This is a first-person column by Matthew Heneghan, who lives in Falkland, BC. For more on CBC’s first-person stories, see the frequently asked questions.
The military uniform is as uncomfortable as it is inspiring. It’s so much more than glittering threads, stitches, buttons and badges – it’s earned through a crucible of trial and trial. Sink or swim moments intertwined over weeks, months, and in some cases, years. He boasts with a unique humility of the soldier’s name, rank, and all the things they have accomplished. Facts and ratings rest seamlessly on the wearer’s chest and sleeves, telling a story.
One of those profound moments in my service life occurred on a hot August day some 17 years ago. I was given the sobering task of transporting the remains of a fallen comrade. On August 11, 2006, Cpl. Andrew James Eykelenboom was killed by a suicide bomber after volunteering for one last mission. He was a field ambulance medic, the same unit I was in, and he was due home in two weeks. But that was a return he would never live to see. He was only 23 years old.
I was also 23 years old at the time. I felt that he could barely be described as a man, more like a boy with a few pennies of experience. Yet this man, this soldier, Cpl. Eykelenboom, voluntarily raised his hand to face danger once more. The maturity and selflessness of that act is something I still find myself deliberating about all these years later. I realized that he was as dedicated a soldier as he was a skilled healer. He admired him, I never got a chance to tell him.
There were eight of us who had been selected for the grim mission of transporting the remains of Cpl. Eykelenboom to what would become his final resting place in Comox, BC In addition to field exercises and my medical training, this would be my first real assignment as a soldier in the Armed Forces. This was not my first experience with death, but it was the first time I had carried a fallen brother.
CLOCK | The repatriation ceremony for Cpl. Andrew Eykelenboom at CFB Trenton in August 2006
We had already participated in a repatriation ceremony for our fallen doctor a few days earlier at CFB Trenton in Ontario. We carried the flag-draped coffin from a military transport plane upon its return from Afghanistan. Later in Edmonton, and boarding another plane to BC, he was sitting next to a woman, a civilian. I chose to ignore her glares at my uniform and focused on a random piece of wall in front of me.
“Excuse me,” she said.
“I couldn’t help but notice, I’m sorry, but there are several of you military guys on the plane today… are you going somewhere special?” Her inquiry was followed by a kind and sincere smile. He wasn’t sure how to respond at first. Special for whom? I suppose a final resting place could be counted among the places that have the nickname “special”, but I felt that that was probably not what she had meant.
I informed him of what we were doing. Her kind features faltered and gave way to a noticeable sadness. For the first time all day, I got involved with a civilian.
As the plane touched down and came to a stop, the captain’s voice crackled through the speakers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we would like to thank you for flying with us today; at this time we would like to ask you to remain seated. There are several members of our Canadian Armed Forces traveling with us today. They are escorting the remains of a fallen soldier, Corporal Andrew James Eykelenboom, back to his hometown of Comox. We ask that you allow these men and women to step off the plane before we depart today as they will be taken to the tarmac below and retrieve the coffin of one of their own.”
At the culmination of this announcement, I heard an audible burst of reluctant sighs from several of the passengers. My eyes shot daggers into each of them. We disembarked from the plane and prepared ourselves in position under the cargo hold. We retrieved the flag-draped coffin and carried it to a waiting hearse. It is a weight that is not easily described. Until that moment I never understood that a flag could weigh so much. Since then I have never been able to look at the red and white flag of our country in the same way. There is always a melancholy when I do it.
Eykelenboom was buried a few days later on another sunny day in August 2006. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that moment. The folding of the flag, the ceremonious firing of rifles, the clang of a nearby flagpole, the sound of a subtle wind playing in the grass and trees, and perhaps most remarkable of all, the mourning of those who they knew and loved. His anguish spilled over my shoulder as I snapped to attention.
Along the journey of life, we are granted defining moments that shape us. For some, it is weddings, the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one. These moments transcend time and space and linger with a power many can relate to. For me, this was one of them.
I remember that soldier.
I remember the weight of that flag.
I remember it every time Afghanistan is on the news.
On the anniversary of the fall of Kabul every August.
Rest in eternal peace, Cpl. Andrew James Eykelenboom.
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