Fallen Canadian soldiers honoured in Kandahar

Hundreds of soldiers assembled at Kandahar Airfield on Tuesday — the third such gathering in the past four days — to bid farewell to two Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
Master Cpl. Patrice Audet died in Afghanistan on Monday in a helicopter crash in Zabul province, about 80 kilometres northeast of Kandahar city. ((DND))

Hundreds of soldiers assembled at Kandahar Airfield on Tuesday — the third such gathering in the past four days — to bid farewell to two Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Troops solemnly saluted as the caskets bearing the bodies of Master Cpl. Patrice Audet, 38, and Cpl. Martin Joannette, 25, were loaded onto a transport plane for a flight back to Canada. Both men were based at CFB Valcartier, near Quebec City.

The pair were killed Monday when their CH-146 Griffon helicopter crashed in Zabul province, about 80 kilometres northeast of the city of Kandahar. A British soldier travelling on the helicopter was also killed and three Canadian soldiers on board were injured.

NATO launched an investigation hours after the crash occurred. Military officials have ruled out enemy fire, suggesting human error or mechanical failure.

Canada sent the specially modified Griffon helicopters to Afghanistan earlier this year, even though the previous chief of defence staff,  Gen. Rick Hillier, had rejected using the Griffons.

The helicopters were modified before being sent to Afghanistan to escort and protect heavy-lift CH-47 Chinook helicopters operating from Kandahar Airfield.

Hillier, who retired last July, believed the Griffons didn't perform well in Afghanistan's hot and high-altitude environment because of their small engines.

Griffons 'superior' helicopter: MacKay

Cpl. Martin Joannette died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan that was not the result enemy fire, but may have been caused by mechanical failure or human error. ((DND))
When asked about the Griffons on Tuesday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the helicopters were "superior" and "well-maintained."

"It's a utility helicopter that serves our interests … in Afghanistan and Canada," said MacKay from Gander, N.L.

"There will be an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the crash. It is proper and fitting that we wait for that investigation before we pass any further comment on the incident or the helicopter."

CBC reporter James Murray, who has travelled with soldiers on Griffon helicopters, said pilots have told him the aircraft is nimble and well-suited for its role.

PM, GG praise fallen soldiers

The deaths of Audet and Joannette brought to 124 the number of Canadians who have died on the Afghan mission since 2001.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised the two soldiers and offered condolences to their families.

"We grieve their loss and offer our heartfelt sympathies to their families and friends," said the prime minister in a statement issued Tuesday.

"This tragic accident illustrates some of the risks that the selfless men and women of the Canadian Forces and our NATO allies face every day in carrying out their duties.

Defence Minister MacKay and Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean also issued statements extending their sympathies to the families of the dead and injured soldiers.

Audet and Joannette were killed while working in an area usually patrolled by American troops.

U.S. President Barack Obama recently made the lingering war in Afghanistan his administration's main overseas military priority, boosting American troop numbers in the country by 21,000. The surge means roughly 68,000 U.S soldiers will be in Afghanistan by the end of the year, working with 32,000 troops from NATO countries, including more than 2,800 Canadians.

Soldiers gathered Monday to honour Master Cpl. Charles-Philippe Michaud, who died on the weekend from wounds sustained in Afghanistan in June.

On Saturday, about 2,000 soldiers paid their respects to Cpl. Nick Bulger, who was killed Friday when his convoy hit a roadside bomb in Afghanistan's Zhari district.

With files from The Canadian Press