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As the Casualty Administration Officer for the Canadian Forces, Captain Wayne Johnston ensures the timely and dignified return of soldiers who die in Afghanistan. (Charla Jones/Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)
As the Casualty Administration Officer for the Canadian Forces, Captain Wayne Johnston ensures the timely and dignified return of soldiers who die in Afghanistan. (Charla Jones/Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)

War and Remembrance

His work begins when a Canadian soldier's life ends in Afghanistan Add to ...

For Norm Purser, a 68-year-old hearse driver who has worked at every Afghanistan repatriation at Trenton, it means taking his cues from the escort soldier in the front seat beside you. That soldier is often a close friend of the deceased, plucked from theatre to follow the coffin home.

"He or she rides with me," says Mr. Purser, who served five years as a military driver in the late 1950s. "I let them start the conversation, and if they don't want to talk, then I keep it to a minimum."

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For Michael Pollanen, Ontario's chief forensic pathologist, it means marvelling at the crowds that form outside the coroner's building to greet the hearses, then setting all that aside when he enters the autopsy suite, where the focus is science, full stop.

Even then, a military autopsy is different, not just for the bomb-related injuries rarely seen in North America, but for all the people present. A typical autopsy might involve a pathologist and two assistants; a soldier's postmortem also includes an X-ray technician, two military investigators, a military doctor, a forensic dentist and occasionally a forensic anthropologist.

Dr. Pollanen won't describe the injuries he's seen, but holds his arms fully outstretched to indicate the range in their severity. This is due to the myriad ways a single, cheaply built improvised explosive device - "a highly variable and protean weapon" - can deliver death.

"The shock wave can cause damage even if you're not directly over the explosion," Dr. Pollanen says, simply by colliding with inflated lungs and causing them to bleed. Shrapnel from a bomb, pieces of an exploded vehicle or loose objects sent flying by a blast can be just as lethal.

In a career that has taken him around the world to probe mass killings and natural disasters, only three circumstances have caused Dr. Pollanen to second-guess his ability to balance emotion with science: violent deaths of children, the assassination of nuns and priests in East Timor, and the deaths of Canadian soldiers.

Asked how one strikes that balance, science eludes him. "I'm not sure you can list an algorithm," he says. "I'm not sure you could explain how you do that."

At the Defence Research and Development Canada facility in Toronto, across the road from Capt. Johnston's office at Land Force Central Area headquarters, Major Stephen Boyne routinely confronts a similarly grim challenge. He convenes a team of experts, every few weeks, to scrutinize the protective gear worn by soldiers killed in action during the previous month.

Coupled with data from analyses of the dead and wounded, they work to improve the equipment. Body armour, for instance, has been extended down the arms to prevent shrapnel passing through limbs and into the chest. Still, these measures only go so far in the face of powerful explosions.

"In all cases to date, the personal protective equipment has done what it is supposed to do," Maj. Boyne says. "As you can imagine, there are things that happen on the battlefield that you cannot put enough armour on a guy to protect him against, and those are the sorts of things that have killed soldiers."

In a windowless office across the road, where Capt. Johnston prepares to repatriate the 132nd soldier killed in Afghanistan amid early reports of another, two framed pictures illustrate his own battle for balance.

The first is a framed 8-by-10 of Lieutenant Justin Garrett Boyes, killed Oct. 28 by an IED while on foot patrol. Capt. Johnston has prepared it for his arrival the next day in Trenton.

The second photo, on his office wall, shows his son, 20-year-old Private Kieran Johnston, who will deploy to Afghanistan in 2011 in Canada's last scheduled combat rotation. He has just qualified as a light-armoured vehicle driver, and LAVs are frequent targets of the kind of improvised bombs that have killed more than half of Canada's Afghanistan war dead.

"Tell me, what's the difference between him and him?" Capt. Johnston asks, leaning back in his office chair, holding Lt. Boyes's photo up to his son's.

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