The harsh brutality of war came home to Hamilton yesterday when a former Olympic athlete from the west Mountain was killed by fire from a U.S. warplane in Afghanistan.


Private Mark Anthony Graham, 33, of the Royal Canadian Regiment, is the first Hamilton native to die in the ongoing war against Taliban insurgents. The U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt was one of two planes providing support to NATO troops in Operation Medussa.


Graham was remembered as a imposing and gifted athlete who quickly rose to become a national-calibre runner. Yesterday, his family gathered in their small west Mountain bungalow to mourn his sudden passing.


"They're in a fog and just weeping," said the reverend George Horton, of Stewart Memorial Church, where Graham's father has been a long-time parishioner and trustee. "They are still in shock."


Horton spent much of yesterday consoling the family, including his mother Linda, a social worker, and father Albert, who works at Stelco.


Graham was the oldest of three brothers, one of whom has also now joined the military. He leaves a young daughter. He was not married.


Yesterday, the family asked for privacy as they prepared for the glare of national publicity to come. "Tonight we are just getting together as a family and figuring out what needs to be said" said an aunt, who asked not to be named.


Dan Clark was Graham's coach throughout his high school athletic career at Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School. Clark said he, and many of Graham's friends, while aware he had joined the army a little over two years ago, did not know he was in Afghanistan. "Most of us, and I have talked to a few of his friends and former students, they were surprised that he had gone over."


Clark remembers Graham as a natural athlete who impressed from the moment he arrived in Grade 9. "He was put together, six foot four and 190 pounds and a completely developed individual when he came and we knew he was something special at that time." By the time he graduated, he was well on his way to national-calibre competition. "When he ran at track meets everybody paid attention, everyone would stop and watch him" Clark said.


Graham later went on to run with Canada's 4 x 400 relay team at the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona. After the Olympics, he went to the University of Nebraska on a track and field scholarship, and later attended Kent State University in Ohio. Injuries eventually sidelined his high-level athletic career, and he returned to Hamilton to help Clark coach at his old high school.


Clark said Graham decided to join the army, partly to learn new skills, such as with computers, and partly because he felt the disciplined life of the army would be good for him.


"What a treasure we've lost," said Horton after learning of the tragedy yesterday. He said the congregation prayed often for Graham's safety.


Horton said that Graham had attended a special service in his honour at the John Street North church earlier in the summer before returning to his base in Petawawa. He came in uniform. "I loved him like a son," he said. "Anyone who knew him would ... He was so handsome and stately."


Yesterday's news was a stark reminder to military families of the awful dangers faced by their children, or brothers and sisters. "We hear it and you know I guess you just start to pray," said Brian Pett of Caledonia, whose son Jonathan is a reservist and has been in Afghanistan about a month.


"If I were the parents, I would feel very very bad because it is one thing if you are killed by the enemy, but it is another thing if you are killed by the friends."


Tim Fletcher, public affairs officer with the 31 Canadian Brigade Group, which counts among its numbers 10 army reservists from Hamilton in Afghanistan, said the incident, while tragic, is part of war.


"In a circumstance like that (friendly fire) when you are working with allies you have a common mission, when you are engaged in close action and you are calling for close support, things like this are inevitable and have happened throughout history."


"You take every precaution, but it's war and things happen in war."


Fletcher said the Canadian forces are like a family, and everyone feels a tragedy such as this, but he added it doesn't weaken the resolve to continue Canada's mission. "We are there for a purpose; we are not going to waver from that purpose, but it is still tragic."


Ten Hamilton-area army reservists are serving in Afghanistan, as well as many more regular soldiers from the area.