Matthew Fisher was sitting in an easy chair in front of a fire in his mother's house in Ottawa, Canada, Dec. 30. Sipping a Canada Dry, his favorite beverage, he'd arrived home after spending several weeks in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he's based for CanWest, Canada's largest newspaper chain.
It was the first Christmas for the family since his father, Doug, had died in the autumn. He was looking forward to spending 10 straight days with his mom, as well as time with his three brothers, numerous nephews and nieces and, of course, attending several hockey games featuring his beloved Senators.
The phone rang.
Ninety minutes later he was airborne. Heading back to Afghanistan. His colleague, Michelle Lang, a 34-year-old reporter from the Calgary Herald, had been killed in an IED explosion, along with four Canadian soldiers. She'd been in-country just over two weeks and was scheduled for a six-week deployment while Matthew was on R&R.
After 30 hours -- from Toronto to London to Dubai and finally to Kandahar, the huge airbase in southern Afghanistan -- Matthew started doing what he does best. War reporting. He's been in 14 wars or conflicts and visited 153 countries. He's also come to Merced three times since 2007 on holiday.
Early in the New Year, he was faced with a job no journalist ever wants -- writing about the death of a colleague. "I bid Michelle Lang adieu on New Year's Day in the belly of the military transport that was to take her on the first leg of her last journey home to loved ones on the far side of the earth," he wrote.
"As I knelt alone before the casket, which was covered with a large Canadian flag and situated next to the caskets of four soldiers who died with her in a landmine attack on the outskirts of Kandahar City last Wednesday, I told Michelle that she had made a wonderful impression on the soldiers whose lives she had touched last month and how much she was already missed by them and by her colleagues here and elsewhere."
Last Sunday Matthew called Merced. He'd been up three straight days -- traveling, reporting, writing. His voice, usually resonant enough to once have been a hockey announcer, sounded as if he were speaking through a drain pipe. Shifting from subject to subject, he said he was most worried that because of the tragedy, CanWest might cut back its coverage of the war.
Afghanistan is Canada's first major conflict since the Korean War. There are about 2,800 Canadian troops in the country, third behind the U.S. and Britain. They're scheduled to be removed by July next year, and there've been numerous protests in Canada about pulling them out sooner.
Last year 32 Canadian soldiers died, the same number as in 2008; the highest number of casualties was 36 in 2006. So far, 951 American troops have been killed in the war, which started in late 2001. So far, no one from Merced County has been killed there, to join our seven dead from the war in Iraq.
So why should you care about Matthew Fisher or Canadian forces or even the entire war in Afghanistan? Most Americans cite domestic issues -- lack of jobs; the void of affordable health care; failing students and mail-it-in teachers; crime, gangs and drugs; government corruption and inefficiency at all levels; the decline of civil conversation -- as the problems most in need of urgent solutions.
The Sun-Star itself practices hyperlocalization of news. We're the franchise for what we cover in our audience area. We've sent two correspondents to Iraq twice last year and 2008, but we focus on in-depth reporting about local people and issues.