Canadian soldiers bid farewell to one of their own at a ceremony at Kandahar Airfield that marked an end to one of the military's longest stretches without a combat death since deploying to southern Afghanistan.
Pallbearers carried the casket of Cpl. Steve Martin across the moonlit tarmac and loaded it onto a military aircraft as the piper's skirl pierced the chilly midnight air.
Cpl. Martin, 24, from 3rd Battalion Royal 22e Regiment, was killed by an improvised explosive device, or IED, while on foot patrol early Saturday afternoon, local time.
He died two days before his 25th birthday.
The deadly attack occurred near a major road construction project that NATO is pushing in a volatile district of Kandahar.
Cpl. Martin was serving with Parachute Company of the 1st Battalion Royal 22e Regiment battle group, based at CFB Valcartier, Quebec.
His company deployed to the restive Panjwaii district last month.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the fallen soldier during this difficult time," said Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner, commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
"We will not forget the sacrifice of this soldier as we continue to bring security and hope to the people of Kandahar province."
Cpl. Martin arrived for his second tour shortly after burying his grandfather in his hometown of Saint-Cyrille-de-Wendover, about 115 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
"It's certainly a shock, especially during the holidays," said the town's mayor, Daniel Lafond.
"This will be a very difficult holiday for the family."
Gaston Laterreur, a neighbour of Cpl. Martin's parents, said the soldier always seemed happy when he returned for a visit.
"He always had a smile on his face when he walked by," he said.
"He was a brave man from a very nice family."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a written statement on behalf of all Canadians extending his deepest sympathies to Martin's family and friends.
"Cpl. Martin was a brave Canadian who made the ultimate sacrifice while proudly serving his country," the statement said.
"Thanks to Canadian Forces members like him, we continue to make real progress in Afghanistan, rebuilding the country and contributing to the peace and security of its people."
Governor General David Johnston also issued a statement offering his deepest sympathies to Cpl. Martin's loved ones.
"Cpl. Martin displayed an admirable sense of duty to Canada, bringing great pride to his unit and to the Forces as a whole," he wrote.
Mr. Johnston added that with Martin's death he now feels the weight of his new responsibilities as commander-in-chief of Canada's Armed Forces.
Cpl. Martin was on patrol near a road that NATO forces are carving in the horn of Panjwaii, an area that until recently was dominated by the Taliban and used as a staging point for attacks toward the provincial capital.
Although most insurgent fighters fled the area during an initial American assault, some bomb-laying cells have continued to operate in the region as tanks and graders lay down the gravel thoroughfare.
There have been daily reports of the Taliban trying to sprinkle the path ahead of the troops with bombs.
Saturday's attack shattered a period of relative calm in the troubled Panjwaii district, where most of Canada's troops are based.
It is the first combat death the army has suffered since Cpl. Brian Pinksen died of wounds in hospital on Aug. 26, four days after being caught in a roadside bombing.
The number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan this year rose to 700 with Cpl. Martin's death. This has been the deadliest year of the war since coalition forces toppled the Taliban nearly a decade ago. The death toll has surpassed a total of 521 soldiers killed in 2009, previously the worst year of the war.
Although the onset of winter has meant a decline in attacks, the army has still suffered a number of wounded.
The Defence Department, however, refuses to report on injuries, claiming that information is an operational secret.
Anecdotally, it is known that at least three soldiers have been wounded since the Valcartier, Que. based Van Doo battle group deployed.
The military would not say if anyone else was wounded in the bombing that claimed Martin's life.
Earlier this month, Canadian and Afghan troops were hunting a two man bomb-making team in the general area of the attack that killed Martin. The soldiers conducted a clearing operation meant to flush them out after two others accidentally killed themselves while hanging an explosive in a tree.
To date, 154 Canadian soldiers have died as part of the Afghan mission. The figure includes combat deaths, suicides and one death by natural causes.
The bombing that killed Cpl. Martin preceded a suicide attack Saturday on the vehicle of an Afghan district chief in the Canadian area of operations.
The attack on District Governor Hamdullah Nazik happened when a car packed with explosives tried to ram his vehicle as he drove home. The bomber missed and plowed into bystanders killing two people, including a child, and wounding 11 others.
Mr. Nazik was unharmed.
Last week, a suicide car bomber struck at the gates of an American outpost in Howz-e-Madad, in Zhari district, killing six soldiers. That area is just across the Arghandab River from Canadian positions.
The Taliban vowed to keep up a winter campaign against NATO forces in southern Afghanistan and last month issued a rare appeal for funds.
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