A Soldier's Portrait:  Captain Nichola Goddard

As Canadians line up to view the Portraits of Honour mural you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the many men whose faces make up the 10’ x 40’ canvas painting.  There are 154 on the mural.

But as you look directly below the white dove at the top centre of the mural, you will see the first face that artist Dave Sopha painted.  It’s not the face of a man.  It’s the portrait of Captain Nichola Goddard, one of Canada’s bravest heroes. 

When people or the media speak of Captain Goddard they inevitably add “Canada’s first female Canadian combat soldier to be killed in combat.”  It’s a tragic way to be remembered, albeit true.  She is the first Canadian woman to be killed in action since the Second World War, and the first female combat soldier killed on the front lines.

Unfortunately she would not remain the only Canadian female military casualty of the war.  Goddard is joined on the mural by Trooper Karine Blaise, Major Michelle Mendes and Master Corporal Kristal Giesbrecht.  As a civilian, reporter Michelle Lang does not appear on the mural but remains in our thoughts and hearts.

When Goddard joined the Canadian Forces, it was years before 9-11.  We were not a country at war and public focus was far away from our military.  For Goddard, joining the military was a way to pay for her education.  She wanted an English degree.  Perhaps it’s little surprise as her parents, Sally and Tim, were both school teachers and they were teaching in Papua New Guinea when Nichola was born. 

The Goddards moved around quite a bit and Nichola, along with her two sisters Victoria and Kate, spent time growing up in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nova Scotia.  Nichola eventually moved to Kingston, Ontario where she enrolled straight out of high school into the Royal Military College.  At some point she informed the Department of National Defence that she wished to have Calgary listed as her hometown, perhaps because it was there in 2002, that she married her husband Jason Beam, who also served in the Canadian military.  Or perhaps it was due to the teaching position that her parents had taken at the University of Calgary.

The two shared their love for community service with some young impressionable Canadians offering to become Scouts Canada leaders as they led a Scout troop in Kingston while going to school at RMC.  The couple was eventually posted by the military to CFB Shilo in Manitoba.

If she joined for the education, things began to change for Goddard once she received her commission in the regular forces.  Goddard once told a television reporter, "Somewhere along the way I fell in love with (the military). I'm probably a lifer now.  So that's just the way it is."

When asked if she ever imagined, as a fresh-faced university student, that she'd one day captain a platoon of men on a mission in dangerous Taliban country, Goddard simply replied: "No, I gotta say" -- a grin breaking out on her suntanned face.

Captain Goddard, a member of the 1st Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery,  arrived in Afghanistan in January 2006, and had been serving with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry as a forward observation officer at the time of her death.

The ever smiling officer was leading her platoon as part of Operation Peacemaker, a mission intended to gather intelligence and root out Taliban operatives in southern Afghanistan.

On May 17th, 2006 , acting on intelligence of the Taliban preparing to launch an assault on Kandahar, a joint operation between Canadian and Afghan troops was generated to secure the ever volatile Panjwaye District on the outskirts of the strategically important city.

Goddard’s unit got the nod and without hesitation they geared up prepared to put their training and experience to use.  They loaded into their LAV III (light armoured vehicle) and began their operation.

At approximately 6:55pm local time, as troops were moving into a mosque to capture 15 alleged Taliban members, several dozen hidden militants began firing from neighbouring houses.

As a crew commander, Goddard was standing half-exposed in the armoured vehicle, which was hit by two rocket-propelled grenades early in the battle.  The battle ended after approximately 45 minutes, shortly after an American bomber dropped a 225 kg bomb.

As the smoke and dust settled the results became very real.  Captain Nichola Goddard was killed along with an Afghan National Army soldier.  40 Taliban were killed and approximately 20 Taliban were captured. 

Perhaps some military strategist half a world away would look at the statistics and consider the mission a success with acceptable losses.  But for Canadians the loss of Captain Goddard would forever change our military history.

We would quickly realize that helping the Afghan people find stability and democracy, and perhaps even peace, would come at a very personal cost.  Canada suddenly lost a daughter in war that evening and while a female life is no more valuable than a male’s, the weight on the hearts of Canadians seemed just a little heavier as they learned of the tragic death.

Goddard certainly changed the perception of many traditionalists, both inside and outside the army, as they realized the respect that she had earned with the all-male platoon of soldiers she commanded.  Canadians heard over and over again from her peers that the captain didn’t demand their respect, she earned it.  Nobody questioned her.  They spoke about how they totally respected her decisions and knew that they were in good hands with her.  Goddard put her troops first and they knew it and appreciated it.  They were quick to follow her into battle which is really the greatest compliment an officer can get.

Captain Goddard didn’t just inspire the men in her command; she also inspired women to break the gender barrier and go after their goals.  She inspired young girls to follow their dreams even if that meant you would face some hurdles, and surely there were hurdles for the young female captain with the very identifiable smile.

Goddard returned home to a very large public funeral in Calgary and was eventually laid to rest in Canada’s National Memorial Cemetery in Ottawa.  A spokesman for the Goddard family said the decision to bury her in Ottawa was made because of its central location. The Goddards lived in many corners of the globe and have friends and relatives scattered across Canada.

"Capt. Goddard felt very proud of her calling, she was very proud of her job and the people she worked with serving her country on operations,'' said Capt. Malcolm Day. "They also felt it would make a nice central location where all her colleagues, friends and acquaintances could visit the gravesite in the future.''

Captain Goddard was posthumously awarded the Meritorious Service Medal and Sacrifice Medal.  

While she might have been prettier than the average Canadian solider, Captain Nichola Goddard proved that she was as tough as any of them and she stood prouder and taller than many of them. 

Today, and forever more, Captain Nichola Goddard stands at the very centre of the Portraits of Honour mural below the dove of peace.  We will never forget her sacrifice or the personal cost that Canada has paid in our mission in Afghansitan.

Please take a moment to look back on some of our other stories that highlight the incredible moments we've experienced on this tour.  We call it our Tour Diary.