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Former Canadian Armed Forces medic Matthew Heneghan regrets not being able to say a final farewell to his best friend and former colleague Pte. Colin Wilmot, who died in service in Afghanistan more than a decade ago.
So Heneghan, now living in Falkland, B.C., in the North Okanagan, was overwhelmed with joy and sadness last month when he received a surprising Christmas gift: an old Edmonton Oilers T-shirt Wilmot had left behind, neatly folded in a Ziploc bag.
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"It was a lot of crying and a lot of confusion to my poor girlfriend sitting beside me, because she had no idea what was going on," Heneghan, 39, told host Sarah Penton on CBC's Radio West.
Wilmot, 24, was killed by an explosive device while serving as a medic in Kandahar on July 6, 2008. Raised in Fredericton, he was one of the 158 Canadian Armed Forces members who lost their lives while in service in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2011.
The shirt's unlikely passage, travelling more than 20,000 kilometres roundtrip and 13 years between friends, is tied up with Heneghan's own journey through feelings of guilt for having survived when his friend did not.
Wilmot's 'infectious happiness'
Heneghan says their friendship began in 2007, when they served in the same unit at the Edmonton Canadian Forces base, training for deployment to Afghanistan. Together Heneghan and Wilmot drank at local pubs, played video games, watched films and Wilmot's favourite: Edmonton Oilers' hockey games.
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"He had this infectious happiness about him and instantly was an easy guy to bond with," Heneghan said.
As a medic with a corporal rank, Heneghan says he was scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan in early 2008 but ended up not going due to personal reasons, including a struggle with alcohol.
But Wilmot, who wasn't scheduled for the tour, asked if he could be deployed — and went.
Heneghan wasn't able to attend Wilmot's military funeral. He says he suffered from guilt for years after Wilmot had been killed in the line of duty while he stayed home.
Heneghan worked through some of that guilt by writing A Medic's Mind in 2019, a memoir that includes a chapter about Wilmot.
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A fellow veteran read the memoir, and was moved by Heneghan's story. Phil Hunter had never met Wilmot but knew his name, because he had been assigned Colin's old bunk in Kandahar.
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