Ten years ago, I was running the desk at CBC Newsworld in Toronto when word came that another Canadian soldier had been killed in Afghanistan.
Handling such news had become routine by 2006. Yet, for me, this time was different. I knew the soldier.
Private Josh Klukie, 23, had gone to school with my daughter Jodie, grades seven and eight, during the years we lived on Lake Superior, outside Thunder Bay. They’d been good friends.
I phoned Jodie in Vancouver. She told me she knew Josh was in the army but they hadn’t spoken in years. Still, the memories of their friendship, their shared love of sports, were fresh, the news saddening.
The Josh we remembered was smart and handsome, a good student, a good athlete, quietly self-confident, a sweet guy.
I wondered why he had chosen to join the army. (While reminded that most of the Canadian casualties in that war were from small towns, three from Thunder Bay alone that year.)
This week, as Thursday’s anniversary of Josh’s death approached, I phoned his mother in Thunder Bay. I’d never met Carol Klukie, but she remembered Jodie fondly. We talked for half an hour or so about Josh, the youngest of her three sons.
Josh was sixteen when his father Reg died in 1999. It hit him hard, knocked him off balance.
After high school, he took the paramedic course at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. He lived with his mother. “He and I were close,” she says. “We had a special bond.”
But, when he couldn’t land a job as a paramedic, Josh enlisted in the Canadian Forces.
“He came home one day and said he’d joined,” Carol recalls. “It just knocked my socks off. I was very, very upset.”
Josh went off to basic training at Saint-Jean, Quebec. “He got right into it, he loved it,” his mother says.
For the next couple of years, he was stationed in Canada and came home regularly on leave. In August 2006, he shipped out to Afghanistan.
“It just floored me,” Carol says. “I didn’t raise my son to go to the armpit of the world to get himself killed.”
Josh wrote home, real letters. “He was old fashioned that way.” His mom sent him letters and packages of treats – gum, candy, salve for sore feet. The last package and letter came back unopened.
On Sept. 29, 2006, Josh stepped on a bomb buried in a dusty track while on foot patrol with the 4th Platoon, Bravo Company, First Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment.
“The blast threw Klukie about 50 meters off the road,” Corporal Mike Blois told Graeme Smith of the Globe and Mail in Kandahar. “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.”
The corporal continued: “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.”
Picking up Smith’s story in the Globe:
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 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.”
Josh’s hitch would have been up the next month. But he had started the paperwork to reenlist.
“He told me this is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life,” Captain Piers Pappin, the platoon commander, told Smith. “It was good for me to hear, because he was one of those soldiers who was going places, for sure.”
Carol was at work at a law office in Thunder Bay when she read a small item on her computer that a Canadian had been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. There were few details. The soldier was not identified pending notification of next of kin.
She got a call. An army officer and a padre showed up. “I was stunned when they told me.”
The military stepped in to guide her through the whirlwind that followed: The flight to CFB Trenton to meet Josh’s coffin; the procession on the stretch of the 401 known as the Highway of Heroes to the morgue in Toronto; the flight to Ottawa and drive to CFB Petawawa for a military service on the home base of the Royal Canadian Regiment; the flight back to Thunder Bay for the funeral at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
Large crowds turned out along the route from Trenton to Toronto, as well as at Petawawa and the church.
“The outpouring of people blew us away,” Carol says. “I felt almost uplifted, knowing he was home.”
Pappin, her son’s commander, and others from his unit have kept in touch. This weekend, Carol is getting together with a few of Josh’s friends to reminiscence and remember.