Just days before Canadian Captain Jonathan Snyder died accidentally while on patrol in southern Afghanistan, the 26-year-old was credited with saving the lives of several soldiers during a risky operation in a dangerous area of southern Afghanistan.
"Because of his heroic leadership under intense fire, there are many Canadians and Afghans that are alive to fight tomorrow," Major Robert Ritchie told reporters last night, after serving as a pallbearer during a sombre ramp ceremony under a crescent moon at Kandahar Air Field.
Capt. Snyder, a member of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry based in Edmonton, died Saturday night after falling down a deep well during a night patrol in Zhari district of Kandahar province.
The soldier, on his second Afghan tour of duty, was engaged to be married in December to his high-school sweetheart, Megan Stewart. The couple had only recently sent out their wedding invitations.
They met while both were attending Penticton Secondary School in the South Okanagan region of British Columbia. "They were together for 10 years," his grieving mother, Anne Snyder, recalled yesterday.
"He told me: 'Mom, I can't ask her to marry me, until I'm ready [for her] She's going to be my life partner. ... How can I commit if I'm going to war?' " But he finally proposed while the two were on a Christmas vacation last year in Costa Rica.
Capt. Snyder died in the same rural area where, a few days ago, his group of soldiers had become isolated and attacked on three sides by insurgents firing guns. Despite the withering fire, he led the soldiers to safety.
Thousands of NATO soldiers attended the ceremony to mark the beginning Capt. Snyder's journey back to Canada. More than a dozen Afghan National Army soldiers also paid their final respects.
"They fight side-by-side beside us, and they are certainly affected by this," explained Colonel Jean-François Riffou, commanding officer of a military unit that mentors and trains Afghan soldiers.
Capt. Snyder is the second officer to die while on duty in the war-ravaged country in less than a week, and the 85th Canadian soldier overall to be killed in the warring country.
Ms. Snyder said her son, the younger of two boys in the family, excelled at sports, endurance runs and military training.
"He was a Renaissance man. He loved the theatre. He loved white-water rafting. He loved singing" she said, tearfully. "He was a gentle man, but a strong man, and he had no fear. I called him my soldier with soul."
She said her son had wanted to be a soldier since the age of 12.
Still, he had not been that keen on returning to Afghanistan for a second tour, Ms. Snyder said. "But he told me; 'This is what I'm doing. I'm a professional soldier. And Mom, don't ever fear for me. This is where I'm supposed to be.' "
He was motivated, she said, by a deep desire to honour and mentor the soldiers he fought with. He was in Afghanistan when close friend Nichola Goddard became the first Canadian female combat soldier killed in battle, she said, and he lost soldiers in his platoon as well.
"He looked after them. He saved Afghan guys too," she said, noting that he once saved an Afghan by using a tourniquet to stop him from bleeding to death after his leg had been blown off.
Capt. Snyder's father, David, said the matter was too upsetting for him to talk about. "It's about the tragedy of a young man's death, a beautiful young man who's now a memory."
While soldiers are equipped with night-vision technology, the military is releasing few details surrounding the events leading up to Capt. Snyder's death. Zhari district is a maze of grape and wheat fields and mud compounds, and a hornet's nest of insurgent activity.
After Capt. Snyder fell into the well around 9 p.m., the rest of his patrol tried to pull him out as they radioed for help, said Brigadier-General Denis Thompson, commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. The well, which was part of a larger irrigation system of wells that Afghans call a kariz, was at least 20 metres deep. Soldiers routinely wear equipment weighing 35 kilograms or more.
Eventually, medical, engineering and search-and-rescue equipment and military personnel were brought to the scene and Capt. Snyder was pulled from the well.
His mother said she hopes her son doesn't become just another Afghan statistic. "Nobody really knows what he was like. Nobody knows what he could have been. He had a whole future ahead of him. He was just doing his duty."