The Year of Magical Thinking meets Fifteen Days in this literary exploration of one Canadian's decision to enlist and go to war.
What compels a young, affluent Canadian to put on a uniform and risk his life for the controversial mission in Afghanistan? And how does his family cope with his loss when he is killed there? Jeff Francis was a thirty-year-old doctoral candidate and student of Buddhism when he decided that joining the armed forces was the best way to make a difference in the world. In elegant, spare prose that captures both the hardness of war and the nuances of a grieving family, Melanie Murray - Captain Francis's aunt - uses the lens of his life and death to give Canada's war in Afghanistan the perceptive, literary treatment its soldiers, families and citizens deserve.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
July 1, 2007. The fireworks explode in a fountain of light—flamingo, orange, purple, gold—and fade into the darkness. They’re cascading over Okanagan Lake, several kilometres away. But we can see them from the deck, through the leafy branches of the walnut tree.
“Happy Canada Day!” I raise my glass to Mica sitting across the table from me. She and her partner, Aaron, arrived in Kelowna yesterday, drove down from Yellowknife after completing a three-year teaching stint at the First Nations community of Rae-Edzo on Great Slave Lake. We clink our glasses. “Ah . . . St. Hubertus Gewürztraminer. The grapes grow on the hillside just a few kilometres from here,” I say, swirling and sniffing, “lychee and melon on the nose.” “A hint of rose petal too,” Mica laughs at our oenophile charade, reminding me so much of her mother, my sister, at thirty years old—dimpled chin, freckles, long dark hair.
“And here’s to Jeff. To his safe return . . . in just a few weeks.” She smiles, the diamond stud in her nose glinting in the candlelight. Her brother, Jeff, is serving in Afghanistan with the Canadian military. When I ask how she’s coped with the anxiety of having her brother in a war zone for the past five months, she confesses her vulnerability. “I haven’t told many people about him being in Afghanistan. On Easter Sunday, the day the six Canadian soldiers were killed, I really crumbled. We didn’t hear their names for hours after it was first broadcast.”
Three more soldiers killed just last week by another IED. I shake my head.
When Jeff was home for his mid-deployment leave in April, Mica got four days off and flew back to Halifax to be with him and their family. “He made us feel so confident about his safety,” she says, her eyes brightening. “He said he’ll be staying in the same secure outpost—they call ‘the Hotel’—until he returns in mid-August.”
The spicy scent of walnut leaves wafts in the warm breeze. We sip our wine and talk about their trip to Vancouver Island the day after tomorrow. They will meet up with friends to hike the West Coast Trail, one of the most gruelling treks in North America. For seventy-five kilometres, it follows a rugged shoreline of spectacular ocean vistas, tidal pools, marine caves and the tallest trees in Canada. Then they’ll drive their packed-to-the rooftop black Hyundai back home to Nova Scotia.
Their camping gear clutters the lawn below the deck— tent, sleeping bags, foamies, head lamps, rain jackets, camp stove. Under the lights, Aaron attempts to organize it into their backpacks. “I don’t know, Mica,” he calls up, “either half of your clothes stay behind, or we won’t be taking much food.” “We can eat salmonberries,” she chuckles. “Melanie’s been telling me that the bushes along the trail are full of them.” “Yeah, and we’ll dig for clams, steam them over a driftwood fire—go native,” he grins up at us. “No need to pack food.”
Like two kids let loose for the summer, they exude the carefree excitement that comes with being on the road— your hours and days defined by a map of Canada spread out before you.
On July 1, the sprawling military base at Kandahar Airfield morphs from a monotone of drab desert, brown buildings and tan tents. It flashes with red and white. Strings of Canadian flags decorate the railing around the boardwalk of the central square. Huge Canadian flags hang from the ceiling of the arena. In the Tim Hortons lineup, soldiers wear Canada Day T-shirts, red-and-white-striped hats, maple leaf ties and pins. Shouts and cheers ring across the square from games of volleyball, tug-of-war and water fights. The charcoal smoke of barbecuing hamburgers and hot dogs saturates the air.
For Jeff and his comrades, it’s a welcome reprieve from five months of outpost isolation and on-call duty, 24/7. Each of them is allowed two pints of beer. Under the shade of a striped canvas awning, they clink their plastic glasses: “To Canada’s one-hundred-and-fortieth birthday!” They drink to their country’s contribution to stabilizing southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban. A contribution with an enormous cost. In the past five months, sixteen of their comrades have been killed—thirteen by IEDs.
“And here’s to the beginning of the end,” Jeff says, smiling, “the last full month of our tour.” They raise their glasses, savour every swallow of the cold amber ale—its hoppy aroma, foamy head, sweet malty taste and the lingering bitter finish.
A few days later, on July 4, the mid-morning sun blazes down on a convoy of armoured vehicles crossing a dusty desert road. Canadian and Afghan soldiers are returning to base at Sperwan Ghar, their early-morning operation completed. In the gray light of dawn, they surrounded a Taliban IED cell, the bomb-making squad responsible for the deaths of three Canadians two weeks ago. A team of soldiers held the nearby mountain while their convoy rumbled up the road to the sleeping village, hoping to flush out the enemy. Forward Observation Officer Captain Jeff Francis was ready to call in fire support in case of an attack. The soldiers patrolled for hours through the sandy lanes and fallow fields. They knew they were being observed, but the Taliban remained in hiding. After a shura with the elders, the troops mounted their vehicles to head back to the base, tanks with minerollers leading the eighteen-vehicle convoy.
Now, in the commander’s seat of his light armoured vehicle (LAV), Major Chris Henderson mulls over the morning’s operation. He expected the enemy to spring a trap. The locals had tipped off the Canadians to prepare for one. He knows the Taliban were there. Why hadn’t they shown their faces? The convoy is following the same route they’d taken earlier that morning to reach the village, a road watched by tanks and military police during the soldiers’ patrol. So IED threats are minimal, he reassures himself; an ambush is also unlikely on two infantry companies and a tank troop driving through open terrain. Still, he’s uneasy.
Standing up through their swivelling turrets, gunners survey the brown lunar landscape and the distant barren hills for anything suspicious. They scan the road for signs of loosened gravel or wires snaking beneath the stones. They pass a field, lushly green with rows of two-metre-tall grapevines, alert to its hidden possibilities—ideal cover for insurgents, waiting in ambush or holding a remote control device connected to a roadside bomb.
A hundred and fifty metres from the road, a squat earthen hut sits within the maze of vines. It’s normally used for turning green grapes into sweet raisins. But for the men in turbans, this grape-drying hut is a bunker. The ventilation slits in its metre-thick walls make perfect ports for firing and surveillance. The Taliban squad has been holed up here for days, the air rank with the smell of feces. They’ve been watching the road edging the field. It shows no evidence of their tampering. The mammoth cluster of Soviet tank mines and artillery shells was buried deep and long ago.
Between the rows of twisting vines, midway between the hut and the road, the dark-bearded Talib has complete cover. He grips a black plastic gadget in his sweaty palm— two buttons, two wires, a double-A battery. The convoy approaches. He lets the leopard tank roll by; he’s waiting for the next vehicle, the sand-coloured RG-31 Nyala with a machine gun mounted on its roof. In the past few weeks, it has lived up to its reputation, one of the best anti-mine carriers in the world, and protected its crew during two IED strikes. It is a worthy opponent for their Goliath of a bomb. As the RG passes directly in front, he depresses the switch. Nothing happens. The vehicle’s ECM (electronic counter measure) equipment jammed the signal from the detonator. But another RG follows in its dusty wake. His thumb hovers over the red button.
In the cramped interior of the second RG—a personnel carrier for Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry—the men are buckled into narrow plastic seats. The uncomfortable seat belts are specially designed to prevent their helmeted heads from slamming into the metal ceiling should a blast occur. With sidewall armour plate and a steel-welded V-shaped hull, the twelve-ton RG is made to deflect blasts from below, to protect its occupants from the equivalent of two anti-tank mines detonating simultaneously. Encased in their steel womb, lulled by tires crunching over gravel, the men are at ease. Drained after four sweat-soaked hours of foot patrol, they’re contemplating the lives they’ll soon be resuming—just four more weeks.
The driver, Master Corporal Colin Bason, stares into the dust trail of the RG a hundred metres ahead. Clammy in his damp sand-coloured uniform, he longs for the temperate August heat of Burnaby, British Columbia—home—where he’ll cradle his five-month-old daughter, Vienna, born just four days before he came here.
In the seat beside him, Captain Matt Dawe gazes dreamily out the tinted front window, envisioning his goldenhaired boy, Lucas, blowing out two candles on his birthday cake. He remembers the rush of holding his firstborn child, two years ago on this day; wonders if Lucas will also become a soldier—like his father, uncles and grandfather before him. When he arrives back at the base, he’ll call home, wish his son a happy birthday, tell him that Daddy will be home soon and bring his present.
In the back of the RG, Corporal Jordan Anderson, soothed by the drone of the engine, is half-asleep. He’s imagining the celebrations when he gets back home to Iqaluit, just before his twenty-sixth birthday, and just in time for him and Amanda to celebrate their second wedding anniversary. Corporal Cole Bartsch, in the gunner’s seat, glimpses the gravelly desert through the slit of a window. He’s reminded of home in northern Alberta. He can’t wait to be back there, and drive his ATV into the prairie wilderness in August, to fish and camp without fear of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombers and IEDs.
The youngest of the crew, twenty-year-old Private Lane Watkins, pictures himself scooping up grounders at the field in Clearwater, Manitoba, with the baseball glove he’s carried in his rucksack halfway around the world. He’ll soon get to meet his three-month-old niece and namesake, Chloe Coleen Lane, named by his brother in honour of Lane’s service to his country.
At age thirty-six the eldest of the crew, Captain Jeff Francis looks around, comparing the RG with the LAV he usually rides in with his forward observation team. It was a couple of kilometres away after the operation wound up, so he’s caught a ride in Matt’s vehicle. The windows are a bonus, he thinks, and it’s the army’s safest vehicle—but it’s lacking the secure homey feeling of his LAV, Lucky 13.
Through the narrow windows, the parched landscape rolls by. He daydreams about cool, clear water and August at Fanjoy’s Point. He’ll take his son, Ry—nine months old by then—to Grand Lake for the first time. They will sit on the sun-warmed slabs of southern New Brunswick sandstone, and Ry can kick his chubby legs in the water. When he talked with his mom there two days ago, she was repainting the bedroom, setting up a crib, getting everything ready for him, Ry and Sylvie to come to the cottage when he returns. Then they’ll go to Malagash, to his granny’s land on the Northumberland Strait. Ry can splash in the salty waves, dig his dimpled hands into the rippled sandbar.
Out the tinted window he glimpses a patch of green, an oasis-like relief from the monotony of desert brown. The verdant tangle of vines a satisfying sign of why he’s here, of the life that’s returning for the people—like Hamid, the Afghan interpreter dozing beside him, whose real name Jeff will never know. Working for “the infidels,” this man risks the lives of his entire family. If he were killed, he’d be buried in an unmarked grave, and his family couldn’t claim his body for fear of Taliban reprisal. And the soldiers of the Afghan National Army they’ve been mentoring these past months—comrades in this morning’s operation—are men, like himself, determined to protect their families and live in peace.
Step by small step, he feels they’re making a difference. Water is again sluicing through canals, irrigating this grapefield and bumper crops of melons and wheat. Fewer poppy fields mean less economic fuel for the Taliban’s terroristic machine. Girls are entering schoolhouses. Boys are playing soccer again in fields the Taliban once used for stoning women. He’ll soon be able to kick a soccer ball with his own son, dressed in the red-and-white soccer suit he bought for him in England, just before his deployment.
The thrill of fatherhood surges through him; a warm flush that has sustained him during stifling days and lonely nights; through slices of fear, and ramp ceremonies—his comrades’ flag-draped coffins. He believes that the tomorrow of an Afghan child is inextricably linked to that of his own son’s. Humanity, like terrorism, has no borders. We are a spark beleaguered by darkness; this twinkle we make in a corner of emptiness—a line from a poem, an English course at Carleton years ago, resurfaces in his memory. Sunlight beams through the emerald vines, shimmering like the poplar leaves outside his window when he awakens in the bunkhouse at Fanjoy’s Point.
The seven men feel the earth quake beneath them. A thunderous explosion splits the air.
The RG-31 Nyala launches thirty metres up into the dust and smoke-filled sky.
Seven bodies suspend in space. Seven spirits hover by the thin wall.
In the commander’s hatch of the LAV fifty metres behind, Master Corporal Jason Francis is surveying the mud-brick barrier edging the vineyard, a young boy clambering along the top. A flash, as quick and sharp as lightning, pulls his eyes to the road ahead. A deafening boom muffles all sound for several seconds; then his ears are ringing as bullet-like pieces of rock ricochet off the LAV. A blast of fiery heat, the petroleum smell of cordite, as the gunner beside him bellows, “Contact!”
Sergeant Sean Connors hoists the hatch. A columnar cloud of smoke blackens the sky. “Ramp down, Mac!” he shouts. “Let’s go, guys, move! Get the mine detectors! Franny, call one-niner. Tell the major I’m on my way to the site.”
He rounds the corner of his LAV. The RG’s crew compartment lies upside down, leaning against a mud wall— wheels, axles, engine block blown off. He races to the vehicle. “Hey, is everyone okay?” he calls. “Hey! Hey!” Not a movement through the splintered windows. Not a sound from within the steel-encased tomb. “I can’t get inside,” Sergeant Connors shouts. “Call for the medics. They might still have a chance.”
In air acrid with smoke and diesel fumes, opaque with soot and powdery sand, combat engineers gape at the crater in the hard-packed gravel road—three metres wide, two metres deep. They shake their heads in disbelief.
Holy shit. That was one hell of a bomb.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
No vehicle could survive that.
Nor any body. The steel-armoured mine-resistant hull, the specially designed seat belts, the heavy helmets couldn’t cushion the massive impact.
Seven spirits slip through the thin wall that’s only and always a heartbeat away.
The explosion reverberates across Iran, Iraq and Syria; rumbles under the seas of the azure Mediterranean; resounds over the wind-blown deserts of North Africa; rolls over the waves of the blue-grey Atlantic, and crashes onto the rockbound shores of southern Nova Scotia. On this hot July day in Eastern Passage, sunlight sparkles on windless water, wispy white feathers of clouds. In a beige, red-roofed, three-storey house overlooking the open ocean, a mother of a Canadian soldier has just made herself a sandwich. She’s about to take her lunch out to eat on the sun-warmed deck when she’s halted by the radio, the tones signalling the CBC hourly news. Conditioned in the past five months that her son has been in Afghanistan, she stiffens, her heartbeat quickens.
Six Canadian soldiers killed by an IED.
She puts the sandwich on the counter, her stomach knotted with fear.
She telephones CFB Shilo, her son’s home base, and probes military officials for details. “We are unable to release any information at this time.” A different response than the three previous calls that she’s made after the deaths of Canadian soldiers have been reported—three times since February when her son began his tour of duty. This could mean the soldiers are from Shilo.
She waits for the two-o’clock news, paces back and forth, back and forth, in front of the picture window overlooking the main road and the ocean beyond. A car, dark blue, approaches. A flag flutters from its aerial—a red maple leaf on white, a Canadian flag. It passes her driveway . . . slows . . . turns around. She screams. Her high-pitched wail penetrates through the walls into the rooms of the neighbouring house, pierces the windows of the blue sedan pulling into her driveway.
Panting and sobbing, she runs to the phone.
In his fourth floor office at Canadian Blood Services in Halifax, the manager of field logistics, Russ Francis, has just slung his backpack over his shoulder. He’s rushing off to a dentist’s appointment, anticipating a brisk walk through the Public Gardens, a city block of flowers, fragrant with roses and magnolia on this hot afternoon. He doesn’t drive his car to work; he prefers crossing the harbour on the passenger ferry, inhaling the bracing salt air. A walk is just what he needs right now to ease the anxiety curdling in his stomach. A colleague told him, half an hour ago, about the news report. Good god—six more gone. He’s about to close his office door behind him when the phone rings. Should he answer it? He’s running late. He glances at his watch, then back at the phone, ringing, pulling him back to grab it from its cradle.
“Come home!” Marion cries. “People in uniforms are getting out of a car. They’re coming up the stairs.” Her voice clotted with panic and horror.
“Oh my god,” he says. “I’ll have to get a drive. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Disaster has struck. He has to think, think logically. He can’t feel, yet. He has to find their driver, Joanne. He has to get home and be with Marion. As he hangs up, a co-worker appears at his door with a sheaf of papers, a wide smile on her face.
“Lisa,” he says, calmly. “I need to find Joanne. I need to get home. They just killed Jeff.”
The driver manoeuvres the van through the tourist crowded streets, speeds across the span of the Murray Mackay Bridge and down the busy four-lane highway. “Joanne, slow down,” Russ says. “Getting there any quicker isn’t going to change anything. Just get me home safely.” He needs the time, the twenty-five minutes, to prepare for what he’s about to face—to deal with the people who are there, to be strong for Marion. Stay in control, be level-headed, work with the situation. Maybe he’s wounded—not likely.
Marion stands at the threshold, resolute: I won’t answer the door. If I don’t answer the door it won’t be possible. A faint hope arises—maybe he’s only wounded. She clutches the doorknob, buoyed by possibility. She bolts out the front door to meet three soldiers trudging up the stairs—the grim-faced messengers of Death.
From the Hardcover edition.
Melanie Murray grew up in the military town of Oromocto, New Brunswick, during the 1960s while her father was a soldier at CFB Gagetown. She has been living in Kelowna, British Columbia, since 1987, teaching English at Okanagan College and raising her two sons, Damian and Gabriel. Captain Jeff Francis is her nephew.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
“Jeff Francis gave his life not only for his comrades and their mission; he gave it with the firm conviction that it was his duty to humanity. This detailed account of the two lives of a Canadian captain reveals his metamorphosis from a student-philosopher to a dedicated military leader and father, deeply committed to his family and ancestry. A most worthy read.”
— LGen. The Hon. Roméo Dallaire (Ret’d), author of Shake Hands with the Devil and They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children
“Melanie Murray sketches the life and tragic death of one Canadian soldier with such a tender regard for his motives that she allows us to comprehend the sacrifice without ever asking that we accept the war. She takes us to the heart of a grieving family as it struggles to find meaning within calamity. Through a sweep of history and myth – both personal and universal – she gives insight into a tragedy so many Canadian families have experienced. In the end, we come to share her family’s understanding of Jeff’s quest for higher purpose. This is an evocative and poignant story, written with style and compassion.”
— Carol Off, author of The Lion, the Fox and the Eagle, The Ghosts of Medak Pocket and Bitter Chocolate
“A heartbreaking and harrowing account of war, For Your Tomorrow transcends the simplicity of usual conflict narratives. With clear-eyed but emotional engagement, Melanie Murray unearths the courage and savagery that define Afghanistan’s and all wars.”
— Kevin Patterson, co-editor of Outside the Wire and author of Consumption
"Personal and compelling.... Murray writes with a clean, accomplished style.... Fitting tribute to the memory of the...Canadians who've made the same decision."
—Winnipeg Free Press
"Both heart-rending and strangely affirming."
"Elegiac and lyrical. She reaches for the language to convey something utterly personal and, in the process, soars into the deeply profound.... A worthy volume not just for those searching for catharsis, but also for a nation looking to bear witness to the full measure of our soldiers' sacrifice."
—Quill & Quire (starred review)