EDMONTON, Alberta - At the MilArm gun shop near the office buildings and hotels overlooking the partially frozen North Saskatchewan River, Gordon McGowan spoke in anguished bewilderment about the deaths last week of four Canadian soldiers whose military home was the garrison on the sprawling prairie 12 miles to the north.

"I just don't understand how a pilot who is flying over a known training area can think he was taking hostile fire," said McGowan, shaking his head at the reports about the U.S. F-16 fighter that dropped a 500-pound bomb on Canadian forces conducting a live-fire training exercise near Kandahar.

"For Canada this has been a hell of a jolt," said McGowan, who had sold knives, flashlights and camouflage material to the soldiers they shipped out to Afghanistan in January. "It just seems like this was a tragedy that could have easily been avoided."

Late April is a time when Canadians normally are fixated by the National Hockey League playoffs. They had expected their national hockey mania to be especially vibrant this year, in the lingering euphoria of their team's gold medal at the Olympics.

The playoffs are still big news, to be sure. But for the past week, from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, from Baffin Island to the towns around Lake Ontario, Canadians
have been gripped by collective shock and mourning at their first combat-zone deaths since the Korean War.

For this sprawling country sometimes tense with regional and cultural rivalries, the tragedy in Afghanistan has become a sort of scaled-down version of Sept. 11. Stunned by their loss, they have come together in a national outpouring of grief and unity and pride.

In interviews on the base and around Edmonton, Canadians made clear their national trauma includes an uneasy concern that their American allies may tend to be careless in the use of their military power and even indifferent to its fatal consequences for others.

There is widespread disappointment, in particular, with what is seen as President Bush's grudging public expression of regret about the deaths of the four soldiers from Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

"How can the president of the United States forget his next-door neighbor when we're among the first to help," said Sharon Budnarchuk, manager of a bookstore here. "I think we were just a tad hurt."

"The president finally said the right thing, but it was a bit late," said Diane Webster. "I don't know. Maybe he just had a lapse."

Webster had come Wednesday afternoon to a makeshift memorial at the entrance to the base. Dozens of flower bouquets have been laid on the red stones forming a large
maple leaf beneath a stone wall bearing the garrison's name: Steele Barracks. It is the sort of spontaneous public monument that New Yorkers fashioned in public places for those who died in the September attacks on the World Trade Center.

Dozens of small Canadian flags are planted in the ground, some festooned with yellow ribbons and handwritten notes. "You have made the great sacrifice," read one. "We will remember. May God comfort your loved ones."

Webster, whose husband is a retired veteran of the Canadian Air Force, was quick to express her compassion for the Springfield-based pilot of the F-16 that dropped the bomb.

"I feel very sad for him and for his family," she said. "It certainly was an accident."

At a doughnut shop on the base, Cpl. Kim Hancock was grateful for the nationwide display of affection for the Canadian military, which is chronically underfunded and undersupplied and often has felt unappreciated.

"I'm overwhelmed by the support that the public has given us, and I'm very happy that the people are here grieving with us," said Hancock, who knew three of the fallen soldiers.

"I am proud that we sent our troops to Afghanistan," she added, noting that in recent decades Canada had limited its forces to peacekeeping roles around the world.

"But Sept. 11 changed the world. Now we are more than peacekeepers; we're proving that. And we're very good at what we do."

Like many other Canadians interviewed here this week, Hancock said she wanted a thorough investigation into the accident. "Everybody wants straight answers from the American side about what happened," she said.

Despite U.S assurances, some have their doubts. "The question is: Are we going to get answers?" a popular Edmonton television personality said Wednesday on his morning show, which is seen across Canada.

"That's my biggest concern," said Mark Scholz, 33. "Are we going to get to the bottom of this truly? I don't know. I sort of have my doubts."

The next day, over coffee at a restaurant, Scholz said he shouldn't be misunderstood. "I love the U.S. like a brother," he said, but he wasn't persuaded that Canada's big neighbor to the south was committed to getting to the bottom of the accident.

"I'm skeptical of what we hear from our own government and everyone else's government," he said. He added that he didn't think the United States understands the tragedy's magnitude in Canada. "This is huge for us," he said.

Canadian news media, both print and electronic, made the same point throughout the week. The soldiers' story was the lead story, banishing all others to secondary consideration.

"Tears as soldiers come home," read the headline emblazoned across Sunday's front page in The Edmonton Journal. Beneath was a photograph that showed Prime Minister Jean Chretien alongside relatives in a solemn ceremony to receive the coffins of the four young soldiers. Two were married, two engaged. Their lives ended before any had finished his third decade.

"Canada hails her fallen soldiers," bannered The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper based in Toronto, on Wednesday, reporting on the funeral Tuesday of Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, who had dreamed of having 10 children with the woman he was engaged to marry.

News reports have been filled with such intimate glimpses into the private lives and military careers of the men being hailed as "Canada's heroes." Their unit, affectionately called the Patricias, is named for an early patron, Princess Patricia of Connaught, a
granddaughter of Britain's Queen Victoria.

Sgt. Marc Leger was remembered as a high school football star and volunteer firefighter. He was a big, purposeful, extroverted man, a soldier so beloved by the Serbian refugees his unit protected in Bosnia that they hailed him as "King Marco."

In Halifax, a friend of Pvt. Nathan Smith - who also was engaged to be married, remembered his big-hearted good nature.

"There was never any negativity to him at all; he was the most positive person I've ever known," a high school friend told The Globe and Mail.

In Edmonton this week, Pvt. Richard Green's fiancee pledged that she would always wear the diamond ring brought to her this week. Green had bought the ring during leave in Dubai and had hoped to give it to her this summer, at the end of his duty in
Afghanistan.

"That will always be on my finger," said 17-year-old Miranda Boutilier. "He's my fiancee. Dead or alive, he's in my heart always."

As they sought to put the week in perspective, Canadians also looked south, to see how the story was playing in the United States, particularly in Springfield, home of the Air National Guard 183rd Fighter Wing, which includes the plane that reportedly dropped the bomb.

The press played that story sympathetically and straight, with none of the sarcasm of Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, who wrote last Friday: "We went to help out the Americans with their war - and they used us for target practice."

Wente also quoted bitter postings to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Web site. "A high price to pay for American incompetence," wrote one Canadian. Another fumed:
"It's maddening when some stupid, trigger-happy Yankee can murder, yes murder our soldiers. It's time our government got our soldiers out of there and let the Americans do their own thing."

But a news report from Springfield in Tuesday's Globe and Mail ran under the headline: "F-16 wing's hometown aghast at bombing."

Then on Wednesday, CBC television correspondent David Holton ended his report from Springfield on this note about the accident on the other side of the world.

"It's an emotional ordeal for many here as well as in Canada," Holton said. "And what the people of this town are now desperately hoping for is that the pilots of the 183rd will
survive the current investigation with their honor and their reputation intact."