Kandahar, Afghanistan -
Under a bright desert moon, the latest Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan began one last journey home, leaving behind the long shadows and grim faces of his comrades at Kandahar Airfield.
Sgt. James MacNeil, of Glace Bay, N.S., was on his fourth and final tour of the battle-racked country when he was killed Monday by an improvised explosive device - the very weapon the 28-year-old combat engineer was tasked with seeking out and defeating.
His fellow soldiers hoped to take some sort of inspiration from MacNeil's death, which came in much the same way so many others have before: on a dusty road during a routine foot patrol, this one near the village of Nakhonay, 20 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city.
"To a man, we were all affected and many continue to struggle and cope with his death," fellow combat engineer Maj. Jim Smith said today during an early-morning ramp ceremony at the sprawling military base.
"We continue to fight the good fight in his honour, in his memory. We all must believe that we do this for him."
Less than 24 hours before his death, MacNeil and his girlfriend got engaged long-distance and began making plans for a wedding and a new home.
"It'll be a tremendous loss, and I know it's going to be hard for us to recover from this, but he will always be remembered by those he was closest to as a guy who loved life, loved his friends and loved Laura, his fiancee," Smith said.
Some 1,200 Canadian, Dutch, American and British troops marched smartly onto the tarmac, standing at rigid attention while the light armoured vehicle transporting MacNeil's body slowly made its way onto the airfield.
To the familiar skirl of bagpipes, the casket - shrouded, as always, in a Canadian flag - was carried to a waiting military transport by eight of MacNeil's fellow soldiers.
The Panjwaii district, which is home to Nakhonay, has long been a thorn in the side of the Canadian soldiers in Kandahar province. Countless operations have taken place in Panjwaii, but all too often the Taliban returned after the Canadians left.
The region remains something of a Taliban refuge, with mud-walled compounds, grape orchards and vast fields of marijuana and poppies offering abundant hiding places, both for foot soldiers and for the IED-making operations that produce their most insidious weapon.
In remembering his friend, Smith chose to focus on MacNeil's life, rather than his death.
"I've known Jimmy for many years, since 2001 in fact, and I've always loved his sense of humour - he always tried to be the centre of attention, whether intentionally or not, and he was always the centre of the party," Smith recalled with a smile.
"But I can assure you, he was well-liked and well-respected by all his officers, peers and soldiers alike."
In a statement Tue-sday, family members said MacNeil was an outgoing and loving young man who died doing something he believed in.
"He loved his military career and at the time of his death was on his fourth operational deployment to Afghanistan," the statement said.
"He believed that his career in the military and his deployments to Afghanistan would contribute to a better life for the Afghan people."
MacNeil is the 148th Canadian Forces member to die as part of the Afghan mission since it began in 2002. Two civilians - diplomat Glyn Berry and journalist Michelle Lang - have also been killed.