Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Body of fallen soldier returns to Canada

MARIA BABBAGE - Canadian Press

TRENTON, Ont. — Benoit Longtin wasn't standing with his grief-stricken family when the remains of his brother, slain Quebec soldier Pte. Simon Longtin, arrived from Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Instead, he was among the eight uniformed men who carefully hoisted the flag-draped casket on their shoulders and carried it towards a waiting hearse.

As the mourners approached the car, a visibly upset Benoit — who recently completed basic training — joined his father at the head of the group, gripping his hand tightly as the tears were finally allowed to fall.

Some of Canada's top civilian and military leaders joined Pte. Longtin's family and loved ones to receive the remains of the young soldier, whose death was the first in Afghanistan for his Quebec-based regiment — a province where support is low the Canadian mission.

Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, newly minted Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier and former chief of defence staff, retired general Maurice Baril, were among the many dignitaries who stood alongside Pte. Longtin's family as the body of the 23-year-old member of the Royal 22nd Regiment — known as the Vandoos — arrived at this eastern Ontario military base.

At one point during the repatriation ceremony, Jean put her arm around one of the mourners, offering some comfort as the woman, clad in black, wiped away tears.

The group, which included Pte. Longtin's father, Maurice Longtin, his mother, Johanne Larente, and his girlfriend, Debbie Duclos-Bedard, watched tearfully as the casket was carried across the wind-swept tarmac.

Pallbearers stepping slowly to the mournful notes of “Amazing Grace.” Pte. Longtin's stepmother, Manon Daoust, as well as his aunt, uncle and several cousins were also in attendance.

Family members carrying red or white roses gently laid the blooms on top of the casket, some wiping away tears before walking away. His head bent forward and arm outstretched towards his dead son, Maurice Longtin said his silent goodbyes then backed away slowly, sorrow etched across his face.

Pte. Longtin, from Longueil, Que., died Sunday after his light-armoured vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. More than 1,000 soldiers from 37 countries paid tribute to Pte. Longtin at a ramp ceremony in Kandahar Airfield on Monday.

On Wednesday, dozens of Canadian soldiers, who military officials said were bound for CFB Gagetown and travelled on the same military aircraft that carried Pte. Longtin's remains, poured out of the plane and stood in formation as the casket was lowered to the ground.

Dozens more onlookers, including a number of bikers, gathered outside the razor-wire fence, carrying flags and standing in solemn tribute to the fallen soldier.

Pte. Longtin's family maintained their request for privacy Wednesday, asking that journalists refrain from taking close-up photos of grieving family members. However in a recent statement, they echoed the comments of Pte. Longtin's fellow Vandoos, painting a picture a soldier who embraced military life and his mission in Afghanistan.

Some of Pte. Longtin's fellow soldiers in the Vandoos 3rd Battalion have appealed to Quebecers to be “better informed” about the objectives of the mission before passing judgment, adding that they believe in it and want to carry on the work.

Canada has about 2,300 troops in the war-torn country as part of the NATO force supporting the Afghan government, of which about 1,100 are from Quebec's Royal 22nd Regiment.

Sixty-seven Canadian soldiers and a diplomat have died in Afghanistan since 2002, including some from Quebec.

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