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Kathy Cirillo, center left, mother of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, follows the casket carrying her son, two days after he was shot dead by a gunman while he guarded the National War Memorial, at the beginning of a procession from Ottawa to Cirillo’s hometown of Hamilton, Ont., on Friday in Ottawa.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Corporal Nathan Cirillo was gunned down while standing guard at the National War Memorial, and for two days the cenotaph was a crime scene. By Friday, though, his fellow sentries resumed their posts for the first time since the attack on the nation's capital.

When the orders came to return to duty at the cenotaph, about 20 soldiers in the sentry program gathered and were asked who wanted to take the first post in what many described as a show of strength in the face of tragedy. Every hand shot up.

"For soldiers, it's part of the grieving process," said Major Michel Lavigne, the commanding officer for the Ceremonial Guard.

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The two sentries with the quickest reflexes were given the honour, and on Friday afternoon marched to their positions in a ceremony that drew hundreds, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and General Tom Lawson, the Chief of the Defence Staff. Once at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the guards stoically looked on as bystanders clapped and saluted, one yelling: "We're proud of you! Thank you!"

"I think it's a very powerful message," the Commander of the Canadian Army, Lieutenant-General Marquis Hainse, told The Globe and Mail on the steps of the monument. "It's a good way to show the world that we will not be intimidated. We will carry on."

It was bright and brisk, just as it was on Wednesday morning, when Cpl. Cirillo stood guard alongside his good friend, Cpl. Branden Stevenson. But much has changed since then. A Hamilton family is now in mourning for a 24-year-old single father who only Sunday began his duties at the Ottawa cenotaph.

In their first public statements since the shooting, the Cirillos spoke out Friday evening, describing their loved one – a father, son, brother – as a man who "understood what it meant to sustain freedom."

"He had a strong unwavering devotion to duty," the family said in a statement. "He was fearless. Nathan would have done his duty even if he knew this tragedy was coming. Nathan was Canada's son, he belonged to all of us."

Cpl. Cirillo's body was returned to Hamilton via the Highway of Heroes, a storied stretch of Ontario's Highway 401 named for the fallen soldiers who have travelled there amid outpourings of public grief and support. The Department of National Defence invited Canadians to line the route and pay their respects; flag-bearing onlookers turned out in droves.

Cpl. Cirillo was a reservist from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, and officers there are reeling from his death but taking pause to reflect on fond memories of their friend.

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Master Corporal Devin Kidd first met Cpl. Cirillo when both were members of the Argylls in Hamilton. "He just kind of walked up to me, introduced himself and just smiled and shook my hand," he said. "You know, it was kind of nice."

Last year, MCpl. Kidd moved to Ottawa, where he joined the Governor-General's foot guards and, more recently, became the second-in-command for the sentry program. When Cpl. Cirillo joined the program, MCpl. Kidd trained him.

Cpl. Cirillo loved to talk about his son and often showed friends photos of the boy on his phone. "He was a really nice person and he didn't let anything get him down," said MCpl. Kidd, who is planning to attend next week's funeral in Hamilton. "You know, his priority was his son."

Honorary Colonel Ron Foxcroft, who had known Cpl. Cirillo since 2010, said the man's priorities also included the dog he "absolutely loved" and fitness.

"Cpl. Nathan Cirillo symbolized what the Argylls are all about: He was spirited, enthusiastic, a bear of a man," he said. "He lost his life serving his country, and the country is turning around and rewarding him with a tribute he's worthy of."

He said Cpl. Stevenson, who, he said, chased after the gunman toward Parliament Hill, is getting the support he needs, noting "we're a family." Other Argyll members are receiving counselling as well.

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"The worst thing when you grieve is to feel lonely," he said. "And that's the last emotion we feel here in Hamilton. We feel the country supporting us."

Cpl. Cirillo will be given a full regimental funeral at noon on Tuesday at Christ's Church Cathedral in Hamilton.

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