No Canadian soldier, killed in Afghanistan, dies in anonymity.
There is at least that: The number of casualties, even as they mount, are not yet so plentiful that names and faces are becoming interchangeable. Biographies of the fallen mutate into obituaries for lives cut brutally short, which has always been the don’t-speak-of-it fate looming terribly real for fighting grunts.
We read the stories and study the photographs, trying to imagine the totality of one soldier’s existence from the paucity of details that make it into media dispatches, the comments often a little too reverent, given the solemn nature of the report, never quite capturing the essence of the individual. Because soldiers, especially those at the front, in close proximity to danger and the craziness of war, are wildly irreverent, fiercely scatological, monkey-shining.
This is what I know of Canadian army medic Andrew James Eykelenboom, or “Boomer” as he was called by his mates, killed by a suicide bomber near the Afghan-Pakistan border on Friday:
He was sweetly goofy, more than a little bit off-centre in humour, with a deadpan delivery such that you never saw the punchline coming or even realized he was having you on, until the sly grin at the end.
He was an insatiable reader, of popular fiction mostly, and once noted that he couldn’t imagine getting through the long periods of boredom that typify the lull of combat between skirmishes without the weighty collection of paperbacks in his kitbag.
During the 23 hours I spent with him in the tight confines of a LAV-III, as our convoy humped across the Afghan desert en route to Forward Operating Base Robinson, Eykelenboom would carefully dog-ear his place in The DaVinci Code when his turn came to ride sentry duty, head and shoulders sticking up out of the hatch, and return to it eagerly afterwards, barely pausing to wipe the accumulation of dust and dirt from his face.
He was laconic in conversation and moved with deceptive slowness, sometimes as if half asleep and probably he was, too, since he was not among those in the crew capable of sleeping on the spot, with a mate’s elbow in the ribs and a pair of combat boots invading one’s groin space as our vehicle lurched across deep wadis and juddered over swelling dunes.
Yet I saw his quickness too, and his poise, when the LAV behind us was sideswiped by a passing truck, causing the turret gun to swing around, hitting two other Canadian soldiers smack in the face, blood gushing, the impact so forceful that the cannon bent. In our enclosed space, we didn’t even realize what had happened until a medic call came crackling over the radio.
Without any outward show of anxiety, Eykelenboom was immediately out the back of the LAV, the first on the scene to tend to the injured, ripping open and pressing compresses to wounds, speaking with soothing reassurance into the ears of the two very frightened soldiers, their blood on his hands as he squeezed their fingers, never moving from their side until a helicopter arrived to evacuate the casualties. Then, with a this-is-my-job shrug, returning seamlessly to his book, never speaking of the incident again.
They’d made a medic out of him, did the Canadian military, because he had considerable first-aid experience, some college instruction in rudimentary medicine, a keenness for the assignment, and the intention of taking advanced courses upon his return to British Columbia, when his military contract was up. Wanted to be a paramedic, save lives on the home front, an ambulance cowboy.
So much experience he was gaining in the field, in Afghanistan. It was Eykelenboom — he was wearily accustomed to spelling out that mouthful of a surname — who was credited, later, for saving the life of an Afghan interpreter who’d born the full brunt of an RPG attack against the G-Wagon in which he was riding, struck during an ambush. That was near the start of the Battle of Pashmul, the fierce engagement waged by Task Force Orion — the Canadian battlegroup — alongside Afghan troops against the Taliban, right in the enemy’s wheelhouse west of Kandahar City.
But during that long night in the LAV, on the way to FOB Robinson, when Eykelenboom could no longer read because it was too risky to keep even a small light on, we talked and talked, this 23-year-old soldier and me, sharing licorice sticks and chocolate bars. He didn’t mind when I stretched out my legs and rested stinky feet in his lap. And later, when the bodies had rearranged themselves, he made no comment as I drowsily lay my head against his shoulder.
He was just a boy, really. A sweet, kind and good-natured boy, who was still somewhat mystified about how the hell he’d ended up in a war, in this strange country. But he accepted the circumstances with an equanimity beyond his years, never once sinking into platitudes, never bothering to talk about the big picture and the urgency of this Canadian mission to Afghanistan.
I was touched by him, for whatever reason more so than any other of the many fine young men and women I encountered during six weeks with the troops. Back at Kandahar airfield base, after leaving Charlie Company behind at FOB Robinson — they would remain at the inhospitable and frequently attacked outpost for more than a month — I sent Eykelenboom and his LAV mates a care package via re-supply convoy that consisted of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and speakers for the LAV, with thanks from the Star. He’d said he missed pretty girls and rock music.
Yesterday, from the lush countryside of Tuscany, I logged onto the Star website, breaking my promise to myself not to read my paper while on holidays. Immediately, I recognized the photo of Eykelenboom, taken apparently while on an R’n’R leave in Thailand, bottle of beer in hand, laughing.
It was like a kick in the gut and I wept as I read the story of his death.
A Canadian Forces spokesperson in Ottawa told me later that Eykelenboom had been scheduled to rotate home from Afghanistan within a fortnight. Last night, his body was to arrive at CFB Trenton, in a casket.
I cannot picture him dead.