Tragiek van een “onbekende” soldaat

Het verhaal brengt de oorlog dichterbij en maakt duidelijk dat het opbouwen van het land nog ver weg is. Het vertelt ook het persoonlijke verhaal van deze man, die bekend werd als Olympisch atleet en voor Canada uitkwam op de Spelen van Barcelona in 1992. Maar er blijkt meer te hebben gespeeld in het leven. Het lange (ruim drie pagina's tellende) artikel toont aan dat kranten hier het persoonlijke verhaal niet schuwen en in staat zijn deze tragische geschiedenis op een manier te vertellen die het waard maken om gelezen te worden. Al kan iedereen daar anders over denken. Ook denk ik dat maar heel weinig Nederlandse kranten in staat zijn om bij het vertellen van het onderstaande verhaal de juiste toon te raken. Oordeel zelf…

 

 

An unknown soldier

When Private Mark Graham died in Afghanistan, reports recalled his past Olympic track glory. But as GREG McARTHUR writes, he kept running all his life — away from confusion and outsized expectations, and into his early grave.

Mark Graham woke up, stood on the rocky hillside and swatted the sleeping Francois LePage, whose feet were dangling off the side of the armoured vehicle they manned together. “Wake up,” he said. “Let's go to the fire. I'm freezing.”

These would be the last words they would ever exchange.

The rest of the soldiers in Charles Company's Eighth Platoon that Monday morning in September were already tearing into their breakfast rations, readying themselves for another strike at their objective, a schoolhouse in the Afghan village of Pashmul that they had failed to seize the day before.

Then, suddenly, sparks began dancing at their feet. Next came the sound — the whir of a Gatling gun, spraying the camp with corn-cob-sized bullets. When the rounds hit the ground, they shattered into hot metal that pierced the heads, backs, arms and legs of the Canadians. The near-molten shrapnel collided with bones and organs and split into more pieces, so tiny that most will never be retrieved.

With the push of a button, a U.S. fighter pilot had mistakenly taken out an entire platoon, whose members writhed and wailed on the ground below.

Thirty-seven soldiers were injured in the Labour Day attack. But only one of them was killed. And that one was Mark Graham, a Jamaican-born boy from Hamilton, Ont., who rose to local fame as a high-school sprinter and tasted international glory when he represented Canada at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Although no longer the young marvel that he was as an Olympian, Pte. Graham was the fastest, fittest man in the infantry. At 33, he had been more places in the world and done more than most other members of the Royal Canadian Regiment.

His fellow soldiers were younger men who had given up dead-end jobs in fast-food joints and paper mills to join the lowliest ranks of the military. Pte. Graham had trained alongside men who set world records.

The question is, what was he doing there?

When he joined the military, his explanation was that he wanted a new experience. When he died, less than a month after he had been deployed to Afghanistan, the media dutifully repeated that he had wanted to represent his country as more than just an athlete.

“Everyone in the company knew him,” says Corporal Ryan Pagnacco, one of the soldiers who was standing next to Pte. Graham that morning. “But not many people knew that much about him. He was an enigma to everyone.”

At the time of his death, Mark Graham was a kind of unknown soldier: Although his reputation was grand, his full story was a mystery, to fellow soldiers, to friends and family and perhaps even to himself.

He'd had an exceptionally fast rise in the world of track and field — but as his parents feared all along, it was too fast, and it meant he fell all the harder.

In the years before he signed up for the army, Pte. Graham had sabotaged his track career and, soon, all his other prospects too. And from early in life, he was haunted by a woman he barely knew.

So when Pte. Graham went to war, he was just doing what he had conditioned himself to do all along: He was running.

Mark Anthony Graham's body was imposing from the very start — just shy of 10 pounds when he was born on May 17, 1973, in Gordon Town, a one-street neighbourhood at the foot of the Blue Mountains, north of Kingston, Jamaica.

His father, Albert Graham, was 24 at the time and working as a cook for a local scrap-metal tycoon. Mark's mother, Edith Bailey, was about 10 years older and waitressed at a nearby bar, the Kentucky Drinking Saloon.

The pairing lasted just long enough to produce Mark and, the next year, his younger brother, Jason. By then, Albert had his sights set on Hamilton, where he had worked before on a temporary visa in an apple orchard. That was where he wanted his boys to be raised, he said, and in 1974, he left to secure them a new life in Canada.

Uncomfortable leaving the boys with their mother, he enlisted his sister, Rachel Graham-Pinnock, who worked as a live-in maid for the same scrap-metal magnate. Mark and his cousins were free to roam the two-acre property, complete with in-ground swimming pool.

And the space was necessary. Mark couldn't stop moving: When he learned to swim, he didn't wait for help. He just jumped into the deep end of the pool. When he and his cousins crawled up the steep hillside, Mark came flying back down on a piece of cardboard.

“You had to keep your eye on him,” his aunt Rachel recalls.

His mother was nearby, but his contact with her was limited. Sometimes, Mark would spot her on the street after school and run home to his aunt yelling that he had seen “Mama Edith.”

Meanwhile, Albert was working construction in Hamilton, scaring off women with his standard warning: “I have two kids in Jamaica and they're coming and living here.”

In 1975, he finally met one, a young psychology major at McMaster University named Linda Learn, who liked the idea. They attended community theatre and went for walks in the park. They fell in love and got engaged.

Albert was hired as a machine operator at Stelco, the Hamilton steel manufacturer. Everything was in place for Mark and Jason to join him — except for the co-operation of their mother.

The government of Ontario required him to legally adopt the boys because he and Ms. Bailey weren't married. She signed the documents for Mark to leave in 1979, and the six-year-old embarked for Hamilton. (The two would haggle over Jason's adoption for two more years.)

When Mark started school in his new home, reading did not come easily. But sports did. He learned to ride his bicycle the first time he mounted it and with no training wheels. The other children saw how hard he could throw and recruited him to play baseball.

His long legs were sometimes awkward — at school assemblies, his bent knees poked above the sea of tiny heads — but they also made him the fastest kid in the neighbourhood.

It wasn't until Albert and Linda went to a Grade 8 parent-teacher interview that they realized how lofty everyone's athletic expectations were.

They wanted to discuss Mark's academics and how he was coping with a recently diagnosed learning disability. Mark's gym teacher wanted to tell them their son was destined for the National Basketball Association.

“At one point, we realized, ‘We have to be very careful,' ” Albert remembers. “Even before Mark left Chedoke Middle School, his reputation was ahead of himself.”

When he got to Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School, Mark became the centrepiece of the track team. Even in Grade 9, he drew crowds, gawkers who called him Zeus, Mountain Man and, his personal favourite, Panther. By 17, he was known as Orange Crush, because of the orange-spandex bodysuit that barely covered his 6-foot, 4-inch, 207-pound frame.

To the delight of the girls, he often pulled off the arm straps and rolled the top down to expose his torso (he said the material made him itchy). From the grandstand, his races looked like seven skinny kids chasing one big monster.

He broke high-school and city records. He began to focus on his best event, the 400-metre sprint, which pitted him against another high-school track star from Hamilton — Canadian junior champion Gary Reid. Before the 1991 city championships, the Hamilton Spectator previewed the showdown.

“He is the prince and he wants my throne,” Mr. Reid told the paper. “I'm not about to give it to him.”

On a bright, sunny May afternoon, a crowd gathered at McMaster University for the race. Mark stayed even with Mr. Reid for 250 metres, then made his move on the curve. His coach, Dan Clark, flashed a stopwatch as Mark crossed the finish line: It read 46.2 — a time that many Olympic champions had never reached as teenagers. A few weeks later, Athletics Canada announced that Mark Graham had become the third-ranked 400-metre sprinter in Canada.

Albert and Linda were happy for him, but worried too. Mark would come home late from practices, and Albert warned Coach Clark that if his son couldn't get his homework finished, he wouldn't allow him to run.

Sometimes, Mark mistakenly presumed that a win on the track excused him from washing the dishes or tidying his room. The Grahams couldn't believe it when he asked them to buy him a white tuxedo for the high-school talent show; he knew how scarce his family's savings had become, because of month-long layoffs at Stelco and Linda's university tuition. Plus, there was a third boy to think about now: Only a few years before, Linda had given birth to Mark's youngest brother, Daniel.

“Slow down. Don't let his head get too big yet,” Albert told his coaches.

It was around this time that Mark told his father to stop sending cards and newspaper clippings to his biological mother. Edith Bailey hadn't written or phoned her oldest son in the decade he had been gone. He told Albert that as far as he was concerned, she was as good as dead. Later, Mark would find that he couldn't shake her ghost so easily.

By the time he was 18, the next step in his racing career was clear. Mark never had run with the fastest men in the country, but it was time — he began training five days a week to qualify for the Olympic games in Barcelona. The school rallied around him. Mr. Clark brought in a new coach to help with preparations. Albert and Linda, though cautious, were excited too.

Mr. Clark took Mark to Montreal for the 1992 qualifiers, bringing a high-school buddy along as a cheering section. Right after the race, Mark phoned home: “Dad, guess what?” It was obvious he was calling to report his success, qualifying for the men's relay team. If the news wasn't good, as the Grahams would come to realize, they wouldn't hear from him. And in the future his calls would become more and more infrequent.

First, though, Mark would enjoy his most glamorous interlude: In Barcelona, he was the baby of the track team. He befriended Mark Jackson, his older teammate. Together, they cruised the Athletes Village, talked up the girls and, one day, ate lunch with basketball star Charles Barkley, who was there with the first U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” to feature pro NBA players.

And even though he was surrounded by some of the world's best-trained bodies, the exultation of Mark's physique didn't stop. When he stepped on to the warm-up track, the Italian men's 400 metre-relay team started pointing and shouting. He went on to run a personal best, although his team finished in 13th place.

Albert and Linda couldn't afford the trip to Spain, so they watched and cheered in their living room along with the neighbours. But his Olympic experience amplified his growing distance from his family.

On his return to Canada, he went to Calgary to train with the national team. When he decided to accept a University of Nebraska scholarship, the same school where his teammate Mark Jackson ran, he did not consult his mother and father.

Albert had wanted him to consider a smaller school, or one closer to home. But Mark had been impressed by Nebraska's recruiter, assistant coach Steve Rainbolt, and he wanted to run against the best.

On his application, he listed the three most influential people in his life. No. 2 was a girlfriend and No. 3 was Mr. Jackson. But as No. 1, he chose someone Albert and Linda had fears about; No. 1 was beginning to take up too much space: “Myself.”

In 1996, Mark cut his tenure at Nebraska short to follow Coach Rainbolt to Ohio's Kent State University. The 23-year-old's running times, however, weren't being cut at all. He had torn his hamstring while training for the 1994 Commonwealth Games and tweaked it numerous times afterward. He became hesitant in his sprints, and his frustration was building.

“You know how you become your worst critic. UNEXCEPTABLE!!! It wasn't ok for me to run 47 or 48 and change,” he e-mailed to a friend.

But it wasn't just at the track that things weren't okay. At Kent State, Mark Graham's life would take a drastic turn for the worse.

He was chronically short of money. The Grahams hadn't realized how many costs the scholarship package would not cover, including rent. And the length of the track season made it impossible for him to get a high-paying summer job in Hamilton, so he had been staying at Kent.

He got a part-time job as a bouncer at a college bar called Mooney's Goose, but when the National Collegiate Athletic Association found out about it, he had to pay the money back — nearly $1,000. (At the time, student athletes on scholarship were forbidden from working during the school year.)

His charm and minor-celebrity status on campus helped him get by in the classroom. “Because of his personality, people just loved him and flocked to him. I had a class with him. I couldn't stand it,” recalls Traci Luther, a Kent high jumper, who was Mark's girlfriend at the time. In one class, she says, “I had to drop out because the professor was so up his butt.”

But he couldn't charm his way out of his learning disability, which persisted. Words like “soungs,” “quolities,” “eccepted” and “amagined” littered his writing. He majored in kinesiology, but he still misspelled it. Another ex-girlfriend says she worried when, during a study break, she noticed him spell a word backward.

He still never heard from his mother from Gordon Town, and in private moments with Traci he admitted how it tormented him: “Why didn't she try to talk to us? Why didn't she call us, write to us?” Yet he was subjecting Albert and Linda to a similar kind of pain by going months without phoning them.

It was clear that he was under stress. When he had bad times at practice, he stormed off to the locker room. He still dominated the Mid-America Conference, but the college league was considered mediocre by U.S. standards. It was five years since the Olympics. He had gotten slower.

Never mind his hamstring, or that Coach Rainbolt was pleased with his performance: Mark couldn't forgive himself, or his body, for letting down those great expectations.

At a meet in early April, 1997, he showed everyone just how despondent he had become — 170 metres into the event, he stopped and walked off the track.

His coaches were furious. In the past, he had only disrupted practice. Now, he was taking it out on his teammates and lowering their overall score. Coach Rainbolt called a meeting. The votes were counted and the team made its choice: Mark would stay home from that weekend's Penn Relays at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the highest-profile meets in America.

The next day, as his team left him behind, he sat down at a computer and wrote to his ex-girlfriend in Nebraska.

“You'll never believe what had happened to me over the past few days. I want to write and tell you all about it but I'm afraid I don't have the capacity to put it into words and you know how I am with words,” he wrote.

“Those individuals involved will suffer equal pain to which I have experienced over the last few days. I have never felt so BETRAYED in my life!!!!!!!!!!!!! SILENT RAGE!#!%”

He needed to “let loose,” he told her. “What crazy thing do you think I should get myself into?” he asked. “I'll talk to you later. I need to do something.”

Eight hours later, just before sunrise, an alarm sounded at Mooney's Goose.

The first police officers to arrive saw wet footprints dotting the floor and heard shuffling upstairs. The officers found their suspect hiding under a sink. They placed him in handcuffs and snatched the Kent Track and Field bag hanging from his neck. Inside, they found $499.50 in cash.

Detective Sergeant Dennis DeLuke walked into the interview room and handed Mark a Pepsi. The track star confessed to everything — including two other break-ins at Mooney's Goose the previous month, all through the same window. He outlined how he used his fingernail to turn the lock on the cash register. In total, he had taken $2,429.50 and a stack of CDs.

The detective pressed Mark about his motive. Was he using drugs? Was he being initiated into a gang? No. When he committed the first two break-ins, he had needed money. This one was different. It “led him to an altered state where he experienced euphoria,” the police officer wrote in his notes.

When Traci got home from the meet in Philadelphia, Mark was in the fetal position on his bed. “It was almost like a scared little boy, what I came home to,” she remembers. “He didn't know what he was doing — just screwing up.”

Albert and Linda were stunned. They had been worried that he was becoming withdrawn, but they didn't expect this. They wanted him to come home right away and finish his degree at McMaster.

A week later, after the headlines in the local newspaper dissipated, Mark sent out e-mails to his closest friends. “I've been suspended from the team and the disturbing thing is, I don't know that that bothers me as much as it should.”

In another e-mail, though, he vowed to get over it: “But I WILL BE BACK!!! The world has not heard the last of Mark Anthony ‘PANTHER' Graham. What doesn't kill you, can only make you stronger.”

Whether or not Mark had secretly hoped to be kicked off the team, he got more than he expected. His crimes of theft and breaking and entering, to which he pleaded guilty, also earned him a deportation order.

There were a few months left before federal officials would come knocking. He spent them playing basketball and going to nightclubs, and never earned his last two academic credits.

Traci sensed that Mark was hiding his anguish. “He tried to mask it. He tried to be that guy that everyone thought he was. Inside, he was ripped apart, but he tried to act like someone totally different,” she says. “He changed — more drinking, going out and partying.”

He was finally told to leave the country on his own recognizance. If he ever tried to get back in, he would be arrested.

That prohibition would greatly complicate the next major event in Mark's life — Traci's pregnancy. She was coming to Hamilton to visit on weekends, but the news came as a surprise.

If they wanted to raise the child as a family, there was no option but for Traci to move to Canada.

Shae-Lynn Graham was born on May 8, 1999, in Hamilton. The young family didn't have much. Traci had no work visa, and Mark was making a modest salary as a manager at a gym called Family Fitness. They rented a townhouse that was a short drive from Albert and Linda's home.

“We just had our family. He'd go to work, come home, kisses and hugs at the door. He'd have to eat his dinner and then relax — we'd talk and joke. To me, it was happy, family life,” Traci says.

But Mark couldn't make it last. He was never responsible with money, but some of his choices were too much: While Traci saved up toonies and loonies to buy groceries, he bought a $300 pair of sunglasses.

On April 2, 2001, he was pulled over by the police and fined $5,000 for driving without insurance. He never paid the fine and his driver's licence was suspended.

And yet Mark seemed to carry more and more cash. His unexplained absences from home increased. When they started to receive notices about unpaid rent, Traci pointed them out to Mark and hoped he wouldn't ignore them.

“Everything's fine. Everything's fine,” he would say.

On the morning of Aug. 27, 2001, the landlord showed up with an eviction notice. Traci had to haul all of their belongings onto the front lawn. At lunch, Mark showed up with a moving truck.

Traci was furious and hurt, and so were the Grahams. Albert and Linda took her and Shae-Lynn into their house, while Mark moved in with a friend. Traci soon decided to take Shae-Lynn back to Ohio for good. They arrived at her parents' home on Sept. 10, 2001 — the day before the terrorist attacks that would lead to Mark's ultimate fate in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, his behaviour was becoming more erratic. He seldom called Traci, although one night he phoned to sob over his breakup with another woman. He came around to his parents' home less and less. Every once in a while, he would appear in the grandstand at his old high school, MacNab, to watch track practice and talk to Mr. Clark. Then he would disappear from the coach's life for months.

On March 29, 2002, he resigned from Family Fitness and took a position at another gym.

But Family Fitness wasn't finished with Mark. That summer, the company served him with a statement of claim accusing him of embezzling $6,500. It had found 11 people with memberships that weren't registered in the gym's records, who all said Mark had told them to pay him directly. The gym suspected there were more off-the-book members.

To get back its money, Family Fitness got a court order to garnishee 20 per cent of Mark's wages from Premier Fitness. But that job didn't last long either. Family Fitness received only one cheque. So next it tracked down his new employer — the Canadian Forces, 1st Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment in Petawawa, Ont.

Mark had been mulling over his move for some time. In the weeks leading up to his enrolment in 2004, Coach Clark had let him use the gym at MacNab. Every morning, he would come in with a friend and go at it — bench press, arm curls and military press. On the gym wall there was still a picture of Mark on the track, chest exposed, next to posters of Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky.

Albert and Linda were pleased with his decision, hoping it would finally give him some direction.

In one of his rare phone calls to Traci, he said, “I'm doing this to protect Shae-Lynn” — a puzzling explanation from a man who seldom tried to contact his daughter, and did not speak to her at all in the last two years of his life.

In Petawawa, though, the young privates were very admiring of their hulking older comrade. He would rise every morning, voluntarily run eight kilometres and then do his required physical training. They were impressed with his knowledge of anatomy, such as the names of muscle groups and how tendons worked. And they were curious about his background.

He told them about the Olympics — not a story he could conceal, considering the Olympic rings tattooed on his right shoulder — and about his daughter. He started smoking cigarettes, Marlboros. And he told his new friends about his mother in Jamaica. He said that she had died recently, and that the military had refused to fly him back for the funeral.

Meanwhile, he was trained to drive the eight-wheeled Light Armoured Vehicle III, known as a LAV. His gunner was an ex-welder from rural Quebec, Pte. Francois LePage. Mark named their new vehicle “Rolling Black Death.”

“The thought of it can be overwhelming because I'm responsible for the lives of my entire crew when we are mounted [in the LAV],” he wrote to his ex-girlfriend in Nebraska, with whom he had been back in touch since he joined the regiment.

“I'm excited but nervous at the same time. We are being deployed to Kandahar. Very dangerous but we will be very well trained to deal with hostile forces with efficiency and effectiveness. I will be safe.”

But in the months leading up to his departure to Afghanistan, he started to get more reflective about what was expected of him. On Jan. 29, 2006, he said in another e-mail, “Lets call a spade a spade. . . . War. . . . I kill other human beings before they have a chance to kill me or any of my allies and their citizens.”

Five weeks before leaving, he sent out another e-mail: “What am I going to be like after this one. . . . It will be for six months and we aren't just lookin' this time. We have been mandated to seek out and destroy.”

All of the departing soldiers were given leave for the month of July to visit their families before they headed to Kandahar in early August. Shae-Lynn came to stay with Albert and Linda and the family prepared for Mark to come home.

He never arrived. Instead, he opted to stay in the barracks, which had been almost completely vacated by the rest of the soldiers. When Albert and Linda finally got hold of him to ask what had happened, he told them he had been deployed somewhere. They didn't know whether to believe him.

During their first few weeks in Afghanistan, Mark and the rest of his company didn't see a lot of action. Every so often someone would fire a rocket-propelled grenade at the heavily fortified Kandahar Air Field. The troops joked that it was the same kid doing it every time — that for him, it was just like playing Nintendo. They named their imaginary assailant Rocket Boy.

But Rocket Boy's attack on Aug. 13 shook Mark up: “Shit can get crazy over here at the blink of an eye,” he wrote to a friend in Petawawa.

Such scares might have been why he started calling his parents regularly, for the first time since the Olympics, 14 years before. There were stretches in August when he called once a day.

Meanwhile, he performed routine work and some LAV patrols. He learned the same lesson as a many soldiers before him, that the idea of rebuilding Afghanistan is a lot more romantic than Afghanistan itself.

Finally, after numerous briefings and map studies, Operation Medusa was launched on Labour Day weekend. It was billed as one of the largest assemblies of Canadian troops since the Second World War, and Mark and the rest of Charles Company had their assignment: Take Pashmul, a village of mud huts and marijuana fields about 15 kilometres west of the Kandahar.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization planes had blanketed the village in leaflets, using illustrations to warn them that they would be attacked if they did not surrender. At 7:05 a.m., Rolling Black Death and the rest of the LAVs arrived at the village.

“Giddy up” came the orders over the headset. Pte. LePage pressed down on his joystick, spraying the village with 25 millimetre rounds.

Through their periscopes, he and Mark saw it all — insurgents firing AK-47s, men running naked in the street, limbs being torn off and even some dead children.

“Fuck, man. I can't believe we're doing this,” Mark told Pte. LePage over their headset.

The day ended without any Canadian deaths, but the next morning would bring a more treacherous task, dubbed Objective Rugby.

Near Pashmul, at the end of a marijuana field, there was a schoolhouse known to the troops as the White School. The orders were to seize the building with the hopes of eventually turning it into a NATO base. The LAVs and jeeps crawled across the field, following the path of a bulldozer responsible for cutting a line through the shoulder-high marijuana plants. The wind sent heavy wafts of marijuana into their vehicles.

When the vehicles got within a few metres of the school, a flare shot up. It was an ambush.

Rockets whizzed through the air, colliding with two vehicles. An officer was dead. So was an engineer. The soldiers began piling out of the LAVs, firing their C-7s at nothing but the occasional flash from a window. The soldiers in Mark's section tried to seize a collection of mud huts. But the insurgents pinned them down, firing from behind a wall of bamboo sticks.

Mark wasn't allowed to leave the driver's seat, and Pte. LePage couldn't use the cannon for fear of hitting their own men. Another explosion rocked the field, killing two more soldiers. One of them was Warrant Officer Frank Mellish, Mark's commander.

Air support was called in; a U.S. jet soared overhead. But the chatter on their communication system was ominous; the bomb it dropped was too close to Charles Company.

“Mark, are you braced for impact?” WO Mellish asked through the headset.

“Frank, this is going to fucking hurt,” he replied.

The bomb hit the ground, but for one reason or another, it didn't explode. Mark had been spared one more day.

Still, four soldiers were dead and the officers didn't want to push their luck by staying out in the field. Orders came to pull out.

The soldiers were given the rest of the day to mourn. Some cried; some couldn't bring themselves to eat. Mark told Pte. LePage that he had felt useless, stuck in the driver's hatch with his buddies trapped. He told Master Cpl. Ward Engley that he couldn't fathom what it must have been like to be stuck among those mud huts.

For the rest of the day and night, A-10 Thunderbolts unleashed their Gatling guns and bombs on the school, now about one kilometre away. The blasts from the guns and the cracks from the bombs made peaceful sleep difficult. Mark lay next to the front wheel of Rolling Black Death, and tried anyway.

The last moment Francois LePage saw his friend alive, Mark was gasping for air and moments from death. There was nothing anyone could do; the projectile that killed him, whether bullet or shrapnel, had entered through his back and pierced his heart.

The general explanation given for the incident was that the pilot of the A-10 Thunderbolt, and possibly the pilot of another A-10 Thunderbolt, had confused the company's garbage fire for the burning White School. One non-commissioned officer told The Globe and Mail that the pilot was disoriented because he had just rolled the jet and his compass malfunctioned.

Many of the injured soldiers are now back in Canada, recovering in the care of parents and spouses. Some use canes. Some have intravenous tubes sticking out of them. Some who still live on the base in Petawawa sit up straight whenever a jet passes over the house. Some still fight in Afghanistan.

All the soldiers who were on the hillside that day are testifying for three separate investigations that have been launched, by the Canadian military, the U.S. Air Force and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. In the end, they should be able to say what happened, how and why.

But the reports won't be able to answer the question Mark's friends and family have been asking since his death: Whom, exactly, did it happen to?

Mark Graham was a person who kept things hidden. Indeed, he had his life so compartmentalized that many people who thought they knew him are learning essential facts about him for the first time.

It all started with a memorial website on the Internet where people who were close to him left messages. Suddenly, Mark's former girlfriends were discovering the identities of other girlfriends. Linda and Albert have chuckled at all the people who referred to themselves as Mark's best friend — best friends who had never heard of each other.

And then there was the issue of his mother. His friends and fellow soldiers were surprised to see a message from one of Mark's Jamaican relatives explaining that Edith Bailey “continues to mourn your death even though she did not get a chance to see you as much as she wanted.”

It turns out that the woman whose absence haunted him is alive and well. She even gave an interview to the Jamaica Gleaner, speaking in patois about a son she never bothered to contact: “I felt every pain that I felt to bring him on the earth when mi get the news,” she told the newspaper. “No more Mark again.”

But just as his mother missed her chance, Mark never got to say his final goodbyes to Shae-Lynn. The seven-year-old girl and her mother Traci came to the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton for the return of Mark's body. Shae-Lynn has had nightmares since. In some of them, her father is dying and she can't bring him back. In others, aptly enough, she sees multiple Marks.

But among all the mysteries that have ended with his death, the greatest myth remains that of Mark's physique. It has frustrated Albert and Linda to see all the people who have commented in the media and on his website about his immense size, chiselled torso and powerful muscles, when they spent their lives trying to teach him that he was much more.

One soldier wrote on the website that he didn't think anything could bring down a man like him. Such logic is what brought Mark to his sad fate, the Grahams say. No one is a superman, and certainly not Mark Anthony Graham.

“He was a human being,” says Albert. “He was vulnerable.”

Greg McArthur is a reporter for The Globe and Mail.