KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — It was his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan and Sgt. James MacNeil had already decided it would be the last.
And it tragically was.
Less than 24 hours after the young Glace Bay, N.S., man got engaged to his girlfriend and started making plans for a wedding and a new home, his life was cut short Monday morning.
“Sgt. MacNeil was killed by the detonation of an improvised explosive device while on a joint foot patrol with the Afghan National Army,” said Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, commander of Task Force Kandahar, as he stood in front of the cenotaph at Kandahar Air Field.
MacNeil’s cousin, Jeannie Lind, said he got engaged to Laura Boutilier, a Glace Bay woman he had been dating for about six months, either over the phone or on Facebook.
“They were going to get married. She was looking at houses yesterday,” Lind said.
She said the 28-year-old had already volunteered to go to Afghanistan for a fourth tour when he met Boutilier and fell in love.
Lind said he changed his mind about going overseas again, but it was too late.
“He loved being in the military and I begged him not to go back but he said it was his job to go but it would be his last time,” Lind told The Canadian Press in an interview from her Glace Bay home.
It’s the second straight Canadian death in Nakhonay, about 15 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city.
Nakhonay is in the Panjwaii district which is known as the birthplace of the Taliban. It has been a bloody battleground for Canadian troops since they arrived in Kandahar province in strength four years ago.
Dozens of Canadians have been killed or wounded in the restive district. While villages and towns have been repeatedly cleared, the Taliban have quietly reasserted themselves in parts of the region.
IEDs have been the single biggest cause of death among Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
Eight out of the 10 Canadian deaths this year were the result of an IED blast. In all, 89 of the 148 Canadian fatalities in the eight-year-old Afghan mission came about from IEDs — which include roadside bombs and some other type of explosives, according to the Department of Defence.
Two civilians — diplomat Glyn Berry and journalist Michelle Lang — have also been killed in Canada’s mission to Afghanistan.
Lind said MacNeil’s parents were divorced and he was raised by his father. He was an only child.
She said MacNeil’s father would adorn his Glace Bay home in ribbons every time his son went to Afghanistan and they would stay up until he returned home.
“And they’re still up,” she said.
“The family is in shock. A lot of crying. A lot of people are at the home. They just can’t believe it.”
She said MacNeil joined the military in 2000 and went to Afghanistan for the first time a year later.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid tribute to MacNeil and sent condolences to the soldier’s family, friends and comrades. “May you be consoled by the knowledge that an entire country stands behind you in your grief,” Harper said in a statement.
The prime minister said MacNeil “was a courageous, dedicated soldier who gave his life trying to help the Afghan people build a better future for themselves and their country.”
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said MacNeil was “bringing hope to a population that has seen much hardship and turmoil. His death is a terrible loss for the Canadian Forces and all of Canada.”
Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean also issued a statement expressing “great sadness” over MacNeil’s death. “We shall forever be indebted to him for the tremendous perseverance, courage, heroism and generosity that he exhibited. We shall not forget him,” Jean said.
In Kandahar, Vance said: “For each IED that Canadian soldiers find and disarm, Afghan lives are spared and the processes of rebuilding their communities can continue.”
“Through constant patrolling and maintaining a presence in that community, Afghans know to trust both Canadian and Afghan soldiers and respect their efforts to bring them security from all sources of harm.”
MacNeil was with 2 Combat Engineer Regiment based at CFB Petawawa.
He was the epitome of excellence and professionalism, said Vance, who called him a “proud Cape Bretoner” who couldn’t say No to a social gathering. Vance said he was inevitably “the life of the party”.
Vance said MacNeil was known for his good sense of humour and, according to his men, was a great person to work for.
“He was blessed with a permanent smile and eyes that could not conceal the mischief that he was no doubt contemplating.”
Vance said that after MacNeil’s last deployment to Afghanistan, and before his promotion to sergeant, he was recognized as the top master corporal in 2 Mechanized Brigade Group.