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The Afghan mission in memoriam

As three more military families face the news of lost loved ones, we tell the story of one Sgt. Robert Short, one of the first Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan

Globe and Mail Update

In preparation for an eight-kilometre afternoon patrol through the dusty Jowz Valley southwest of Kabul, Robert Short spent the morning of Oct. 2, 2003, inspecting the route.

The road was a dirt track woven between desolate hills populated mainly by nomads and goat farmers. It already bore the tire marks of a dozen vehicles used by Canadian engineers who had been checking for land mines for five days without incident.

When he was satisfied the course was safe enough, the 42-year-old sergeant and his troops turned back to Camp Julien, then the base anchoring the Royal Canadian Regiment's 3rd Battalion in Afghanistan, to have his lunch.

Sgt. Short ate and dashed off a note to his wife back at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. He liked to time his e-mails so that Susan, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and was confined to a wheelchair, would have a new one to read when she turned on the computer with her first coffee of the morning. Today, he included something extra, pictures of goods at a local market, and asked her to pick out something he could send home.

After logging off, he gathered his men to go over their orders one last time — Sgt. Short was known for keeping them well prepared, and insisted they memorize the licence-plate numbers of suspected terrorists operating in the area. When the briefing was over, he and five other members of Para Company climbed into two small, unarmored four-by-fours the Canadians used for reconnaissance.

Being the senior member in his group, Sgt. Short rode shotgun in the lead car and, as the convoy set out, he began to belt out Danny Boy. He was known for the song around the base — he had been teaching himself to play it on an old fiddle he brought to Afghanistan — but his vocal rendition was intolerable.

"Shut up!" the other soldiers yelled, laughing. Sgt. Short stopped singing and turned back to the radio he was using to communicate with Master Corporal Jason Hamilton, the lead officer in the second vehicle. They slowed and Sgt. Short's vehicle began inching down the embankment of a shallow, dry river bed.

Then it blew up.

The passenger's side took the brunt of an anti-tank mine — a savage device designed to annihilate much sturdier vehicles. The impact threw the soldiers into the air. As the four-by-four melted and burned, MCpl. Hamilton crawled around in the debris until he reached Sgt. Short and Cpl. Robbie Beerenfenger, the 29-year-old father of three who had been seated directly behind him.

Both men were dead. Sgt. Short was splayed out in the dirt, and "it just looked like he was sleeping. I knew he had a broken leg as I was coming up to him," MCpl. Hamilton recalls. But when he placed a hand on his friend, he could find no pulse. "When I went to start CPR, it was like pushing on a water bed or Jell-O. He was staring right through me."

THE PADRE'S KNOCK

Robert Short and Robbie Beerenfenger were not the first Canadian soldiers to die in Afghanistan — "friendly fire" from a misguided U.S. bomber had claimed four the previous year. But they were the first to be killed by the enemy and their deaths launched a difficult and unfamiliar era for Canada.

Yesterday, three more soldiers died in Afghanistan, bringing the military death toll to 100. It has been more than five decades since the nation has been so heavily invested in a war; casualties on this scale have not been seen since Korea, where more than 500 Canadians were killed before hostilities ended in 1953.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper campaigned for re-election on a promise to draw the curtain on Canada's formal military involvement by 2011. But at the current rate, 50 more lives will be lost by then — a prospect that is particularly cruel for military families. Many of their soldiers signed up to serve when the force was known better for peacekeeping than fighting wars.

And at the outset, Canada's foray into Afghanistan showed no indications of following such a long, grim course. It began in 2002 with a small deployment (a special-forces unit had landed the previous December in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks in the United States). Back then, federal politicians were reluctant to make a long-term commitment, but over time Canada's role ballooned and drew its soldiers to some of the country's most dangerous areas.

Those who have fallen come from all parts of the country, and range from 20-year-olds to a handful of men, like Sgt. Short, twice that age. All the families have suffered the same padre's knock at the door and the same crush of media attention.

That attention soon fades, but the grief does not. For the Short family, only now, five years later, have they begun to open a window on what it's really like to lose a loved one in battle.

They have not done well.

Geographically, they're now closer then they were during the bulk of the sergeant's military years. And yet in many ways, they've never been farther apart.

Shortly after Sgt. Short's death, those who lived outside New Brunswick came back to the Fredericton area. The logic was that having everyone nearby in their hometown might help them all cope. Instead, things grew worse.

"When Rob died, our family just broke apart …," Susan Short says in the first interview she has given since her husband's death. "At the very first, we kind of clung to each other. Then we couldn't do that. It just caused us to bicker. We fought amongst each other," she says, adding: "We knew that's not what Rob would want."

Now, there are no more family get-togethers — no camping trips with nieces and nephews, no reunions and cross-country vacations that Sgt. Short's parents, Murray and Annice, once took so they could spend summers with their son and his family. Their grandson, Josh, now a father himself, visits with his two sons, but they avoid speaking of Rob.

Susan and her 24-year-old daughter, Charissa, remain estranged from Murray and Annice, although last month she visited their home on Remembrance Day for the first time since her husband died. She did it, she says, "for his mother." Although she couldn't venture beyond the kitchen — the rest of the house is plastered with photos of Rob — it was a start.

"I think maybe we're just starting to try to live again," she explains. "Now, we're trying to build a family without him."

It's the last thing they ever expected they would have to do.

'I WAS HIS QUEEN'

In the fall of 1979, Susan Fullarton was 21 and working the day shift at what was then Fredericton's only Tim Hortons when she noticed that a young man from a nearby auto-body shop was making an awful lot of coffee runs.

"He started coming before work. Then he'd bring the coffee order over from work. Then he'd come over at lunch time.

"When he started leaving tips that were more than the coffee he bought, I thought something was up," she says, laughing.

Her hunch was confirmed when Rob Short, a long-haired 17-year-old who had opted for minimum wage over 11th grade, began to show up at the end of her shift, offering to drive her home. There was a catch: They'd have to ride with his mother. It didn't matter. Susan was smitten.

She was a bit older, but "he was different from any guy I had ever been with. He treated me like I was too good for him. He treated me always like I was a princess, like I was his queen." Her coronation became official when the two married after dating for just three months.

"I knew we'd be together forever; no question about that," Susan says. "Everybody said they'd give us six months to be married. We knew right from the get-go it was a matter of commitment and a mindset to be together."

"We knew it wouldn't be easy," she adds in a whisper. "We didn't know how hard it would be."

Their first intimation came early, just over a year after the birth of their second son.

To make ends meet, Rob had taken to working several jobs, ranging from labouring at the local lumber mill to putting in shifts at a hotel.

"To put food on the table, he'd do anything he had to do," Susan says. "It was hard to make very much money. But he would do anything to make what we needed to live."

She chipped in, finding work for the hours her husband was at home. When they couldn't afford a decent apartment, Rob decided to apply to the military, and the couple settled with sons Joshua Robert, then 3, and Jacob Murray, 15 months, at a trailer park near his parents' house in New Maryland, just south of Fredericton.

Then one night, not long after repairs had been done to their trailer's electrical connection, the Shorts were watching television as their boys slept — Josh in the front room and Jacob in the back — when a familiar smell filled the room.

"We saw the smoke coming out of the back bedroom," Susan says. "Rob said to me, 'You get Josh, I'll get the baby.' And I did what I was told. And he didn't come out. And when he did, he didn't have the baby with him," she recalls, sobbing. "He said he reached in there and there was no crib."

The night of the fire, Rob's mother was working the dispatch line at the Fredericton hospital. She recognized his voice instantly when his call for an ambulance came through. Twenty-five years later, the memory still brings Annice to tears. "I said, 'Rob, what do you need an ambulance for?' He said it was for Susan. She had gone into shock."

Shaking her head, she says, "You don't think things will happen to you — but they do."

Rob now lies beside his son in the New Maryland cemetery, both graves marked with white wooden crosses. "I thought I'd never recover from that," Susan says. "I thought that was the hardest thing I'd ever have to deal with."

Her father-in-law, a retired provincial forest ranger, felt the loss doubly, feeling his son's pain as well as grieving for his grandson. "That was something that really brought me down to my knees, and him too," Murray Short says. "I loved the boy just like he loved him. That little blond-headed guy used to take me by the fingers and walk me across the lawn. To have this happen …"

The tragedy created a special bond between father and son. "He had to have what I could give him … which wasn't much because I felt bad myself. But we got through it. I think that time really sewed us together."

NO LIFE LIKE IT

Before long, Rob Short was cleared to join the military, but he decided it was too soon. Terrified of another fire, young Josh had taken to sleeping on his bedroom floor with his nose at the crack under the door, and Susan was battling the emotional ups and downs of her pregnancy with Charissa. Instead, he started a logging company with his brother, Mitchell, and spent several years working hard to build the business until it sank under the weight of a hard winter and the closing of the local lumber mill.

By then, Rob was 28 and life at nearby CFB Gagetown seemed more attractive than ever.

"With no other education, what other choices are around? There were very few," Susan says. "Rob never graduated high school … he couldn't get anywhere with no education — and he wanted more for our family. We barely could live day to day, month to month. We didn't know if we were going to have a place to live, put groceries on the table. He was tired of living like that.

"He did this for our family. This was a job finally that he could retire with a pension."

Neither of them had any reservations about military life. Not only did Rob have an uncle who had spent his entire career in the military without going to battle, the Cold War was ending and Canada had cultivated a global reputation for peacekeeping.

"War never came up. When he joined, the gentleman said, 'It's just like an 8-to-5 job.' War was not an issue."

The transition was hard. A decade older than most recruits, Rob was too much a family man to horse around in basic training. "We had never spent one night apart when he joined the army," Susan says. "When I was in the hospital having the babies, he stayed with me."

Even now, the memory of Rob's reaction to learning he would have to spend a long weekend away from her and the kids during basic training makes her laugh. "He cried when he called to tell me."

Then after swallowing the lumps basic training is designed to deliver, her husband underwent a transformation. "He became the man I knew he was. This gave him a purpose. This gave him something he knew he could do. He became a very confident man."

That confidence propelled him through peacekeeping tours in Cyprus and Yugoslavia. In his third year of service, he was promoted to corporal.

By the mid-1990s, Susan had become adept at balancing the demands of her new life, basically that of a single parent whenever Rob was gone.

But then she started to lose the feeling in her legs, and wondered if she had had a stroke.

"I thought maybe it was just because I was working too much," she says. "Then it kept going up higher to my knees, then to my hips. Then I couldn't co-ordinate my legs to take steps."

In 1996, with Rob posted to Bosnia, the diagnosis was made: multiple sclerosis. When he returned that summer, Susan needed a cane to get around. But by the time he was assigned to join the 3rd Battalion in Petawawa the same year, her condition had declined enough that they were forced to ask for a house that could accommodate a wheelchair.

In Ontario, Rob was promoted again, to master corporal, and spent his first few years there focusing on adding courses and qualifications to his résumé instead of travelling, so he could help his family grapple with Susan's illness. He became a qualified sniper and paratrooper.

At home, he took extra care to ensure she was never left out of family activities because of her wheelchair and often dragged her down to the beach on a sled.

"We'd go tenting; it didn't matter. He'd figure out a way to make that tent so I could put my wheelchair in," she says.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

In 2000, the Short family deepened its commitment to the military when Josh, then 20, enrolled. He remembers his father standing at his side when the paperwork was signed. "Military was very important to him. He loved what he did. He enjoyed it very much, seeing me go in the right direction, seeing me off on my own, becoming a man, I guess."

Stationed at CFB Gagetown, Josh fell for a young combat engineer named Mariebeth Wilkins. The two soon were married by a justice of the peace, but six months later, she was assigned to Petawawa.

The distance was hard on the relationship, so Josh began to angle for a posting in Ontario, and the two decided to hold a "real" marriage ceremony. But Josh arrived for it only to be told that Mariebeth now wanted a divorce, not a wedding; she was seeing someone else.

Stunned, Josh flew back to Gagetown, and began to drink. Two weeks later, he received news that plunged him into an even darker space. "A padre came to my door."

She came on her motorbike — female, red hair, glasses," he recalls. "Imagine, a padre in my house. Black ceiling, blood red walls — my roommate was a goth at the time."

From there, things go fuzzy. "Then she just, I don't remember. She said Mariebeth passed away, I guess."

His wife had been sitting behind the driver when an armoured vehicle rolled during a training exercise, leaving her with fatal head injuries.

For the second time that month, Josh found himself aboard a plane to Petawawa, where he had to endure Mariebeth's funeral alongside the man who had replaced him. With his parents' support, he got through it, but on his own at Gagetown, he began to unravel. "I came back here and started drinking. I showed up to work drunk all the time."

With electronic access to their son's bank records, Rob and Susan knew he was slipping. "We could tell where the money was going: liquor stores, hotels where he'd spend the night by himself, drinking," his mother says.

Rob began sneaking money out of his son's account on Fridays so he wouldn't blow it all on the weekend. On Monday, when Josh was sober again, the money would be put back. Eventually Rob grew so concerned that he took vacation time and flew to New Brunswick and spent a week helping Josh get back on his feet.

Unconvinced that he had pulled Josh out of his tailspin, Rob asked his father to keep a close eye on his son, who was barely hanging on to his military posting.

SENSE OF DOOM

Back in Petawawa, it wasn't long before the prospect of an Afghan tour came up. Rob felt he couldn't refuse the job — he already regretted having taken a pass on the first deployment of Canadian soldiers.

"He always had a choice because of me," Susan says. "He said he was unhappy staying back. And I would never hold him back again. He was a soldier. He figured he could make a difference."

Still, many family members and friends sensed that Rob felt differently about this tour.

With Susan, he insisted on discussing the possibility that he might not return. "It was the first time he ever talked with me about the 'what ifs.' Every other time he went on tour, he'd say, 'I hate saying goodbye. We'll just say see you later, see you after work.' This time was different. I think he had a sixth sense. Why would he mention it this time?"

He was "nervous for the first time ever," Susan says. "He said the Canadian army didn't know what they were getting into, that they weren't taking it seriously enough. He didn't think that they were trained well enough."

At a party in Petawawa, Sgt. Short pulled aside his host, Jason Hamilton, who would be in the vehicle behind him the day he died, for a private conversation. "He said to me, 'Jay, whatever you do, bring the guys home,' " MCpl. Hamilton recalls, adding that those words haunted him afterward.

"Whatever Rob said meant something," he explains. "The next guy could tell you the same thing and it would just be taken with a grain of salt. From Rob ... there was meaning to everything he said. Did I get the feeling that he had an intuition? Yeah, for sure."

Murray Short says he believes that "Robbie knew he wasn't coming back. Now, he wasn't a guy who wanted to die, but he did know that he wasn't coming back." Before shipping out, his son made a last trip home to New Brunswick and draped a lanyard with St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of paratroopers, on the small white cross marking Jacob's grave.

Mr. Short found the ornament only much later when he went to say goodbye to his son. It surprised him because he had never considered Rob sentimental or superstitious before other tours. "This one was different, different right from the start."

Because of the four soldiers lost to the U.S. bomber, families at Petawawa were already on edge, Susan recalls. "There were times … all your neighbours were waiting to see whose door the padre might come to. And you didn't want it to be your door, but you didn't want it to be your neighbour's door, either.

"I never imagined it would ever be my door."

'I KNEW IT'

The knock came two months into Rob's tour, between 8 and 9 in the morning.

"My home-care worker had just arrived. I had my breakfast and I was having my coffee. Rob would send me an e-mail in the mornings or during his lunch break. … After I'd had my breakfast, I'd take my morning coffee down and sit in front of the computer and I'd read what he sent me. And I'd done that.

"The mail said he had been out on his morning patrol and he'd come in and had his lunch, and he was just going out for afternoon patrol."

As she was looking at the photos he had sent from the market, she heard pounding at her front door. "I had to come up the hallway to answer the door and I could see them standing there. There's the padre and the two guys behind him. It was just like I had imagined, like the day you see that they have in the movies."

Terrified to open the door, Susan began wheeling herself backward down the hall.

"I knew it wasn't going to be good news, because I knew," she says. "You know. You know when you see them there."

Eventually, the care worker forced her to open the door.

"I said, 'Don't tell me. Please don't tell me.' And after that, I can't remember anything but screaming. And screaming, and screaming, and screaming and screaming."

On the other side of the country, Josh was in the midst of moving into an apartment in Oromocto, the small town next to Gagetown, with his new girlfriend, Alison, when his bosses and a padre showed up.

"I had the cable guy there. I thought I was getting in trouble at first," he recalls. "I wish I was getting in trouble."

Even worse than finding out was having to cross the road to the call centre where his grandmother worked. "I had to tell her that her son died. I figured it would be better that way than finding out from a stranger, or from the news."

Over the phone, Annice broke the news to Murray, who was changing door knobs at his sister's house. "Right away, the shock set in, and you don't want to believe it and think it couldn't be true," he says. "But you know it is true because, over the last while, we were half-expecting something to happen."

Then life began to hollow out.

"It just seems to be a piece of you that's not there, just a piece out of you that, no matter what, you can't fill that in …," Mr. Short says, more than five years after the fact. "I can't overcome it. I've been able just to get by. I think we're all pretty much the same."

Signs that the Short family would fray in Rob's absence appeared early. At a meeting to plan his memorial service, discussion turned to whether Danny Boy should be played. Susan was in favour — not only had he taught himself to play it on a fiddle they had bought together at an antique market, she had just learned from his colleagues that he had been singing it before the explosion.

"I had to have it played at his memorial service," she says. "It kind of hit a note with some of the guys."

But for Mr. Short, that note was too painful — Rob had played it to him over the phone. "I said, 'Susan, I can't handle that.' But she had it played. What do you do? You just grit your teeth and get through it."

In the weeks that followed — already difficult because they marked Rob's mid-October birthday, Remembrance Day and then Christmas — a jurisdictional tug-of-war erupted between the household Rob had built and the one in which he had grown up. There were quarrels over who should have the contents of packages he had sent that arrived weeks after his death and, as Susan's relatives helped move her into a new house in Fredericton, arguments over which of his possessions should be kept.

A low point came when Mr. Short found himself rifling through a dumpster outside Susan's house to gather some of his son's belongings he thought should not be thrown out. "You've got to have something to hold on to," he says. "That's the trouble. It got so I didn't know if I was going to have anything to hold on to."

Murray's home was already bursting with reminders — baby pictures, military photos, a computer Rob had bought for them on eBay, a file filled with e-mail printouts, drawers of old clothing, knick-knacks he mailed home, even an old oil painting he had done — but he still felt there wasn't enough.

"At the beginning, everything I had or anything that I could get a hold of that was with Robbie, you know, a part of Robbie, I never wanted to give it up. I still haven't," Mr. Short says.

Meanwhile, Susan was grappling with the bitter sweetness of finally moving into the "dream home" she and her husband had fantasized about for years — without him.

"Rob had told me that, if anything should happen to him, he said for me to come back to New Brunswick, build the house … fill it with the antiques we loved and get on with my life," she says. "I'm glad he did that. That was the only reason I survived. He told me what to do. I knew I had to go home. I had to build this house."

Compensation from the military allowed her to make the home slightly larger than planned, as well as wheelchair-accessible, and to pay cash for it. And yet "it's so empty. I'd trade it in a heartbeat for him to come back. I'd live in a shack if it was with him."

For the first year in the house, she could hardly bear to look at his photograph (an enlargement now hangs at eye level near the dining-room table). Just getting out of bed in the morning seemed impossible, so she began to lean on her sisters, who live nearby, and was happy to let communications with the Short side of the family trickle off.

Living alone at Gagetown, Josh sped toward rock bottom. "I started wanting to kill myself. ... The times I wanted to, I'd just think, if I go, what's my mom going to have left?'"

THE ROAD AHEAD

It's said that time can heal all wounds, but for the Shorts, this has been only partly true. As individuals, they have learned how to fill their days. As a family, they remain rudderless.

After Rob's death, Susan lived in relative isolation. Then, in a stunning development last spring, a new medication allowed her to walk again, and she now seems to be moving on — attending church with a new group of friends, redecorating her home and relishing her new-found mobility.

And yet she can still be melancholy. "I'm just waiting for my turn," she confesses one day.

Across town at the other Short household, a yellow bungalow tucked into the countryside just south of Fredericton, the weight of Rob's absence is everywhere. His pictures and memorabilia are spread across nearly every surface, including a life-sized photograph that is grainy from being enlarged too much. But that doesn't matter to his parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, who often gather for weekend breakfasts and dinners — they prefer to be surrounded by him. Still, his memory isn't enough to keep the group from slipping into a collective depression that begins at the first signs of red in the trees and dissipates only after the Christmas decorations have been packed away.

Soft-spoken Annice, now a cashier at the south-side Wal-Mart, spends a lot of time out of the home. "She can't get enough of talking to people," her husband says.

Alone in the house, he found solace in oil painting and, outside, flying Canadian flags. "Lowering it and raising it so many times, that's when it really hits home just how many people are dying," he says.

"Robbie made me realize more of being a Canadian … carrying the flag was one of the No. 1 things for him. I have three out here now. It's a wonder I don't have more. Every time I see a flag flying, I think of him."

Mr. Short says he has been surprised by the impossibility of the healing process.

"When this happened, I really didn't think I was going to make it through the first day. I felt it may do me in," he says. Last March, he suffered a heart attack. In his mind, he flip-flopped over whether he was happy to have survived it or not.

"I find it impossible to move on for myself," he says, hinting that he has become more hopeful: "After a while, you look around and you see your grandkids and your own family, and you realize there's something else here I've got to live for too. That starts you in another direction."

For Josh, having his own family has been the only antidote. He left the military after his father died and, in 2004, Alison gave birth to the couple's first son, Jaycob. They now have a second child, 15-month-old Justice.

Having a baby finally pulled Josh out of his fog and set him on a path that is remarkably similar to that of his father. Having had scant success supporting his family as a civilian, Josh decided to try re-enlisting.

"I've been out for over five years now," he says. "I had to start growing up, becoming a man. The kids will benefit. They'll get the life I want to provide for them, a stable home and food on the table. … We won't have to worry about it."

Josh is not afraid of going to Afghanistan, although he worries what would happen to his mother if he were killed too. "She's lost so much already. If something happened to me … she might feel like she doesn't have anything if I go.

"I'm hoping not, because she has two beautiful grandsons now to keep her going. I've got to try to keep that in the back of my head and do this for my family."

It appears that, for now, the military will prevent him from offering himself up. His application was rejected recently on medical grounds, partly because of his struggle with depression.

But Susan says she's at peace with the fact her son may some day go to war. "I have no ill feelings for the military and I don't live in fear, I don't live that way," she explains. "I believe when your time is up, your time is up. I believe the Lord will protect you, wherever you are. If He means for you to go, you'll go."

Jessica Leeder is a Globe and Mail reporter based in Toronto. She recently spent several weeks covering the war in Afghanista

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