Paul Hughes had one of the hardest times of his life when he placed a Canadian flag on the body bag of an Alberta soldier killed in a bloody battle in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Hughes carefully drove the ambulance carrying Kyle Porter’s body for more than four hours from an area near Bakhmout where the Canadian and another soldier, Cole Zelenco, were killed in heavy fighting last week.
“I put the Canadian flag on him. It was the moment that shook me the most in my 14 months in Ukraine,” Hughes said in a phone interview from Kharkiv.
Global Affairs Canada said in an email it was aware of reports that two Canadians had died in Ukraine, but said it could not release more information for confidentiality reasons.
Families and aid workers have, however, identified the two fallen Canadians.
Cole Zelenco, 21, was from St. Catharines, Ont., and was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, according to his mother, Lynn Baxter.
Baxter said her son first traveled to the war-torn country last April and returned to Canada three months later. He then began a second stay in October.
“He was very passionate about protecting Ukrainians and he just wanted to give them as much stability as possible,” she said.
Mrs. Baxter spoke with her son for the last time two days before his death, but the subject of heavy fighting in the eastern region of Donbass was avoided.
“He hid a lot of things from me, just so I wouldn’t worry,” she admitted.
Mrs. Baxter doesn’t know much about the attack that took her son’s life, but she’s been told he didn’t suffer.
An honorary ceremony is taking place in Ukraine, Baxter said, and her son’s body should be back in Canada in two weeks. The family hopes to hold a funeral on May 19.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress expressed its condolences on social media to the families and friends of the two men.
“(They) will be remembered for their bravery and sacrifice in defense of Ukraine’s freedom and peace in Europe,” the message read.
Although heartbroken, Mrs. Baxter is proud that her son stood up for what he believed in.
“Cole, in his short 21 years, has done more than a lot of people in 50 or 60 years,” she pointed out.