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Families still struggle to come to terms with loss

Bushra Saeed works through her daily physiotherapy routine at the Rehabilitation Centre in Ottawa.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In a quiet, green suburb of Edmonton, Illes Miok answered his front door. Four military officers were standing outside.

"Is this Mr. Miok?"

"Yes," he said, staggering back a few steps.

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His wife, Anna, came in a few minutes later, clutching a shirt for her son George, a Canadian Forces sergeant serving in Afghanistan.

The officers sitting around the kitchen table told her instinctively that he would never wear it.

"When I took him to the airport on Sept. 22 a year ago, he said, 'One more time, Mom. Let me just lift you up'," Anna Miok recalled through her tears.

"That was the last time I saw him."

For more than 150 Canadian families, the dreaded knock on the front door has signalled the worst kind of news: the death or grievous injury of a son, daughter, spouse or sibling serving in Afghanistan.

One year ago, a light armoured vehicle struck a massive roadside bomb outside Kandahar City, killing five people and injuring five others. To this day, the affected families struggle daily to come to terms with the loss.

"I'm not sure we have the strength to recover," Robin McCormack said during the funeral for his son Zachery, a 21-year-old Canadian Forces corporal from Edmonton who was engaged to his high school sweetheart and had planned to become an electrician.

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"It makes me cry every day that we only have 21 years of memories."

George Miok, 28, an affable, popular phys-ed teacher and part-time bartender from Edmonton, was the crew commander of the LAV which hit the IED, and the youngest of four brothers.

"Our life has never been the same," said his mother. "There's not a moment I don't miss him, our beautiful George."

She still can't bring herself to delete his voicemail message from Sept. 26, 2009, the day he shipped out.

"'Hello Mom and Dad. We're leaving in one hour from Trenton to Kandahar and everything is fine so far. I love you, Mom and Dad.' I keep listening to that message."

In Vancouver, Cam Chidley, whose 21-year-old son Garrett was a private serving in Afghanistan, came home that day to hear his phone ringing.

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"Did you see the two army guys?" asked his partner at the car dealership where they work.

"Buddy, we don't even joke about stuff like that," Mr. Chidley replied. But as soon as he was off the phone, he saw two "big army suits" coming to his front door.

He remembered their exact words: "'There's been a major incident and your son has been killed.'"

"It was mind-numbing," Mr. Chidley said. "Heart-stopping. Unimaginable event for a parent."

Mr. Chidley then had to notify Garrett's mom, Sian Jones LeSueur, who was having friends over and preparing a festive dinner when he showed up at her door.

"All Cam could get out was, 'Gar.' It was like a moan coming out of him," she recalled. "For three days I kept saying, 'I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do. Someone tell me what to do'."


Cameron Lang and his 34-year-old sister Michelle, a reporter for The Calgary Herald, had each become engaged at about the same time, and had spent the spring and summer of 2009 planning their respective weddings. Mr. Lang had taken his parents to Mexico to introduce them to his fiancée's folks. His sister was on assignment in Afghanistan for the first time.

The group had just finished touring a museum exhibit when Mr. Lang received a message on his BlackBerry.

"I remember the next few moments with a sickening clarity - in fact, the moment still haunts me every time my mind wanders back to it," Mr. Lang said.

The message was from Michael Louie, his sister's fiancé. There was only one reason why Mr. Louie would be trying to reach them.

Mr. Louie, meanwhile, had written down what to say: "Early on December 30th, en route to a village outside of Kandahar, Michelle was killed by a roadside bomb."

Mr. Lang fell to his knees. "Tell me you're joking!" he shouted. "Come on. Just tell me you're playing a sick joke! Please!"

The stunned family found itself in the museum lobby, suddenly racked with grief.

"I told her not to go. I told her not to go," Ms. Lang's mother Sandra whimpered, over and over.

* * *

In Orleans, a cozy, well-kept suburb of Ottawa, Amjad and Neelam Saeed were on their way to the mall when they got a call from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Their daughter Bushra, a policy analyst on civilian assignment in Afghanistan, had been hurt in a bomb blast.

Only gradually, through dozens more phone calls and ultimately a visit to her bedside, would the severity of her injuries become apparent.

The blast had pierced her ear drums. A vocal chord was stretched, another paralyzed. The pressure had destroyed her gall bladder. Surgeons had been forced to slice through her stomach muscles to relieve the swelling of her badly bruised insides.

Her pelvis was fractured, the bones in her legs smashed. Her right leg had been amputated just above the knee. The muscle and tissue of the lower part of her left leg had been ripped off. To save the limb, doctors removed muscle from the thigh and reattached it where her calf should have been.

"It's unbelievable," her father said. "It's heart-breaking every minute. Life will never be the same."

* * *

Jones LeSueur spent the first anniversary of her new marriage in the freezing cold last January waiting for her son's body to come off the transport plane from Afghanistan.

She struggled to describe the experience of being in the convoy that carries the caskets along the busy Highway of Heroes that runs between CFB Trenton, Ont., and Toronto - a stretch of road that's now lined with supportive Canadians, many clad in red, waving flags, and shedding tears of sympathy, every time a Canadian soldier's remains are repatriated.

"That, to me, showed respect from all Canadians," she said.

"It's something I'll never forget as long as I live - I don't think anybody really understands until they're actually there in that vehicle."

The family members were unanimous in their praise for how the military handles the difficult work of breaking the news to unsuspecting families, and supporting them through the toughest days.

"What more can they do?" said Anna Miok.

"The only thing I ask from them is that they bring back my George, but they can't do that."

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