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Grief-stricken relative questions Afghan mission

The Globe and Mail

TORONTO AND KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Trooper Karine Blais expected to buy a house with her boyfriend when she returned from Afghanistan in the fall. Instead, her death left a small Quebec town grieving yesterday and a distressed uncle saying that she died in vain.

The second Canadian female soldier to die in combat in Afghanistan, the 21-year-old Quebecker was in an armoured vehicle that struck an improvised bomb Monday.

One of her uncles said her death reinforced his belief that the Canadian presence in Afghanistan was futile.

"I am against it. I was against it and I am even more against it today. I wonder what we're doing there," Mario Blais told CTV News, describing her death as a tear-filled nightmare for the family.

"I knew the Russians couldn't win over there so I don't think the Canadian army could win over there. I was more in favour of the blue helmets, peacekeeping missions, not front-line missions."

In a communiqué issued after the uncle spoke, the trooper's parents stated their support for her work.

"Despite the terrible news of her sudden passing, Karine achieved her challenge. She wanted to be part of this adventure. She was proud to serve in Afghanistan. She often asked her mother: 'Mom, are you proud of me?'." the communiqué said.

"Yes, we remain proud of you, despite our sadness."

A cousin, Sarah Harrisson, explained that the family had been torn between supporting Trooper Blais, and fearing for her safety.

"There's no one in the family who wanted her to leave. But she has a big heart and wanted to help people," Ms. Harrisson said. "As soon as she enlisted, she was proud of it. She had found her vocation. She wasn't afraid. She died doing something good for her country."

Trooper Blais was two weeks into her overseas tour. Her boyfriend, Hugo, was a former member of the Canadian Forces. The couple planned on buying a home after her Afghan rotation, said another uncle, Georges-Henri.

Trooper Blais is survived by her parents, Gino Blais and Josée Simard, a grandmother, Laurette, and a 14-year-old brother, Billy.

She grew up in Les Méchins, a coastal village at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, 460 kilometres downriver from Quebec City.

Her father, Gino, is a shipyard welder. To attend high school, she had to make a 40-minute commute to the biggest town in the region, Matane.

It was after seeing a recruitment poster at her high school that she enlisted, at 18, Ms. Harrisson said.

She joined the armoured branch and went to Kandahar with B Squadron of the 12th Armoured Regiment, a reconnaissance unit equipped with Coyote armoured vehicles.

"She really liked the challenge, driving those big vehicles," said Georges-Henri Blais, recalling how his niece described her training at Fort Bliss, in Texas, where the desert-like setting replicated conditions in southern Afghanistan.

The death of such a young woman, the first casualty from the current CFB Valcartier rotation, was quickly noted in the Quebec media.

"When you hear that she's from Valcartier, that she bid goodbye to her family, now a farewell, just two weeks ago, it hits you more. When you have a daughter nearly her age, you imagine the pain and the feeling of powerlessness her parents must feel," Jean-Pascal Beaupré, an editorial writer for La Presse, wrote on a blog.

"It's obvious that when you're losing a soldier, everybody is under shock," Lieutenant-Colonel Jocelyn Paul, the commander of the Canadian battle group in Kandahar, said in an interview yesterday.

"Obviously there is a time to grieve. Today we are thinking about her … tomorrow we will continue with the mission."

He spoke before the ramp ceremony where, against the dark Afghan night sky, 10 soldiers hoisted the flag-draped coffin of Trooper Blais into the belly of a Hercules aircraft, some of their faces reddened and swollen from crying.

Her journey back to Canada began a day after the vehicle she was riding in rolled over a hidden improvised explosive device in Shah Wali Kowt, a remote district north of Kandahar City. Four other soldiers were injured, two of them seriously enough to remain in hospital.

"They were doing a presence patrol, and they couldn't see any combat indicators," Col. Paul said. "They were simply travelling on a road that had been travelled previously and all of a sudden, you know, they hit the IED."

Improvised explosive devices, which militants construct from a variety of materials, including plastic ice chests and gasoline jugs, can be quickly and easily buried beneath roads or hidden in culverts, making them hard to detect. While Canadians have made advances in their ability to detect them, the bombs are still responsible for the majority of Canadian troop deaths in Afghanistan.

Col. Paul commended Trooper Blais for her bravery.

"The Canadian army has come a long way. Right now you can see women serving in every type of environment," he said. "Those women are standing shoulder by shoulder with all the men of the battle group … very often, especially with the younger ones, we don't [differentiate] in terms of sex. Everybody here is a member of a single team."

With a report from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec City

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