It’s been more than three months since Cpl. James Hayward Arnal became the 88th Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan. But as reporter Selena Hinds, photojournalist Joe Bryksa, and multimedia editor Tyler Walsh discovered, the life and death of the Winnipeg solider continues to reverberate, leaving both pain as well as promise in its wake.

No greater loss

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She runs her fingers over the engraving of her late son’s name – James Hayward Arnal.

Saying nothing, Wendy Hayward–Miskiewicz edges closer to the newly placed headstone. Tears well in her eyes.

Wendy Hayward-Miskiewicz rubs her son's headstone at Glen Lawn Memorial Gardens. James Hayward Arnal was killed in Afghanistan on July 18, 2008.

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Wendy Hayward-Miskiewicz rubs her son's headstone at Glen Lawn Memorial Gardens. James Hayward Arnal was killed in Afghanistan on July 18, 2008. (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

"He was my best friend. And someday I’ll see him again…someday," she says.

Warm sunlight beams down on the quiet cemetery – so quiet you can hear the leaves tumbling on the grass and the cackle of geese flying above.

The headstone next to James’ reads: Keith Ian Morley. PPCLI. Sept. 23, 1975 to Sept. 18, 2006. Age 30.

"They are going to be right beside each other. Two fallen soldiers. That brings me comfort," she says. "He will be with one of his buddies."

Hayward–Miskiewicz takes a few steps back and stares longingly at the spot where – on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2008 – she will lay her son, the 88th of 98 Canadian soldiers to die in Afghanistan, to rest forever.

James’ family chose to postpone his interment until his fellow soldiers, who came back to Canada in waves this fall, were home.

"I still wake up in the night looking for him, you know," she explains. "The nights are sometimes easier for me. The world is asleep, and it seems peaceful."

 

On foot patrol in southern Afghanistan on July 18, Cpl. James Hayward Arnal, 25, a member of the Second Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry based out of Shilo, stepped on a roadside bomb. He died almost instantly.

Hours later, two men in uniform pulled into Hayward–Miskiewicz’s driveway in St, Vital.

It was a beautiful summer evening. The sun was warm, there was hardly a breeze. The neighbourhood buzzed with activity for the weekend, as families prepared to go to the lake.

She had just returned home from work, changed into some comfortable clothing and was heating up some leftover rice and shrimp in the microwave.

Her husband, Ken Miskiewicz, was working in the garage. He called to her. She opened the front door of her home and peered around the corner.

"It was like hitting that brick wall. So much goes through your mind. I think I probably knew that second (that James had died). But I made eye contact with one of them."

She was looking for a sign that her son was OK. A nod. A hand gesture.

""Anything but what I was about to hear... I never got it."

She took a few steps back and wished she could run away.

"I don’t remember a lot... I remember some words. I remember hearing his name. I remember them asking me if I was his mother. I heard... James... regret... dead... double amputation. And the next thing I remember, I felt my head hit the sidewalk."

She awoke on the couch in her living room.

"Your heart races, this can’t be true, this can’t be true. He can’t be gone. You’ve got men in uniform giving you the time of death, a little bit of information and all the time you are fighting it back," recalls James’ mother.

"You just don’t want to hear it. It’s the worst feeling in the world. Nobody should have to feel that."

The 48–year–old mother doesn’t remember much from those first few weeks. Loved ones filled her home, politicians called.

"I remember seeing a lot of people here around my dining room table, in the kitchen, on the deck, don’t ask me who and when... you’re just numb from the devastation. The thought of it. Maybe it’s some kind of survival instinct... you’re just numb from the disbelief."

Four months later, as she prepares to bury her son’s ashes on Remembrance Day, Hayward–Miskiewicz is still struggling to come to grips with the fact her son isn’t coming home.

But as she grieves privately, she’s found comfort and strength in continuing her son’s mission: to see that other young people have the means "to travel the world and save lives," just as her son did in his short 25 years.

She has created a foundation that will reward "ordinary students who want to do extraordinary things" with a scholarship.

For a mother who lost her son in a horrific way, she’s quick to defend the military, she remains committed to the Afghan mission. And she is on a quest to help others.

Time will never heal, she says, but day–by–day, she is getting used to her loss.

"There’s nothing that can mend my broken heart. Nothing. But (time) does help me to cope. You get up in the morning and you’re still breathing, so you have to do something."

There are days when she meets someone like Gail Asper, one of the driving forces behind the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, and she is energized to keep her scholarship plan moving along.

"Then there are other days where I’ll guard my solitude and just cry all day."

Being around people who are happy – people having babies or getting married – can be difficult. It is a reminder of the life her son lost.

At some point, she acknowledges, the numbness dulls and you start to come back to life. Her greatest comfort has been finding ways to keep James’s memory alive. It’s a way for her to stay close to her son and meet people like him. Since James died, she has overcome hurdle after hurdle with grace.

"Going through his belongings when we got them – that was both good and bad. Mostly a lot of tears," she says.

His laptop contained glimpses of his life overseas that his family saw for the first time. One of their favourites is undoubtedly of James with a moustache. She chuckled when she found the fishing license he thought he lost the prior summer.

And she cried when she found his teddy bear.

"It took a long time to go through it all, a long time. Sometimes you just sit and look at it and remember and cry for a while. Sometimes you are so overcome that you have to leave for a while, come back and start over."

His journal sheds light on his day–to–day combat and the tribulations of living with 12 other men in small, sandy quarters, in extreme heat.

"When you read it, you can tell he loved what he did, he was good at it, and he was where he wanted to be."

From a very young age, James knew he wanted to be a soldier. She takes solace in knowing that he wouldn’t have had his life be any other way. He was committed to helping others and doing his humanitarian work through the military.

"Even though James is gone, everything that he stood for and believed in, I continue to learn from him and I think others can too."

She still gazes at photographs of her son and catches herself believing that James is going to come home some day. It’s a dream she quickly snaps out of when his buddies visit.

"You want to see them and you don’t because you know James isn’t with them. But call me crazy, he (James) was with them. I think in spirit, each one of them brought a little bit of James home with me," Hayward–Miskiewicz says.

"A couple of them, this was the first place they came (when they returned from Afghanistan). Every time I see them, it’s like seeing Jim too, so I don’t think I could go without that, and they know that. They are godsends for me, those boys."

On Remembrance Day, when Canadians bow their heads in respect to veterans, a sombre ceremony will honour a truly remarkable prairie boy who gave his life in Afghanistan.

"It’s a fitting day. As we’re laying James to rest, he’s with all our fallen heroes... I will be having prayers for all of them," says his mother.

She is looking forward to the special day, as well as dreading it.

"It is another validation that he’s gone, but I do look forward to celebrating his life now that the shock and the devastation are calmer."

"I know he died doing a mission that has meaning to Canada, being a citizen of the world," she says. "There’s no words to describe or tell you how proud I am. I guess there’s no way to describe that (except that) I am truly honoured to have been his mother."

Hayward–Miskiewicz doesn’t know what lies ahead after Tuesday. She knows her son would want her to be happy, and to carry on her life.

"I know I have to accept what’s happened and I don’t have to like it at times, but I do have to live. I’m just not sure exactly what that looks like yet."

As a parent who has lost a child in war, she has signed up, through a government program, to visit Afghanistan one day. She also plans to follow in her son’s footsteps, and retrace his journeys to places he loved, such as New Zealand.

As important as her future travel plans are to healing, so too, is the short walk from her Winnipeg home to the cemetery.

"We’ve got a bench there in his memory, and I think it will be good. I can go and have lunch in the summer time, or just spend Sunday afternoon reading a book," she said.

"I just want to be close to him. He was raised in this neighbourhood and should be at rest here."

selena.hinds@freepress.mb.ca

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