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Canadian soldier found dead on Afghan base

Globe and Mail Update

Kandahar, Afghanistan — The Canadian military and government remained tight-lipped Friday after a female soldier was found dead in her room at the Kandahar airbase.

A quick ramp ceremony was held Friday and the body of Major Michelle Mendes immediately started the long journey back to Canada.

Investigators are still working to piece together the circumstances of the 30-year-old's death Thursday, meaning few details about the incident or Maj. Mendes herself are being released. However, a military spokesman here did say that "enemy action has been ruled out."

Officials have refused to identify the Ottawa-based soldier's home unit.

They have confirmed that in Afghanistan she was assigned to Task Force Kandahar, Canada's headquarters operation. Her specific trade at headquarters has not been publicly specified and it is unclear how long she had been in theatre.

According to public records, this is not Maj. Mendes' first deployment to Afghanistan. She first deployed here in 2006 as a captain with the Ottawa-based 154 Squadron working in intelligence, according to a community newspaper profile published in August of that year.

In that article, published in the Colborne Chronicle, Maj. Mendes' mother, Dianne Knight, explained that her daughter, who graduated with a history degree in 2001 from Kingston's Royal Military College, wanted "an entire career in the army." Originally, Ms. Knight said in the article, her daughter planned to go into the infantry, but opted instead for intelligence.

"I was thrilled," Ms. Knight said. "It's right up her alley. She spends the majority of her time reading and analyzing things, and she's so good at it."

At the time, Ms. Knight said her daughter's outlook regarding the deployment was positive.

"I wouldn't say she's upset about going at all. A lot of her friends have been and come back, and a lot of her friends were going when she was going. She has a very positive attitude," she said.

Military officials in Kandahar said that Maj. Mendes' family has asked for privacy and will release a statement in the coming days. The 2006 newspaper profile identified her husband as Victor Mendes, who was at the time a soccer coach at RMC.

It is unclear if the pair had any children.

Maj. Mendes' death comes less than two months after Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced a $21-million plan to deliver better care to Canadian soldiers who are suffering from physical or mental wounds, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

The plan was a response to a damning report released last December by the military's ombudsman who slammed the government for being slow to implement better care for soldiers suffering operational stress injuries — a need flagged in 2002.

The military is still struggling with the stigma their culture attaches to mental health problems.

It is unclear whether the death of Maj. Mendes has a mental health component, and those details are likely to remain fuzzy for quite some time. Typically, few details are released about the circumstances of non-combat soldier deaths and media queries about them are often stonewalled due to ongoing military investigations or privacy concerns.

Only four other soldiers have died in non-combat scenarios in Afghanistan since Canada deployed forces here, but details of the cases are scant.

Military officials have only publicly acknowledged two of the cases were suicides.

One was the case of Major Raymond Ruckpaul, 42, who was found dead of a bullet wound in his Kabul sleeping quarters in August, 2007.

And officials recently determined the circumstance of the March, 2008, death of Bombardier Jérémie Ouellet was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The 22-year-old artilleryman's body was found in his sleeping accommodations at the Kandahar base. At the time, a military investigation into his death was immediately launched. Members of his family have spoken out to say he was "not the type to commit suicide."

In April, 2007, Master Corporal Anthony Klumpenhouwer, 25, died at Kandahar Air Field after falling from a communications tower.

The most high-profile non-combat death of a Canadian in Kandahar has been that of Corporal Kevin Megeney, a 25-year-old east coast reservist, who died in hospital on base in March, 2007, after suffering a gunshot wound to his chest. His tent mate, Corporal Matthew Wilcox, also a reservist, was charged after a lengthy military investigation with multiple offences, including manslaughter, criminal negligence causing death and negligent performance of duty.

Although Cpl. Wilcox's proceedings have not been resolved, the case has stayed in headlines largely because the B.C. doctor who treated Cpl. Megeney published a graphic account of the soldier's final moments in the U.S. magazine Mother Jones. The story, which outraged Cpl. Megeney's family, describes the bullet having entered "his right chest, just below the armpit." It also contains the account of a witness who was "just walking by his tent and heard the shot", which "sounded like a 9-mm."

It remains unclear whether the weapon was discharged accidentally or not.

Outside of Afghanistan, two other Canadian soldiers died in non-combat-related incidents over the past year. Last July, Corporal Brendan Downey was found dead in his sleeping quarters at Camp Mirage, a little-known Canadian Forces base in the Arabian Desert that offers logistics support to troops in Afghanistan.

And last March, Corporal Stuart Howard Langridge of Victoria, B.C., was found dead in his room at Edmonton Garrison. Little has been said about his death, although investigators said early on that foul play had been ruled out.

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