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Female intelligence specialist found dead at Kandahar Air Field

'Our minds and hearts are full of questions as to why,' padre says after body of Ontario soldier was found in her room on base

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — A female military intelligence specialist who was found dead in her Forces' accommodation room at Kandahar Air Field left “no goodbyes or signs,” a Canadian padre said at a ramp ceremony held for Major Michelle Mendes late Friday night.

“Her tragic death has left many of us stunned. She left us with no goodbyes or signs,” Padre Martine Bélanger said in an address before pallbearers lifted the fallen soldier's flag-draped casket. “For many of us, our minds and hearts are full of questions as to why,” the padre said.

Indeed, in the hours since the 30-year-old body of Major Mendes was discovered in her room, and her two-storey accommodations building near the popular gathering spot Canada House turned into a military crime scene, officials have remained tight-lipped about both Major Mendes's role in Kandahar and the circumstances of her death, citing an ongoing investigation.

A Canadian government source said “all evidence points towards a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

However the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service said it had nothing to report regarding the cause of death.

“Since the investigation is ongoing, no further details are available at this time,” Paule Poulin with the Canadian Forces Provost Marshal said.

They were quick to rule out “enemy action” in her demise – a common occurrence in non-combat deaths, including suicides and deaths to due accidental weapons discharges.

Still, officials have refused to identify the Ottawa-based soldier's home unit or say what she was doing at Task Force Kandahar, Canada's headquarters operation here.

Padre Belanger's address did parse some of the secrecy surrounding Major Mendes, who has been painted as a hard-working, ambitious soldier.

“She always strove to do her best and was respected for her professional knowledge and work ethic,” the padre said. “We would often see her with highlighter markings on her face after a late night of study because she had a tendency to fall asleep in her books. The world will be an emptier place without her presence.”

In a 2006 profile of Major Mendes published in her hometown newspaper, the Colborne Chronicle, the soldier's mother, Dianne Knight, said her daughter wanted an entire career in the army. Although she originally looked at joining the infantry, the article said, Major Mendes opted instead for intelligence work.

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

When Major Mendes was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, she was a captain with the Ottawa-based 154 Squadron working in intelligence. Interviewed not long after her daughter deployed in August of 2006, Ms. Knight said her outlook 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.

But, for unknown reasons, Major Mendes's first deployment was cut very short – she returned home in the second week of September, 2006. It is unclear what prompted her early return.

On Thursday, Major Mendes, who lived in dormitory-style accommodations, became the 118th Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan and the second female Canadian to die in as many weeks. Her ramp ceremony, on the tarmac at Kandahar Air Field, was held on the same day a that military funeral took place in Quebec, honouring Trooper Karine Blais, who died on April 13 after her patrol vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.

Ms. Mendes was raised just outside Wicklow, a beautiful farming community set on the shore of Lake Ontario, west of Colborne. She was the daughter of Ron and Diane Knight, the owners of a large apple-growing operation. The family has been located in the area for generations, and is seen as a linchpin of the community.

“They're great people,” neighbour Jody Van De Moosdyk said. “They'd give you anything they have.”

From Wicklow, Ms. Mendes went on to Kingston's Royal Military College, where she graduated with a history degree in 2001. She went on to get a master's degree in international affairs from Carleton University.

Ms. Mendes married Victor Mendes, a soccer coach at RMC. His family was thrilled when she learned to speak Portuguese, their native language.

The Knight home was packed with mourners Friday. A friend of the family's answered the door, with a baby in her arms, and said Ms. Mendes's parents couldn't speak: “They're not able to say anything right now,” she said.

The population of Wicklow is less than 100, and the news of Ms. Mendes's death hit hard: “We were pretty devastated when we found out it was her,” said Charlie Ainsworth, a retired firefighter. “It's a sad day.”

In Kingston, where Ms. Mendes lived with her husband before being shipped to Afghanistan, neighbours were also stunned. Dianne Mills, who lives next door, said she first met Ms. Mendes four years ago, when the young soldier came over to introduce herself, with a welcome-wagon gift of vegetables picked from her garden.

“She was just a really nice person,” Ms. Mills said. “I was impressed.”

Ms. Mills, whose husband is a military medic who also did a tour in Afghanistan, said she had rarely seen Ms. Mills or her husband in the past two years. “She was stationed in Ottawa, and then she was in Afghanistan. It was quiet over there. The curtains never moved.”

Ms. Mills said the military grapevine had carried a rumour that Ms. Mendes had come down with an illness. What that might be, she couldn't say: “All we heard was that she was sick. That was it.”

Major Mendes was remembered by her nickname, “Mic,” as someone who “always tried to make life pleasant for those around her,” according to the padre. She was known for her home-baked cookies, thoughtful cards and friendly support.

The fact that Canada's war in Afghanistan is taking an increasing toll on the mental health of soldiers serving here has not gone unnoticed in Ottawa of late.

In a statement released Friday, Canada's Governor-General, Michaëlle Jean, noted that soldiers in Afghanistan are “put to the test both physically and psychologically.”

Less than two months ago, Defence Minister Peter McKay 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.

Few soldiers have died in non-combat scenarios in Afghanistan since Canada deployed forces here and only two of the case were ruled suicides.

The most recent was that of Bombardier Jérémie Ouellet, a 22-year-old artilleryman whose body was found in his sleeping accommodations at the Kandahar base in March 2008. In a separate incident, Major Raymond Ruckpaul, 41, was found dead of a bullet wound in his Kabul sleeping quarters in August of 2007.

With reports from Peter Cheney in Kingston and Steven Chase in Ottawa

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