Tuesday, August 01, 2006

An epitaph unworthy of this soldier

Since I'm being all serious today... my brother is Matt Kirkpatrick. Read this article...

We have been collectively careless with Corporal Boneca's memory
Saturday, July 15, 2006

It was a couple of my readers -- former reserve infantryman Tim Richter and serving reserve infantryman Sergeant Matt Kirkpatrick -- who really nailed it. Both were writing about the death of Corporal Tony Boneca, the 21-year-old reserve infanteer who was killed, on a lovely morning a week ago tomorrow, in a vicious battle against the Taliban.
Mr. Richter's note landed first. He was regretting the tawdry spectacle, at home, which arose out of the young soldier's death and centred upon comments he'd made to his girlfriend and which, as seems inevitable now in the instant information age, found their way into the media.
"Surely he wouldn't want to be remembered for his private confidences to his girlfriend?" Mr. Richter wrote, and then said sorrowfully, "We have been so reckless in writing his epitaph."
Yes, we have.
But then we in Canada -- press and public both -- have been so reckless for so long in our treatment of our military that our collective carelessness with this young soldier's memory is hardly surprising.
As Sgt. Kirkpatrick -- who has twice served overseas, including one stint in Afghanistan, and who is preparing for another tour here in about a year -- put it in an e-mail, "I feel for Cpl. Boneca's family, but the media reaction to his death is a loss for all Canadians. A soldier dying in service to Canada is only a tragedy if we waste his gift."
Sgt. Kirkpatrick is, as are so many soldiers, what my National Post colleague Matthew Fisher described the other day as "ferociously articulate." Consider what Sgt. Kirkpatrick said in response to allegations from Cpl. Boneca's girlfriend's father that the young soldier had complained he wasn't properly trained for this mission and that he had suffered badly while in the field.
"I never felt that I was not trained as well as my regular force counterparts, and I have never felt misled by the army.
"I have often been afraid, tired and hungry, but I volunteered for all of those things and more. I volunteered for the unlimited liability of military service. I made sure my mother, my father and all of my friends were aware that if anything happened to me that it happened to me while I was doing exactly what I wanted, and felt I needed, to do, and that I was keenly aware of the risks.
"I also asked them, in my will, to never speak publicly against the mission, as I felt it would stain any contribution I may have made."
These remarks were in Sgt. Kirkpatrick's first note to me, a personal one. I wrote back and asked if I could quote his comments, because I wasn't satisfied with the job I'd done the first time around. I thought he'd done a better job, in fact, than I had -- a common enough situation here, I should say, where I often feel clumsy compared with many of the soldiers I meet.
"I find it very difficult, as a soldier, to make any public comment about our military and our operations," Sgt. Kirkpatrick wrote back. "I have been trained for years to serve silently, and never to complain to those outside of my peers."
But, he said, "I feel compelled after reading the media coverage of the last few days to say something.
"I have the highest regard for Cpl. Boneca, regardless of anything that may have been said about him in the media.
"I have a unique insight here at home to sense the spin applied by some media channels, and I am saddened that anyone would speak about him in that way, without understanding what he was doing.
"I have trained hundreds of soldiers just like him, and I am always surprised by their resilience and resourcefulness.
"I also know [and here I bet Sgt. Kirkpatrick was smiling as he wrote this part] that one of the most important characteristics of a Canadian soldier is his ability to eloquently complain about hardships, all the while enduring them and accomplishing difficult tasks.
"I also had to sit my mother and father down and explain to them that I was going to a bad place and why -- twice. I can't fathom what his family is going through, but I can't imagine that the shameless attacks on his character, or of the political situation, can be any help in bearing the loss of their only son.
"I also think about the members serving in Afghanistan and the effect that the controversy might have on them."
But then, Sgt. Kirkpatrick wrote, "I do remember, though, that I have volunteered twice to defend all Canadians' right to say exactly those things with my life, and I fully intend to do it again."
The other day, he said, he thought his four-year-old nephew must have seen the news because the little guy asked him, at supper, if Afghanistan was dangerous because of volcanoes.
"I would go just about anywhere to help create a world . . . where the most dangerous thing was a volcano. That's how I want to explain why I went to Afghanistan, but I don't usually say anything at all."
At bottom, Sgt. Kirkpatrick said, "As a Canadian citizen, I feel we owe him [Cpl. Boneca] more than a petty argument about how happy he was to do difficult things in the harshest of conditions."
So there you have it. We had in Cpl. Boneca, described by those who served with him as a happy kid with a mischievous smile, a young man just turned 21, with a girlfriend he adored and to whom it appears he confided that he was sometimes frightened and pining for home. All natural enough, it seems to me, and as one wise old soldier told me, there isn't a man in the world who doesn't, from time to time, exaggerate his hardship with a lady in order to win her sympathy. As for fear, it is the foolish soldier who isn't afraid in combat; the measure of him is how he manages his fear.
We had a soldier, who like soldiers everywhere, may have complained; soldiers have done that since there were soldiers. As another reader told me, in the Second World War, when a soldier had bitched on too long, the Aussies even had an expression that would call a halt to it: "Dry your eyes." Soldiers complain about conditions and the stupidity of orders and bosses the way that reporters whine about editors -- it's like breathing, and one shouldn't make much of it.
Finally though, what we had in Cpl. Boneca was a young man who, whatever the terrors that seized his heart, whatever the confessions he made to his girl, was out with his platoon last Sunday morning, doing his job, heading up the stairs of a mud hut when a bullet struck him in the neck.
As Tim Richter said, "I for one think he deserves to be remembered as tough, brave and good.
"He went up the stairs."
Cpl. Boneca will be buried Monday in his Thunder Bay home town, where, I trust, they will not be as reckless as the rest of us in writing his epitaph.


Slyde said...

God bless your brother, hon. A THIRD tour? He's a hero...

Kat said...

Ok, now I'm crying. First thing in the morning. Oh how I love being hormonal!
I'm so proud of him.

elizabeth said...

Yes - he IS a hero. Not just to my son, to me too.

Kat - Me too! (proud of him)

badgerdaddy said...

A journalist that admits they were wrong? A rare breed indeed. Your brother must be quite something to effect change in something so cynical as a journo.

Big up to him!