Images of her son dying next to the tomb of the unknown soldier were already on the Internet and making their way onto television when Kathy Cirillo collapsed on her front lawn. The mother of the unarmed reservist, shot twice in the back while standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, had just been approached by two uniformed officers sent to confirm what many of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s friends and family already feared: that the hulking man in the tartan kilt lying on his back in those photos was the same one who’d left for the capital just days earlier.
Soon, his mother was on her way to Ottawa to be with her son, while family gathered at her house to mourn. None of them knew how to break the news to the soldier’s six-year-old son, Marcus.
A single father, Cirillo had wanted to be a full-time soldier since the age of 13. The 24-year-old was a corporal with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Hamilton, where he grew up and was raising Marcus with Kathy’s help. The little blond boy was playing in a back room of his grandmother’s house when the mayor of Hamilton, Bob Bratina, arrived, bearing condolences from the masses. Bratina didn’t know what to say when he entered the house. He and Hamilton’s police chief, Glenn De Caire, tried to comfort Cirillo’s sisters, but there is no comfort when your brother has just been murdered.
Photos of the departed soldier line the walls inside his mother’s house. Bratina looked at a few, feeling a growing admiration for the young man smiling in every frame.
He was still looking at the photos when Cirillo’s son wandered into the room, innocent in tragedy, and looking at his aunt. “I saw you crying,” the boy said to her.
He did not yet understand why: that his father was never coming home.
As news broke outside the house that the fallen soldier was the cheerful Hamilton reservist, police set up a barricade along his family’s street. Meanwhile, all across Hamilton, friends and acquaintances were shocked and gutted. They all knew he was in Ottawa standing guard at the memorial because he had been proudly posting photos of himself near the site just days before the attack.
By all accounts, Cirillo was a gregarious soldier with a disarming smile and an inescapable presence, remembered for once raising his regiment’s colours on the flagpole behind his mother’s house. A six-foot, 250-lb. specimen who took pride in his body (he’d worked as a cross-fit instructor at a local Goodlife gym) he was a highly trained reservist, with a background in recon patrol, and hoped for a long career in the Armed Forces.
Those who knew him say he could often be spotted walking Hamilton’s downtown streets dressed in his Argyll fatigues. He was proud of the uniform, they say. A former bouncer at Absinthe, a popular downtown nightclub, Cirillo was known as much for his imposing frame as he was for his wit and charm. He’d recently quit working nights in order to concentrate fully on his military career.
Richard Booker, his former boss at Absinthe, says Cirillo was looking to set himself apart from his fellow reservists by picking up extra duties around his local armoury. He and another reservist had recently been selected to stand guard at the cenotaph. His regiment’s commander, Lt-Col. Lawrence Hatfield, told reporters the two were chosen because they were among the regiment’s top soldiers.
One of 20 members of the Canadian Army sent to Ottawa to take over from the Navy as honorary guards, Cirillo packed up his ceremonial garb (a Glengarry bonnet with his regimental crest, tartan kilt and red garter flashes) and departed for the capital. The National Sentry Program announced his arrival at the War Memorial on Oct. 20. For Cirillo, who was enthusiastic about the posting, the experience of standing guard over this country’s most sacred war monument was a way to demonstrate his devotion to the service.
Cirillo was eight minutes from the end of his one-hour duty at the cenotaph on Wednesday, at which point, he would have been relieved by another soldier, when he was shot in the back, twice. Blood seeped through the holes of his ceremonial dress while his attacker ran from the scene. It was only moments before his friend and fellow Argyll, Brendan Stevenson, reached his side. Others who rushed to save him said his eyes were open, staring straight ahead as he slipped away.
Cirillo’s mother returned to her home on Thursday. There, on a corner lot of a quiet street in the city’s east end, Canadian flags hung from stop signs in the corporal’s honour. Countless strangers had also left flowers and letters of remorse, while family members gathered inside to mourn in private. Uniformed police stood guard at the family’s house while neighbours looked on in silence.
In Hamilton’s city hall, thousands touched by Cirillo’s death lined up to write notes of condolence for his family. Meanwhile, at the Argylls’ regimental headquarters, a steady flow of civilians and servicemen—friends of the fallen soldier, as well as strangers—came by to lay flowers and light candles at the gates of the armoury. By Thursday afternoon, the flowers were too numerous to count.
Among the earliest civilians to gather at the armoury was a group of Cirillo’s high school friends, who described him as “a real class clown” who “always wanted to serve his country.” A former cadet, Cirillo joined the Argylls reserve regiment while still a student. Many of those closest to him were also members of the regiment, including Stevenson.
“Nathan was very proud of being associated with the military,” says Danielle Townsend, a friend who met him at Hamilton’s Sherwood Secondary School. She and others say Cirillo’s motivations for joining the military were anything but political. He wanted to help people, and saw the military as a way to do so. He wrote in a friend’s yearbook how they should deploy to Afghanistan together.
One friend, Alana Schneider, recalled: “At the time, that’s where help was needed, and he always wanted to be the person to help.”
At his former high school, staff have been wearing poppies in his honour. Bob Pratt, the principal there, says Cirillo graduated in 2007. He was remembered by teachers as a saxophonist and a kind student with “a zest for life.”
Those close to Cirillo say they believe the military gave him a sense of belonging and recalled that he would eat army rations at school and tell classmates that his lunch was the same as what the guys in the field were eating. A motorcycle enthusiast who gave up his bike after a serious accident left him in hospital, Cirillo was the embodiment of health. He worked out daily, and encouraged others to get in shape.
Known as someone who enjoyed being out with friends, he met Marcus’s mother at the Ancaster fair while in his teens. Cirillo enjoyed playing around on the floor with Marcus and his toys. “He adored his boy,” says Jason Melnyk, who spent countless hours with Cirillo at the gym. Others teared up, remembering a photo they’d seen of Cirillo and his son, dressed like Batman and Spider-Man. “It’s just so sad,” says Townsend.
“He was an energetic guy, outspoken, happy all the time,” says Melnyk. “It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”
An animal lover, Cirillo had two dogs, one of which was a young German Shepherd he’d recently rescued after finding it flea-bitten, emaciated and abandoned. On Thursday, both dogs could be seen poking their heads out from under the fence at Cirillo’s mother’s house—a moving sight for passersby who came to lay flowers in tribute to a soldier who had so much more to offer.