Warrant Officer Richard Francis Nolan

CFB PETAWAWA, Ont. (CP) - A neighbour of one of four soldiers killed in heavy fighting in Afghanistan Sunday described him as a man with a "genuine soul" who was devoted to his children and committed to his work in the Canadian Forces.

Speaking from her home in Petawawa, Ont., Sarah Proulx said Warrant Officer Richard Nolan was the sort of man who took the most pleasure in spending hours playing outside with his three school-aged sons and stepdaughter.

"I'd be out working in my garden, and I would hear him with his children . . . just giving them perfect guidance," Proulx said.

Nolan, known as Rick to his friends, was one of four soldiers killed Sunday morning during a coalition ground assault on an insurgent position west of Kandahar City.

Warrant Officer Frank Mellish also died, and six soldiers received non-life-threatening injuries.

At the request of their families, the names of the other two casualties were not released immediately.

While members of Nolan's family declined to speak to the media, Proulx said Nolan's children are currently in the care of his mother who came from his home province of Newfoundland to look after the children while their parents were overseas.

Both Nolan and his common-law partner Kelly were serving six-month stints in Afghanistan, but were not posted to the same part of the country.

"Rick and Kelly were very close," Proulx said, choking back tears. "You didn't just know they were partners, you could feel it."

Proulx said the couple were both dedicated to the military and saw their work in Afghanistan as necessary for the entire country.

"They both knew they had to do their job, and they both had a strong commitment to Canadian people," she said.

Proulx described Nolan and his partner as ideal neighbours who were renowned for lending a helping hand without being asked.

Proulx recalled an incident just two weeks before Nolan's departure about a month ago where he removed a fallen tree from her yard while she was at work, adding that such acts of kindness were common.

"You couldn't ask for better neighbours," Proulx said. "They were extraordinary people."

The deaths of Nolan and his comrades were felt throughout Petawawa on Sunday.

Mayor Bob Sweet said that with about 5,000 soldiers based in the community with their families, more than half of Petawawa's population of 15,000 is directly related to the military.

"Our thoughts are with the families," Sweet said. "It's a tragedy here.

"We're a very close-knit community as far as the military is concerned . . . these are people that we know and are touched by everyday. We see them on a regular basis."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper released a statement offering "heartfelt condolences" to the families and friends of those killed, as well as his wishes for "the speedy recovery" of the injured.

"While deeply saddened by this loss, I hope the families may find some solace in the knowledge that they do not grieve alone and that Canada will not forget the heroism of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice," Harper's statement said.

Interim Liberal Leader Bill Graham also extended condolences to the families, friends and comrades of those who died.

"Their memories will be forever honoured, as they died serving their country and protecting the values we all cherish."

In addition to expressing his sadness at the deaths, NDP Leader Jack Layton reiterated his call for Canadian troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of February.

"We think this is not a mission that is suitable for Canada," Layton said in Ottawa. "It's not achieving the objectives. In fact, the objectives are not even clear.

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor issued a statement from Japan, expressing sadness and praising the soldiers bravery.

"Together as Canadians we stand proudly behind our men and women in uniform and we honour the risks they took, in the name of Canadian security and the values of freedom, on our behalf."

Some soldiers who engaged the insurgents expressed surprise at how stubbornly Taliban fighters had defended their ground.

NATO officials maintained the operation was a success, taking out key Taliban command and control facilities. The alliance estimates it has killed 200 Taliban militants and captured 80.