As Canada’s latest soldier to die in Afghanistan began her final trip home, a family in a small town in eastern Quebec was deep in grief Tuesday after learning of the loss of their daughter.
The parents of Trooper Karine Blais, 21, who died Monday in a roadside bomb explosion northwest of Kandahar City, said they were devastated by their daughter’s death.
“We are extremely saddened. … It leaves a void that is too big,” the family said in a statement released Tuesday.
“Despite the terrible news of her sudden loss, Karine had met her goal. She wanted to be a part of this adventure and she was proud to serve in Afghanistan,” the statement said.
Blais had only been in the war-ravaged country two weeks when she became the second Canadian woman killed in action in Afghanistan.
Her vehicle struck an explosive device while on a routine patrol on a well-travelled secondary road northwest of Kandahar City during which no “combat indicators,” had been seen, said her commander, Lt.-Col. Jocelyn Paul.
Two of Blais’s comrades from B Squadron, 12th Armoured Regiment, which is attached to the Van Doo battle group, were “going to be all right” after suffering what Paul described as serious injuries.
The first Canadian woman to die in battle in Afghanistan was Capt. Nichola Goddard of Calgary. A forward artillery observer with the Manitoba-based Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, Goddard was promoted posthumously to major after she was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in May 2006 in a firefight with the Taliban. That incident occurred about 40 kilometres west of where Blais became the 117th Canadian to die in Afghanistan.
Blais’s family said she was a dedicated to her regiment and adored her work.
“You are our sunshine and you will be forever in our hearts,” they wrote.
Mario Blais, the godfather of Trooper Blais, said her death has touched the entire community of Les Mechins, in Quebec’s Gaspe region.
“She was a woman who enjoyed life,” he said.
Blais had been recruited at school and enlisted with a sense of adventure, he said, but ultimately wanted to return to civilian life.
“She just wanted to do this one mission and start her own business,” possibly as an auto mechanic, he said.
Mario Blais said the family has been receiving words of sympathy from across the community of 1,300, where the soldier was well-known for her work at a convenience store.
Donald Grenier, the mayor of the community, said the loss is possibly his town’s first military death since the Second World War.
“Today everybody is deeply touched, it’s hard to explain losing someone so young at the service of the population, fighting for our rights,” he said.
“A youngster in a municipality such as ours is something precious. It is very difficult on all of us.”
Grenier described Blais as a dynamic young woman whose life was cut short after “being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Tributes also poured in on a Facebook page created to honour Blais’s memory.
“I’m shocked,” wrote her cousin, Sarah Harrisson. “It’s a big loss. My beautiful cousin, you will always be in our hearts.”
Mario Blais said his goddaughter leaves behind parents Gino and Josee, as well as a 14-year-old brother, Billy.
Blais’s sex never became an issue for the men who fought against the Taliban alongside her, Paul said Tuesday -she was simply a member of the squadron.
“Yes, when we think of Karine she was a woman, but first and above all, she was a member of the troop, no matter what her gender, her origin or what language she spoke,” Paul said.
Blais’s flag-draped casket was placed on a CC-130 Hercules transport to begin the long journey back to Canada a few hours after Paul received command of the battle group from Lt.-Col. Roger Barrett. Among the eight pallbearers was a fellow female trooper.
The solemn ramp ceremony was attended by about 2,400 allied troops under a star-filled night sky. It began with prayers and ended with a slow procession to the aircraft as a lone piper skirled a lament.
“She left us suddenly,” Padre Martine Belanger, a Catholic lay chaplain, told the assembly. “It is difficult to collect our thoughts after such a rough and unexpected shock.”
Those who knew Blais remarked on her energy and how she cared for others, Belanger said. “She was crazy about Hugo, her partner, whom she liked to call Kermit . . . and about Molly, her favourite dog,” she said.
Paul spoke moments after his Quebec-based 2nd battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment Battle Group officially took over responsibility for Kandahar from the Ontario-based 3rd battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group at the airfield outside the provincial capital, which serves as the main Canadian headquarters.
Before Blais’s departure, Paul told reporters: “It is obvious that when you lose a soldier everyone is under shock. Some people can make the comment that yes, she was a female. What I would like to say is that the Canadian army has come a long way over the last 15 years. Right now, you can see women serving in every type of environment.
“These women show a lot of courage. They are here standing shoulder to shoulder with all the men in the battle group. Very often, especially with the younger ones, we don’t make much difference now in terms of sex.”
“There is a time to grieve,” Paul said. “Today, we have been thinking about her. Tomorrow, we will continue with the mission.”
In remarks directed toward “the people of Quebec, to Franco-Ontarians and the people of New Brunswick,” Paul said: “There are real and important challenges in the province of Kandahar. My organization is prepared to meet them. The training we had was of a remarkable quality and the handover with the RCR was better than I have ever seen before.”
The Van Doo are to be in Kandahar until next September or October.
The RCR battle group the French-Canadian regiment has replaced lost 19 soldiers during its tour in Kandahar, which began late last summer.