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Review: Sunray: The Death and Life of Nichola Goddard, by Valerie Fortney

Captain Nichola Goddard was killed during combat in Afghanistan in May 2006.


Just a few years ago, my books on Afghanistan took up less than one shelf in my office, and were a mixed bag of fiction and non, written by Afghans and Canadians. Now, the collection spills over onto a third shelf and most of the newer additions are purely Canadian and all non-fiction.

It isn't just Canadian journalists and academics who are discovering the grist there is in the military mill. The most compelling stories for someone like me, and for anyone already well familiar with the Afghan mission and Canadian soldiers, are those books written by soldiers themselves.

Two recent entrants in this category - Clearing the Way, the story of 23 Field Squadron combat engineers, written by Major Mark Gasparotto and 10 other members of his team, and A Line in the Sand, by Sudbury emergency doc, and reservist, Captain Ray Wiss - are particularly pleasing in their detail and authenticity. All these boys can also write, and write well.

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But as Prime Minister Stephen Harper notes in the foreword to Capt. Wiss's book, though "this has been a widely reported war," there are always insights to be mined and value found in new voices.

Sunray: The Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard, is a more conventional offering, though its subject, the young woman whose space-between-her-front-teeth grin is now so familiar across the country, was anything but.

Just 26, Goddard was killed in combat on May 17, 2006. She was the first female soldier to die in battle, the highest-ranking casualty at the time ("Sunray" is military slang for commander), and her death, relatively early in a mission that is soon to wind down for this country (she was the 16th of 152 Canadian soldier to die in Kandahar) was a shocker.

But so, really, was her life.

As Calgary Herald journalist Valerie Fortney tells it, Goddard's choices - first, her enrolment at the Royal Military College in Kingston, her selection of artillery officer as her career and her ascension to Forward Observation Officer, or FOO, one of the most dangerous jobs in an army - bewildered her family, close friends and the author herself.

Though Nichola's parents, Sally and Tim Goddard, and sisters Victoria and Kate, were nonetheless always supportive, her best friend from childhood and maid of honour, Krista MacEachern, at one point pronounced her "almost brain-washed" by RMC and complained they were growing apart. And there is a querulous tone to Fortney's observations throughout the book, as though even now, she finds it surprising that such an accomplished young woman should have joined the army, when so much else was open to her.

Fortney seems to have set out to "answer the question of why this modern-day educated woman would have chosen the profession of warrior" and feels she fell short.

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Goddard's family background didn't help - the Goddards were liberal, literate parents who travelled the world to put their "books not bombs philosophy into practice," as Fortney describes it - and even Goddard's "remarkable letters" home, parts of which are reproduced in the book, offer only "some insights into why, with all of life's choices laid out before her, she might choose to kill and risk being killed in a conflict halfway around the world."

In her introduction, the author writes, "Reading her words and hearing her stories, one can come to know Nichola as much as one can know a person they've never met, and understand, if not always agree with, the convictions and overwhelming sense of duty she took to her grave." That, and the observation which follows, that "our comfortable stereotype of the blue beret wearing, non-violent Canadian is an antiquated notion at best," are more revealing of author than subject.

Goddard seems to have been untormented by such doubts. As she had found quickly fulfilment at RMC - being tested physically and intellectually - so did the army prove satisfying. She was her parents' daughter, in that like them, she wanted to leave the world better than she found it, but she was her own woman, too.

As she once told her dad, in a typical Goddard dinner-table debate where Tim Goddard was arguing that education was the key to development in countries like Afghanistan, "You can't do that when the bad guys run things, Dad. They just shoot you. … I do what I do, so you can do what you do."

It was good enough for her father. It ought to be good enough for everyone else.

Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford is the author of Fifteen Days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army. Her book Helpless: Caledonia's Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed All of Us is to be published this fall.

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