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His work begins when a Canadian soldier's life ends

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

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?'"

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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.

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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 cort├Ęge 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.

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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."

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.

In a further collision of circumstance, Kieran Johnston belongs to Lt. Boyes's battalion, the Edmonton-based 3rd Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and will serve as an escort at his funeral today in Saskatoon. As such, he will help finish what his father started 10 days ago, a task the elder Johnston has performed day and night, on weekends and over Christmas, during 14 months on the job.

"We call it a bell-ringer," says Capt. Johnston, a burly and gregarious bald-headed man with a snow-white handlebar mustache. He suffered a torn heart valve while serving with the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia in 2004, which explains why he now rides a desk.

His current role would appear every bit as heart-rending, as would his "hobby" running, a charity he founded to help injured soldiers. Still, Capt. Johnston insists these things have only done him good.

"This job has been the most difficult emotionally, but let me tell you, it's been good for my soul," he says. "It makes you love your wife. It makes you appreciate what you've got a lot more."

For starters, he's got Kieran's visits home to anticipate. Their father-son bond has been drawn a bit tighter by their common occupation, its perils notwithstanding.

There are trips to the Whitby, Ont., cenotaph every Nov. 11, where friends always greet him, though they can't see the medals stashed in his pocket, his great-uncle's from the First World War.

On those dark, predawn mornings, there are breakfasts with his wife, Clare, no matter how ungodly the hour, and her kisses to send him out the door.

And on repatriation days in Trenton, there is time to unwind on the drive home to Brooklin, where Clare, a nice dinner, a bottle of wine and his pristine '66 Mustang await.

Home is toward Toronto, but Capt. Johnston won't take the 401, the Highway of Heroes. Not now; hopefully not ever.

"I have a son in the Forces," he says.

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