Reprinted here with permission of Andrew Holota, Editor, The Surrey Leader.


This is the piece I never wanted to write, the task I have dreaded since going to the Persian Gulf in 1991. I've been in two more war zones since then - Croatia in 1992 and Bosnia in '93.

Through them all, it seemed like a divine hand was guarding Canadian peacekeeping troops. Only on a few occasions did death and destruction of war put its cold touch on Canadian lives, and none of those were "my guys" - the soldiers of Chilliwack's 1 Combat Engineer Regiment.

None, that is, until Tuesday, when Cpl Mark Isfeld paid for Canada's peacekeeping commitment with his life.

The last time I saw Mark, he was sweeping for mines in a forest near Camp Polom in Croatia. It was October of 1992. It was a wet, miserable day and he was in a dark mood. His section had been attached to the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and was therefore separated from the main body of 1 Combat Engineer Regiment in Daruvar.

He hated that. He didn't like the 1CER team being split up.

Consequently, he had dubbed his unit The Lost Boys Two, referring to the moniker that 1CER gave themselves when they were unceremoniously dumped into Kuwait in 1991 without proper shelter or equipment.

As I joined Isfeld in the forest that October day, he was on a roll, grumbling about being the servants for a bunch of infantry guys - until it was his turn to pick up the mine detector.

Then he was all business.

That was Mark. Intensely serious about his job, he had studied every piece of known ordnance in Croatia, could recognize it from 100 paces away, and take it apart blindfolded. He was supremely confident in his skills; not cocky, but purely professional.

How cruelly ironic that his finely honed skills were irrelevant in the way he died. He happened to be outside an armoured personnel carrier when it ran over the trip wire to an anti- personnel mine. Wrong place, wrong time.

In a letter he wrote me and never had to mail because I dropped into Croatia unannounced, he said, ". . . I am very confident in my knowledge and ability to keep myself from danger. . . I know what this stuff can do. Civilians, small children, don't. My skills are to protect them. Engineers think of how many lives they are saving, not of the one they risk."

That was Mark.

While the common military label for the former Yugoslavia was "a hell-hole," he wrote, "from my eyes Croatia is a terrible scar on a once beautiful face."

Other soldiers would often shake their heads at the senseless killing and destruction and wonder why they were there, but Mark was unshakeable in his conviction.

It seemed the more he was exposed to the madness, the greater his dedication became, as did his fierce rejection of the rampant brutality.

As Mark and I talked one night in his tent, he dug under his cot and brought out an evil- looking, home-made bomb. He had found it and defused it, and as he handed it to me, he said that's what the people of Croatia are doing to each other. They are so twisted in their hatred that even civilians make explosives and booby-traps, taking the lives of women and children.

And he said it was his job to help get as many of those devices out of operation as possible. He almost spat out the words.

It was a scene of bizarre contrasts. Here was this tough soldier talking about saving the lives of strangers who often made it clear they didn't want his help. While he cradled the dead bomb in one hand, the other stroked a kitten sleeping on his bunk. The cat was the unit's mascot, rescued by the engineers from some destroyed village.

Such contrasts are standard among the Canadian combat engineers. Mark simply reflected some of the best. From the day I first met him in the broiling heat of the Kuwait desert, through Wainwright training, to the sombre hills of Croatia, he was a friendly face, an intelligent voice, in a Canadian uniform.

I told him I respected his soldiering career.

He told me I had a better one.

Now I wish I had encouraged him to get out, to go home - to never sign up for another war zone. But, of course, if I had, I would have got Mark's stern lecture on duty.

You lost a good one this week, Canada.

I hope you sincerely believe in this peacekeeping business because, today, as I grieve, I'm no longer sure it's worth it.