On the day before the 100th anniversary of the navy, Petty Officer Second Class Craig Blake became the first Canadian sailor to be killed in Afghanistan.
PO2 Blake, 37, was killed Monday by an improvised explosive device as he returned to camp from a routine road-clearing operation in Panjwai District southwest of Kandahar city.
He was a member of an elite navy group that specializes in neutralizing bombs, underwater and on land. Based at the Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic in Halifax, PO2 Blake had arrived in Afghanistan just a few weeks ago to serve as part of a team that defuses IEDs, the Taliban's weapon of choice against foreign soldiers.
He had successfully completed his mission near the village of Pay-e-Moluk on Monday when IED detonated as he walked on foot.
PO2 Blake, who is married with two sons, was born in Simcoe, Ont. He is the 143rd Canadian soldier to die as part of the Afghan mission since it began in 2002.
Captain Stuart Moors, assistance chief of staff for personnel and training at Maritime Forces Atlantic, said PO2 Blake has 10 years been what is known as a "clearance diver." They are trained to diffuse and remove explosives underwater. The also perform underwater salvage, and know how to dispose of explosives above the water.
In Atlantic Canada, they sometimes use their skills to defuse Second World War bombs that still occasionally wash up on beaches, Capt. Moors said.
When operations began in Afghanistan, the navy sent clearance divers to help with the search and disposals of IEDs. A special one-year training program was established at the military base in Petawawa, Ont. and 52 clearance divers have been sent overseas, including PO2 Blake.
"It's about as dangerous work as you can get," Capt. Moors said.
He said the diving unit in Halifax, where PO2 Blake was a member, is comprised of only a few dozen individuals, and his death is being "taken pretty rough by that small close-knit community."
PO2 Blake was remembered Tuesday as a devoted husband and father with a sense of humour and a penchant for poker, who also loved to coach Pee Wee hockey,.
"One conversation was all it took to both like and respect him," Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard, Commander of Task Force Kandahar, said in a statement.
"Jokingly known as the 'Poker Pirate,' he enjoyed pillaging his army friends during friendly card games. He had a great smile and a genuine laugh …" the commander said.
"Incredibly fit, with a backbone of steel, Craig put 100 per cent into everything he did," he added.
Speaking in Halifax Tuesday , Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk called the navy's anniversary a "bittersweet day," because of the death of PO2 Blake.
"It's a day of joy and thanks for the great service of all these sailors but also recognizing the sacrifices of the century and the sacrifice yesterday of Petty Officer Blake on the other side of the world," Gen. Natynczyk said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor-General Michaëlle Jean both expressed sympathies to PO2 Blake's family and friends. His body will be flown home to Canada after a ramp ceremony at Kandahar Airfield, arriving at CFB Trenton on Thursday afternoon.