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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 ...

In the darkness before dawn, the call of duty comes to Wayne Johnston's bedside table in Brooklin, Ont., where his BlackBerry is always turned on.

The news is never good.

"When that damn thing rings at three o'clock in the morning, I know they're not asking what my sleep patterns are," Captain Johnston says. "I'm at the point now where I just go, 'How many?'"

The number is important. It dictates how many calls he'll make, how many e-mails he'll send, how many picture frames he'll pull from the two-thirds-empty Staples box that sits in the corner of his cramped Toronto office.

Capt. Johnston, 51, is the Casualty Administration Officer for the Canadian Forces. Since September of 2008, it's been his job to organize the timely and dignified return of soldiers who die in Afghanistan.

Just don't direct the same question - how many - at him.

"I don't count them," he says. "I really don't want to know."

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In fact, Capt. Johnston has helped bring home more than a quarter of the 133 soldiers killed since 2002, when Canada's Afghan involvement began. He is the third person since then to fill the casualty administrator's position, which involves co-ordination of all aspects of a fallen soldier's return, from the tarmac ceremony at Trenton, Ont., through the requisite autopsy in Toronto, to the hometown burial and beyond, as the estate is settled.

"This job has shredded a couple of guys," he says, then checks himself. "Not shredded, but it's hard on people."

Lonely as his role can feel, Capt. Johnston, who sold cars and served as a part-time reservist before taking a full-time position with the Forces a decade ago, has plenty of company. He is one among a large but little-known group of Canadians, military and civilian, whose work begins when a soldier's life ends.

They are the chaplains dispatched to families' homes to deliver the news, and the assisting officers who stay behind to guide them through a process that can run into months, sometimes years. In the short term, that includes arranging travel and hotels for relatives who attend Trenton ceremonies and the subsequent funerals. Later, they might help sort out job-related formalities with the Department of National Defence.

They are funeral professionals from a Toronto company contracted by the military, MacKinnon and Bowes, who play a key, though low-key, logistical role. Every time a soldier dies, two funeral directors travel to Europe or the Middle East to prepare the remains for the journey home, and to collect the soldier's personal items for safekeeping.

In Canada, they chauffeur relatives between airports, hotels and Trenton, deliver the flag-draped coffins to the Office of the Chief Coroner in Toronto, then prepare and send the remains on to the soldier's hometown, by road or by air.

And they are forensic pathologists, who conduct autopsies and glean information military scientists might use to improve equipment and save lives.

The entire death-to-burial process, which typically lasts eight to 10 days, involves countless others and is fraught with details, from the provision of a pressed burial uniform, to the assembly of snack baskets for the limousines and the organization of police support for the Highway of Heroes cortège between Trenton and Toronto.

From everyone involved, it demands equal parts professionalism and compassion, an elusive balance for anyone, but all the more pronounced for those whose life's work revolves around death.

For Taylor Leduc, a 25-year-old funeral director with MacKinnon and Bowes, it means long flights on short notice to Germany or Dubai, where the dead are flown from Kandahar, to tend to the corpses of fit, young people of similar age to him.

"It goes through your head," Mr. Leduc says. "It's something you think about often, but I just keep my main focus on caring for them and their families."

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