'Straight shooter' veteran had premonition of blast


OTTAWA -- The thought of land mines and bombs concealed in the Afghan desert gnawed at Master Corporal Allan Stewart, even as he enjoyed a leave with his wife and two daughters in a sleepy Ottawa Valley hamlet.

A member of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, MCpl. Stewart took a short break last month from a daily routine that involved trying to spot the deadly devices planted by the Taliban before they could inflict damage on Canadian troops.

But as he prepared to bid his family goodbye, the worry that his own reconnaissance vehicle might be struck by an improvised explosive device crept up in MCpl. Stewart's mind, an acquaintance said.

"He said: 'Am I going to drive over a land mine? That's always my biggest worry: driving over stuff,' " recalled James Resmer, the owner of a grocery store in Rankin, which caters to many military families.

MCpl. Stewart, a veteran soldier who served three tours of duty abroad, died Wednesday when his Coyote armoured vehicle was hit by one of the IEDs he so feared.

"MCpl. Stewart distinguished himself as a likeable, good-natured, enthusiastic soldier and leader," Major James Follwell of the Dragoons told reporters on Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. "Allan was a caring father and husband, expressing immense pride when he talked about [his family] to his fellow soldiers."

One of his unit's roles was to spot any change in the landscape or in the local population that could betray the presence of a planted IED, Major Follwell said.

MCpl. Stewart's death also left grieving a community of on-line gamers, who shared his fascination with war simulations.

Many of them never met MCpl. Stewart in real life, but through their interactions on the Internet, they came to prize the same qualities that had distinguished him among his fellow soldiers.

He took a role as a leader within a "squad" of about 30 on-line gamers, and he discouraged both surreptitious tactics and cheating among gamers.

"He was a straight shooter," said Ken Finney, a teacher at the Art Institute of Toronto who knew MCpl. Stewart by his on-line nickname, Dr. Evil TAG. "He never dealt anybody a bad hand. You had this mental image of this guy with a wide smile."

MCpl. Stewart was born in Newcastle, N.B., in 1977 and joined the Canadian Forces in 1997. He served on his first tour of duty abroad in 2001, in Bosnia. In 2003, he was posted to Kabul, Afghanistan, as part of Operation Athena.

MCpl. Stewart empathized with the local population, which has endured decades of fighting.

He noted in one of the captions to the photographs he shot and posted on his website that many Kabul residents live in buildings made of clay and straw. "It sort of makes you wonder how they stand up when it's raining outside," he wrote.