Photos by Alex Brockman. Originally published Nov. 20, 2015 at cbc.ca/windsor.
The body of a Canadian man who died fighting ISIS militants in northern Syria is back in southern Ontario, returning home to a hero’s welcome along Highway 401.
John Robert Gallagher, a 32-year-old former Canadian soldier, was reportedly killed in an ISIS attack two weeks ago.
Volunteers with the Canadian Heroes Foundation organized a roadside memorial along Highway 401 between Toronto and Blenhiem, Ont., on Friday.
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Gallagher’s mother, Valerie Carder, lives in nearby Wheatley, Ont., but is a teacher in Blenheim, where there has already been public support for the repatriation.
“It’s very overwhelming,” Carder told CBC News. “It’s very numbing. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know who to call.”
It’s been a “tough” two weeks, she said.
“We’ve been focused on getting John Robert home. Now that he is, we can breathe,” she said.
The tribute was similar to the public memorials for Canadian soldiers who died fighting in Afghanistan. More than 100 people were at the last overpass with Canadian flags and signs expressing their gratitude to Gallagher.
Joanne and Mark Tourlouse brought a small sign that read: “We support our troops.” Their son, Sgt. Brad McFadden. lost his arm while on combat duty with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan in 2010.
Fighting back tears, Joanne Tourlouse said it’s difficult to put into words what she would say if she had a chance to speak to Gallagher’s mother.
“I don’t know what I would say to her,” Joanne Tourlouse said. “It’s so emotional and I feel for her tremendously. I don’t know how we didn’t have to do this for Brad, for our son.”
Kurdish community shows its support
Among the vehicles in the procession, which ran for about a kilometre, were cars draped in the yellow, green and red colours of the Kurdish people.
Osman Eroglu, a Kurdish-Canadian, was part of a group from a Kurdish community centre that travelled from Toronto to pay their respects.
“We know that he was there to help the Kurds with the ISIS struggle, not only for Kurds, but for humanity, as well,” he said.
Another Kurdish-Canadian, Bekir, who only provided his first name to CBC News, echoed those statements.
“It’s very important for us to be here, because he’s gone there and spilled his blood for us,” Bekir said. “It takes a lot of courage to do that.”
Canadian flags at half-mast in Blenheim
In Blenheim itself, many businesses flew their flags at half-mast and a local gas station put a sign out front that said: “Thank you for your service John Robert Gallagher.”
Gallagher was a retired veteran of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Since he was not a serving member of the Canadian Forces, the Department of Defence is not involved with the repatriation, a department spokesperson wrote in an email to CBC News.
“This I think has been driven by what Canadians think is appropriate,” Carder said. “I’m certainly honoured that is so. I certainly hope that no one feels it takes away from the fallen soldiers of the Canadian military.”
Chris Ecklund, the founder of the Canadian Heroes Foundation, said Gallagher deserves the same respect as active members of the Canadian Forces.
“Once a soldier, always a soldier,” Ecklund said.
Ecklund’s group originally began the “Highway of Heroes” memorials in 2009.