Cpl. Robbie Beerenfenger’s father, Daniel Roy, visited his son’s grave in the National Military Cemetery this week on an overcast day that turned to rain. It’s a pilgrimage he has made faithfully in the 15 years since Beerenfenger died in Afghanistan.
On the afternoon of Oct. 2, 2003, a stack of buried mines exploded beneath Beerenfenger’s patrol vehicle outside Kabul.
“He was a good man. He was my only son,” said Roy, 65, a retired Para Transpo driver in Ottawa.
Unlike the vast majority of Canada’s war dead, Beerenfenger is buried on Canadian soil.
During Canada’s first century as a nation, the country’s war dead were buried near the battlefields where they fell, in cemeteries planned and tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. More than 100,000 Canadians died in the First and Second World Wars and the vast majority of them are buried in Europe.
Some 378 of the more than 500 Canadians killed in the Korean War are buried in a United Nations cemetery in Busan, South Korea.
Even Canadian servicemen and women who died in accidents during the Cold War are buried in overseas cemeteries.
For thousands of Canadian families in the 20th Century, this was one more terrible sacrifice demanded by war: the permanent, physical separation from a loved one’s grave.
It was only during the early 1970s that Canada’s fallen began to be brought home for burial.
During the conflict in Afghanistan, each returned soldier was honoured with a ramp ceremony at CFB Trenton and a solemn procession along Ontario’s “Highway of Heroes.”
Cpl. Beerenfenger’s remains were interred at Beechwood, a short walk from the Edinburgh neighbourhood where he grew up. “I’m grateful that my son is home, and that he’s here with his comrades,” his father said.
Beerenfenger — he was given his Dutch-born mother’s maiden name — was an independent child who loved skateboards, snowboards, dirt bikes and adventure. After high school, he worked at several car washes before resolving to make something of his life: He joined the military in March 1997 at the age of 23.
One year later, his life changed still more when he met and fell in love with the woman who would become his wife, Tina Beerenfenger, a young mother of two from Hamilton.
They married in May 2000. Beerenfenger loved being a father to Tina’s two young children, Mathew and Kristopher, and in July 2001 Tina became pregnant with their own child.
A daughter, Madison, was born in March 2002 amid rumours that elements of the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) would be sent to Afghanistan, which had become the focus of U.S. military operations in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“He was a real family man: He loved everything about being a dad,” Roy said. “He was always with his kids after work, biking, rollerskating, playing.”
Beerenfenger boarded a transport plane for Afghanistan in August 2003. It was his second overseas deployment: In 1999, he had served in Kosovo with an RCR infantry battle group.
In Afghanistan, he was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the RCR as part of Operation Athena, Canada’s military commitment to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission based in Kabul.
Roy said his son volunteered to go out on patrol on the day he died. “He wasn’t even supposed to be out that day: He was in a tower as a sentry, but he always wanted to be a paratrooper and he asked to go on patrol with them.”
Trained as a mechanized infantryman, Beerenfenger had worked to develop his light infantry skills so he could be deployed with paratroopers. His fellow soldiers called him “Bear.”
At 1:25 p.m. on Oct. 2, Beerenfenger and two other soldiers drove into the dusty, rolling foothills of the Jowz Valley. They were riding in an Iltis Jeep over a dry creekbed, about 20 metres ahead of a second Jeep carrying three more soldiers, when their front right wheel struck as many as three landmines.
The blast ripped apart the open-topped vehicle.
Beerenfenger, 29, and Sgt. Robert Short, 42, an explosives expert and father of two from Fredericton, were killed instantly. The driver, Cpl. Thomas Stirling, 23, was badly wounded.
Roy said he was driving a Para Transpo vehicle on the day he found out his son had been killed. When the dispatcher pulled him off the road, he thought his aging father might be involved, but, when he returned home to Kanata, his wife, Marg, told him the terrible truth.
“I just fell to the floor. I was in so much shock,” he said.
Beerenfenger’s mother, Wilhelmina Beerenfenger-Koehler, was the 2007 National Memorial (Silver) Cross Mother. During the national Remembrance Day ceremony, she laid a wreath at the base of the National War Memorial on behalf of all mothers who have lost children in military service.
Beerenfenger and Short were the first Canadian soldiers killed by the enemy in Afghanistan. (Four Canadians had been killed in a friendly fire incident in April 2002.) They were also the first Canadians to die in an IED attack, a tactic that would claim many more soldiers’ lives during the next 11 years.
Short is buried in a church cemetery in New Maryland, N.B., near his hometown of Fredericton.
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