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A Soldiers Story: Grief, Remembrance, and Hope - Matthew Heneghan

We were a spectacle. A modern day freakshow. To them we were nothing beyond an oddity of amusement. When Sergeant Schaeffer finished his schooner via one ungodly swig, he stood up, then let free a near deafening war cry that caused a frightful stillness to overtake the place. With all eyes now on us, he smirked, bound for the railing of the rooftop bar we were currently stationed, and threw himself over the side. A collective gasp was made audible by the onlookers. Not us though, we knew he'd be fine.


Schaeffer had grabbed hold of the artisanal lattice and decorative vines that composed the exterior of the pub, and with skill and haste made his way to the streets below. I peered over in time to witness Schaeffer 'high-five' a pair of bewildered passersby before continuing into an intoxicated jog up the street.


As he faded from view my ears began to hear a subtle crescendo of incredulous laughter trickling in from behind me. I turned and looked over my shoulder. A barroom filled with people gawked back at me. I wasn't embarrassed nor coy — I was enraged. "How dare they?" I thought to myself. "How can they laugh?!" My eyes bore holes through each and every person in the place. Daggers burst from my pupils, but they didn't seem to notice. They also failed to notice, or perhaps even care, that what they had just observed was Schaeffer, a soldier, trying to outrun the only thing we can't kill... grief.


A soldier's life is a unique one. Sadly, it's also all too often an expendable one...


In August of 2006, we would learn that lesson with punitive irrefutability. I had returned from exercise with the engineering regiment when news broke, a Canadian soldier, a medic from our unit, had been killed in the ancient sand washed lands of Afghanistan. Cpl. Eykelenboom. Or, "Boomer," as he was affectionately known by his peers, was killed by a suicide bomber on August 11th, 2006. He was just twenty-three. Boomer’s soft-skinned vehicle was hit by the bomber who was driving a motorcycle. At impact, he detonated. Perhaps the most sombre element of this tearful tale is that Boomer, Cpl. Andrew James Eykelenboom, had volunteered for the mission that would ultimately claim his life — he was just two weeks away from returning home.


Several days had passed, and we had just finished laying Boomer to rest that very morning. We folded our nation’s flag, had it presented to Boomer’s parents, stood at attention for a twenty-one-gun salute, and then lowered our brother into the waiting embrace of mother earth. It was now evening in the city of Comox B.C., and we soldiers were trying our very best to drink away the realities of the day. But as often happens when booze flows, so do tears. Schaeffer wasn't having any of that though, and each time the mood soured from pretend joy, he would either order us into good mood, or cause a scene that acted as distraction from the ever-creeping pain of the day.


His latest exploit was the aforementioned Spider-man routine. Those of us that remained understood that our welcome in that establishment was dwindling precipitously, so Petty Officer (PO) Nickle went to pay the tab. While we waited for that interaction to finalize, we were treated to angry stares from staff members, and surreptitious side-glances from patrons. We now stood, drowning in a sea of judgement. Each person that moved around that barroom now felt more akin to sharks, ominous and uncomfortable to be around.


I overheard a woman to my left remark "I wonder what the heck they're celebrating so hard?! Sign me up!" Followed by laughter shared by the company at her table. I glared down to her from where I stood. My eyes must have irritated the skin on her back as she turned to meet my gaze.


"We're not celebrating" I said.


"What?" She replied. I repeated myself, only louder this time, more confident in my assertion. "Oh! Sorry. Just looks like you guys are having a time..." she said inquisitively.


"We are," a moment of bitter pause sat between my reply. "It's just not a celebratory one..." another pause. "We lay a buddy to rest today — a soldier — we're soldier's" I informed her; my stare softened.


“Oh goodness. Yes, I heard something about that on the news this morning. I am so sorry.” Her voice was kind and sincere. There was also a noticeable absence of laughter at her table now. They too had softened their stares.


When PO Nickle had finished smoothing things over, we took our leave and fled the bar. Now out on the street, we began our search and retrieval of Sergeant Schaeffer. The sun was beginning to set itself to rest for the evening. A warm glaze of caramel light coated the buildings of the downtown. We walked together, practically marching out of habit as we navigated the sidewalks. We broke down into smaller search parties and fanned out in hopeful search of Schaeffer. Thing about Schaeffer was that he was an experienced combat veteran, he was also leaving in a few months to join a special forces regiment, so if he didn’t want to be found, he wouldn’t be.


Myself and a few other privates meandered along the bar district of downtown Comox in futile search of our missing man. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be gaggles of people smiling, laughing and enjoying the company they were in — I resented it, their ease toward joy. I was with people I loved, and yet none of us were able to find an ounce of that happiness. Not that day. And now the best we could hope for was to at least find Schaeffer, and maybe another cold beer.


“THERE!” Private Ryker called out while putting a hand on my shoulder and pointing. He was gesticulating toward another bar across the street; sitting there, observable from the window was Sergeant Schaeffer. He wasn’t hiding, misleading or acting a fool, he was just perched up at the bar-top, sipping on a beer. His forlorn expression was visible from the roadway. There was a sinew of sadness between my stare and his face. The mood all of a sudden became heavy — heavier, I should say. I thought I’d feel relief at finding the sergeant, and maybe there was a little, but it was overshadowed by the heft of why we were looking for him in the first place. Myself and the boys made our way over to the bar. Once inside we joined Sergeant Schaeffer. He didn’t rebuke nor scold. He in fact welcomed us by ordering drinks all around.


Schaeffer swallowed gulps of sadness, bottle after bottle. As did we all. We would eventually rejoin the rest of our unit before the end of the night. We’d go back to our temporary quarters, and wait for morning. None of us slept much, we just sort of laid there, resting on our backs as the hours ticked away. The sun came to life and snuck in through the cracks of the blinds. Hungover and miserable, it was time to pack up and head back to our home base. “Back to the grind,” as they say. The only words spoken on that trip back were in the form of official orders being handed down, other than that, no one said much of anything. It all felt different now. The world was different. I was different. It all changed…


I never quite got over that feeling — the feeling of being a spectacle, or an outsider looking in. Something happens when you dedicate your life to service of country or community; you never quite see the world as innocently as you once did. Once the curtain has been pulled back and losses start to mount, things change. The world and home are never the same again.


Each passing anniversary of Boomer’s death, I find myself unwittingly observing the people around me, I am generally sullen and contemplative, whereas those around are typically in relative contextual ease of the moment. Carefree, or dare I say, even happy. And that same feeling of discontent comes to me. Rage? Not so much anymore. Therapy has helped with that. But there are a familiar set of feelings that return to me. Often times I am transported back to those beautifully sun-kissed streets of Comox at dusk, I hear the bar noise fall into my ears. My mouth remembers the taste of whiskey, and my heart beats a solemn beat — sadness comes to me.


There are other weighted sounds that come to me from that day, but I’d rather keep those private for now…


While I was in service, I would lose three brothers to the war in Afghanistan. Boomer, Starker and Wilmot. And on the dates of each of their anniversaries, grief kills the soldier in me. Not a day goes by where I do not think of the boys, but there is a certain potency that is reserved for those infamous dates on our calendar. I’m better now than I used to be; for many, many years I was much like Sergeant Schaeffer was on the night we found him — alone in the company of ghosts, drinking to forget, and then drinking some more…


If you don’t already know of who Boomer, Cpl. Andrew James Eykelenboom was, I encourage you to learn of him. Read about what kind of man and medic he was, because he was among this world’s very best. His death played a pivotal role in my life, I aged rapidly within the span of a blink. The veneer of blissful ignorance I once wore fell from my soul, and I emerged back into the world a slightly more jaded and cautious man. In the years following the deaths of my brothers, and over the arduous journey of therapy, I have once again learned to view the world through a different prism then the one I had been for so long. For a long time, my outlook was bleak, I was angry, dejected and scorned. Now, I see myself as a man blessed to have known such great men. A man blessed by freedoms, security and a comfort I did not know was for me.


On this anniversary, instead of observing the people around me, and living in sadness of what was, I’ll simply utter a “thank you,” beneath a whisper. Allowing the wind to carry it from my lips to the ether of unknown in hopes that it lands on the ears of my fallen brothers.


Cpl. Andrew Eykelenboom, Killed while on mission in Afghanistan, August 11th, 2006.


Rest easy, good sir. Until one day…

 

Matthew Heneghan was born in the U.K. and immigrated to Canada at age five. He would grow up among the beautiful expanse of the coniferous mountains of British Columbia. After high-school, Matthew would go on to join the Canadian Armed Forces and serve as a medic for a period of 6 years. Upon his honourable release, Matthew’s desire to serve would not end with his military service — he became a civilian paramedic, and worked in that role until 2017. He was diagnosed with PTSD and had to step back from frontline work. Matthew went on to write two memoirs of his experiences in uniform and out. He is 38 years old and currently resides resplendently in Western Canada with his beautiful girlfriend and her two wonderful daughters. This story is about the loss of one of our own -- the first Canadian medic to be killed in combat since Korea. Myself and a few other brothers were selected as pallbearers for our fallen man. This story takes place on the evening after the funeral, and tackles the juxtaposition of military life and civilian interaction -- to soldiers, the world never looks the same after signing that dotted line on the contract...

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